Miscellaneous G&S Trivia

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 1.

An over-effusive woman at a party once remarked to Gilbert that she found Sullivan’s music really too delightful: it reminded her of “dear Bach” (pronouncing it “Baytch”). “Do tell me,” she asked Gilbert, “What is dear “Baytch” doing now? Is he still composing?” (Bach died in 1750.) “No, Madam,” Gilbert replied, “I believe dear “Baytch” is now de-composing.”

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 2.

One of Sullivan’s earliest songs was composed when he was a seventeen-year-old student at Leipzig Conservatory: a lively setting of a poem called “Ich möchte hinaus es jauchzen” (“I want to cry out with gladness…”) by the Swiss poet August Corrodi (whose other works include translations of a selection of songs and poems by Burns into Swiss German). He dedicated it to a young lady named Rosamund Barnett, one of two daughters of an English composer who were also studying in Leipzig.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 3. 

Gilbert at the age of 30 married Lucy Agnes Turner, daughter of an army officer, who was 19 (such an age difference was entirely normal in Victorian society). Though childless, the marriage was to all appearances stable and happy: Gilbert was a notoriously short-tempered and pugnacious character, but Lucy, whom he addressed affectionately as “Kitten” or “Kitty”, provided an oasis of harmony throughout his life.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 4.

Queen Victoria once said to Sullivan, “You ought to write a grand opera, Sir Arthur: you would do it so well.” Eventually he did: it was entitled Ivanhoe, with a libretto based on Scott’s novel by Julian Sturgis. Gilbert and Sullivan were on bad terms when Ivanhoe was produced, and Gilbert declined Sullivan’s conciliatory offer of a pair of tickets for the opening night; but he eventually went to see it himself, and commented; “I expected to be bored, and I was not. That is the highest compliment I have ever paid a grand opera.” Queen Victoria never saw it.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 5.

While on a trip to Paris in 1862, Sullivan was introduced to Rossini, who had long since retired from composing operas and whose main interest was now food. The seventy-year-old and the twenty-year-old composers got on well, conversing in French and playing duets together, and before leaving Paris Sullivan received from Rossini a signed photograph inscribed “Offert à mon jeune collègue Arthur Sullivan”. Sullivan later claimed (in an interview in the Strand Magazine) that it was Rossini who had inspired him with a love of opera and the stage.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 6. 

Sullivan’s parents were a devoted couple, but Gilbert’s bluff, quick-tempered father and cold, aloof mother were painfully incompatible, and eventually parted company. Gilbert’s sympathies were entirely with his father, whom he much resembled: after the break-up he never spoke to his mother again, and his last letter to her is a short and formal note headed “Madam” (Sullivan’s letters to his mother were headed “Dearest Mum”).

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 7.

Sullivan’s parents were a devoted couple, but Gilbert’s bluff, quick-tempered father and cold, aloof mother were painfully incompatible, and eventually parted company. Gilbert’s sympathies were entirely with his father, whom he much resembled: after the break-up he never spoke to his mother again, and his last letter to her is a short and formal note headed “Madam” (Sullivan’s letters to his mother were headed “Dearest Mum”).

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 8. 

Sullivan’s first dramatic work for the stage was Cox and Box, an exuberant farce for three characters (its original designation was “a musical triumviretta”: the third character is Sergeant Bouncer, a shady landlord who gets double rent for a room by letting it to both Cox, who works all day, and Box, who works all night). The librettist was Francis Burnand, editor of the humorous magazine Punch and a prolific writer of farces and burlesques. Gilbert, who was not yet personally acquainted with Sullivan, stated in a review of Cox and Box that the music was much better than the libretto deserved.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 9.

Gilbert was fascinated by the idea of a magic lozenge or potion which would transform those who took it into whatever they were pretending to be, and repeatedly tried to persuade Sullivan to accept this as the basis for an opera. Sullivan never agreed to this, and eventually Gilbert used the idea in an opera (The Mountebanks) set to music by Alfred Cellier. This opera contains what is surely the craziest notion in all Gilbert’s works: the effect of the potion on two of the characters is to change them into life-size clockwork models of Hamlet and Ophelia!

