Who Wrote the Savoy Operas?
Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900) and William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) wrote the Savoy Operas, so called because they were produced at the Savoy Theater in London. Sullivan composed the music and Gilbert provided the words in one of the most famous and successful partnerships in theatrical history. The composer showed his talent at an early age. He sang in the Chapel Royal Coir, won the Mendelssohn scholarship to the Royal academy of Music, studied at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany and was still only 20 when his music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest was performed at the Crystal Palace.
Gilbert studied law and was called to the Bar in 1863. He began to write comic verses, which were collected under the title of Bab Ballads, and produced a Christmas entertainment for the St. James’s Theatre called Dulcamara or The Little Duck and the Great Quack, which was a success. The two men were introduced to each other in 1870 and began work the following year. From a theatrical point of view, their association proved an ideal, though quarrelsome relationship. Gilbert’s witty, brilliant, light-hearted libretti fitted perfectly into settings by Sullivan, with his combination of a sense of fun, rhythm, melody, harmony and unusual orchestration.
Gilbert, Sullivan, Carte and other Victorian era British composers, librettists and producers, as well as the contemporary British press and literature, called works of this kind “comic operas” to distinguish their content and style from that of the often risqué continental European operettas that they wished to displace. Most of the published literature on Gilbert and Sullivan since that time refers to these works as “Savoy Operas”, “comic operas”, or both. However, the Penguin Opera Guides and many other general music dictionaries and encyclopedias classify the Gilbert and Sullivan works as operettas.
Audiences were enraptured by a succession of light operas: Trial by Jury in 1875, H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1880), Patience (1881), lolanthe (1882), Princess lda (1884), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) and The Gondoliers (1889). The Savoy Theatre was built by Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), a London musical instrument maker, who was the fortunate manager of the operettas.
Gilbert and Sullivan had a stormy partnership. The writer had an irascible character and the composer sometimes complained that the plots were too trivial. In 1890 a quarrel over a carpet at the Savoy interrupted their association for three years. They came together again for Utopia Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896), but neither had the success of the earlier productions.
Although Sullivan composed orchestral music, songs, anthems and hymns, while Gilbert wrote plays, verses and libretti for other composers, the fame of both of them rests on the Savoy Operas. Sullivan’s music, happily influenced by English folk songs, French light opera and Mozart, combines naturally with the wit of Gilbert which still delights today even though the targets of his satire are mostly long forgotten.