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 10

Sullivan’s father died in 1866, his brother Fred (who had created the part of the Judge in Trial by Jury) in 1877, and his mother in 1882, the year of Iolanthe. As a tribute to his father he wrote a dignified orchestral overture entitled In Memoriam; his famous song “The Lost Chord” was likewise a memorial to his brother; and it has been conjectured that the sad song “He loves!” is his musical tribute to his mother.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 11.

Gilbert’s last opera, Fallen Fairies, was set to music by Edward German, who had completed the score of The Emerald Isle, on which Sullivan had been working when he died, and proceeded to write two more operas with its librettist Basil Hood, Hood and German deliberately presenting themselves as the successors to Gilbert and Sullivan. Fallen Fairies was a box-office flop, partly because it was a re-hash of a play which Gilbert had written in 1873 and was hopelessly old-fashioned in 1909; and German, disappointed at this and exhausted by Gilbert’s quarrel with C.H. Workman into which he had been reluctantly drawn, never wrote again for the stage.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 12.

Some years after Sullivan’s death, Gilbert planned to produce revised versions of some of his least successful operas: Princess Ida, His Excellency (a non-Sullivan opera), Ruddigore, Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke.  In the case of the last three, his planned alterations would “probably be very material”. Unfortunately, a venomous quarrel with C.H. Workman, a former G&S player who had leased the Savoy Theatre, caused him to drop the project, and the revisions were never made: what they would have been is an intriguing question.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 13.

Both Gilbert and Sullivan were connoisseurs of fine cigars, and Sullivan would chain-smoke cigarettes while composing or writing. In 1891, when both partners were tentatively seeking a reconciliation after a dispute (the famous “carpet quarrel”) which had led to two years of estrangement, Gilbert in a letter to Sullivan referred to the “cloud” that had hung over them, and Sullivan replied “We can dispel the clouds hanging over us by setting up a counter-irritant in the form of a cloud of smoke.”

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 14.

The parts of Pooh-Bah and Pitti-Sing (i.e. “pretty thing”) were created by two of the stalwarts of the Savoy company, Rutland Barrington and Jessie Bond. In the revival of The Sorcerer which immediately preceded The Mikado they had established an excellent stage rapport as Constance and Dr Daly (in previous operas their characters had never been required to interact to any extent); and in their second-act scenes in The Mikado their comic interplay was so effective that Gilbert later wrote to Jessie: “Barrington without you is flint without steel”.  In the next opera, Ruddigore, they were partners in the plot as Sir Despard and Mad Margaret.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 15.

The original Katisha was Rosina Brandram, one of the longest serving members of the Savoy company.  Her first appearance was in The Sorcerer in 1877, in which she understudied the part of Lady Sangazure; and she created the principal contralto roles in every opera from Princess Ida (1884) to The Grand Duke (1896) and subsequently in Sullivan’s post-Gilbert operas and others staged at the Savoy including those by Edward German.  In 1906, the year before she died, Gilbert in a speech referred to her “glorious voice” and stated that though most of her parts had been elderly ladies, she “could never succeed in looking more than an attractive eight-and-twenty – it was her only failure.”

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 16. 

In 1896 during a late summer vacation in Lucerne, Sullivan made a proposal of marriage to a much younger lady named Violet Beddington.  Sullivan was 54 but already in seriously failing health; and (according to the lady, who was 20 at the time, in an interview given many years later) said that he was asking her to give him only two years of her life, after which he would be dead. (In the event he lived for five more years.)  His proposal was declined, and Miss Beddington eventually married a novelist, Stephen Hudson, who brought the relationship between her and Sullivan in fictionalised form into one of his books.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 17.

One of Gilbert’s interests in later life was a menagerie of pets: not only cats and dogs but pigeons, turkeys, parrots, a donkey called Adelina, a tame deer, monkeys and a family of ring-tailed lemurs, of which one, called Paul, had a trick (which Gilbert was fond of displaying to guests) of hopping from one of his shoulders to the other as he donned and doffed his jacket with great rapidity.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 18. 

In 1886, during the run of The Mikado, Sullivan produced a cantata entitled The Golden Legend, to a libretto based on a poem by Longfellow.  This was well received, and certainly contains some of Sullivan’s finest choral writing.  Ethel Smyth, who was later to earn a reputation as a composer, wrote in her memoirs that Sullivan, presenting her with a copy of the score, said “I think this is the best thing I’ve done, don’t you?” – and was visibly disappointed when she replied that she thought his masterpiece was The Mikado.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 19. 

Gilbert and Sullivan had little contact in the last years of Sullivan’s life, but in late 1900 when the composer was suffering from what proved to be his terminal illness, Gilbert wrote him a letter saying that he would have liked to visit him but had been very ill himself, and was on the point of going abroad to recuperate: “I sincerely hope to find you all right again on my return, and the new opera [The Emerald Isle] running merrily.”  Sullivan died before Gilbert’s return; but his nephew assured Gilbert that he had been pleased to receive the letter.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 20.

Though Sullivan is often thought of as a quintessentially English composer, he was not English by parentage: his father was Irish and his mother Italian.  Gilbert for his part was one-quarter Scottish on his mother’s side: a photograph exists, from a short period in which he served in the Royal Aberdeenshire Militia, of him impressively arrayed in kilt, plaid and sporran.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 21.

Sullivan received a knighthood in 1884.  At a dinner which he held to celebrate, the guests were treated to selections from Iolanthe sung by the Savoy cast in the theatre and transmitted to his house by telephone. Gilbert’s knighthood came much later, in 1907: coincidentally, a revival of Iolanthe was running at the time.  He was indignant at being identified in the official list as a “playwright” instead of “dramatist”, saying in a interview “We never hear of novel-wrights, or poem-wrights, or essay-wrights; why then of play-wrights?”; but noted with satisfaction that it was the first time anyone had been knighted for writing for the stage.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 22.

An atypical Gilbert and Sullivan work is an oratorio entitled The Martyr of Antioch, written for the Leeds Festival, of which Sullivan was the principal conductor, in 1880.  The libretto was derived from a poetic drama by Henry Hart Milman, which Gilbert had trimmed, re-arranged and in parts re-written: in commemoration, Sullivan presented him with an engraved silver cup.  The Martyr was a popular success, but several critics considered that Sullivan’s music was inappropriately bright and charming for the story of St Margaret of Antioch, a heroic fourth-century Christian martyr.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 23.

In 1897 Sullivan attended the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth.  He recorded in his diary that he found Siegfried “intolerably dull and heavy” and most of Götterdämmerung “dull and dreary”, and commented “What a curious mixture of sublimity and absolutely puerile drivel are all these Wagnerian Operas”.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 24.

Following The Yeomen of the Guard, Jessie Bond, by then one of the established stars of the Savoy company, insisted on a rise in her salary as a condition of her taking part in the next opera.  Gilbert disapproved but was overruled by Sullivan and Carte; and when Jessie arrived for the next rehearsal he gave vent to his irritation by shouting “Make way for the high-salaried artiste!”

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 25.

In the summer of 1878, shortly after the opening of H.M.S. Pinafore, Gilbert suffered a bout of ill-health and planned on taking a trip abroad to recover.  However, a theatre manager to whom he was contracted to write a play demanded it earlier than expected, and the trip had to be shelved.  To compensate his wife for the disappointment, Gilbert bought her a diamond necklace.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 26.

A young American singer named Nancy McIntosh, who had created the part of Princess Zara in Utopia Limited, was formally adopted by Gilbert, who had no children of his own.  Nancy proved a devoted “daughter” to Gilbert and his wife, but the arrangement was less satisfactory artistically than it was domestically: neither Sullivan nor any of Gilbert’s other collaborators shared his high opinion of her talents (press criticism suggests that her singing voice was pleasant but not strong and her acting ability limited), and his insistence on writing leading parts for her led to serious disagreements.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 27.

A story which Gilbert was fond of re-telling is that when first introduced to Sullivan, his opening remarks were “I am very pleased to meet you, Mr Sullivan, because you will be able to settle a question which has just arisen between my friend Mr Clay [i.e. Frederic Clay, a composer and sometime collaborator of Gilbert’s, who had just introduced them] and me.  I maintain that, if a composer has a musical theme to express, he can express it as perfectly upon the simple tetrachord of Mercury, in which (as I need not tell you) there are no diatonic intervals at all, as upon the much more complicated dis-diapason (with the four tetrachords and the redundant note), which embraces in its perfect consonance all the simple, double and inverted chords.”  In fact this was a joke: Gilbert had found a passage containing this material in the 1781 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, re-written it as blank verse and used it in a play, without having any idea what it meant.   Gilbert generally finished the story by remarking that he was still waiting for Sullivan’s answer.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 28.

The work by which Sullivan first established himself as a major figure in the British musical scene was a suite of incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, composed while he was studying in Leipzig, which was performed to great acclaim at a Crystal Palace concert shortly after his return.  The date of the performance was just short of his twentieth birthday.  Charles Dickens, meeting Sullivan after the performance, said “I don’t pretend to know much about music, but I do know I have been listening to a very great work.”

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 29.

Following the relative failure of Utopia Limited in 1893, Gilbert produced a far better libretto – in fact, one of the wittiest he ever wrote – entitled His Excellency, intending that it should be set by Sullivan and produced at the Savoy.  Unfortunately, Gilbert and Sullivan had a disagreement over the latter’s refusal to allow Gilbert’s protegée Nancy McIntosh to play Yum-Yum in a revival of The Mikado following the close of Utopia; and as a result Gilbert offered His Excellency to another composer, Comyns Carr.  Gilbert later expressed the view that with Sullivan’s music His Excellency would have been another Mikado: as it was, it ran for only a few weeks.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 30.

In the late 1860s Sullivan had a passionate love affair with Rachel Scott-Russell, daughter of a Scottish naval engineer of high renown.  Rachel’s letters, which Sullivan kept throughout his life, show that she was not only desperately in love with him but convinced of his musical genius and determined to ensure that he became the greatest composer of the age.  Sullivan by temperament was as improvident and disorganised as Gilbert was disciplined and meticulous; and some biographers have conjectured that Rachel’s constant exhortations (“Now, my darling is not to rest upon his laurels…”) may have been a factor in the eventual failure of the relationship.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 31.

An early composition of Sullivan’s is a song-cycle entitled The Window, or The Songs of the Wrens, with lyrics by Tennyson.  The original plan was of a triple collaboration between the elderly poet-laureate, the rising young composer and the artist John Millais, who was to provide an illustration for each of the twelve songs.  When the joint work was complete, however, Tennyson (whom Sullivan later described in an interview as “a crotchety old fellow”) seemingly lost the taste for it (perhaps realising that the lyrics are not up to the standard of his best work, as they certainly are not) and refused to have the song-cycle published.  Millais as a result withdrew his contribution, publishing his drawings elsewhere; and when Tennyson eventually yielded to Sullivan’s persistent pressure and agreed to the work’s publication, he included a dismissive preface which Sullivan found insulting.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 32.

In 1877, Lewis Carroll wrote to Sullivan, introducing himself as “the writer of a little book for children”, and inviting Sullivan – “knowing your charming compositions” – to provide musical settings for some of the songs in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with a view to the possible future dramatisation of the book.  Sullivan declined, writing “I do not accept commissions to set words.”

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 33.

Gilbert and his wife shared a fondness for riding, yachting, swimming and other outdoor activities: “Tennis with Kitty” is a frequent entry in Gilbert’s diary.  As he was over six feet tall his tennis stroke was exceptionally long: to accommodate this the tennis court which he had installed in his garden was above the standard regulation length.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 34.

The Boer War prompted two compositions by Sullivan towards the end of his life.  To commemorate the end of the war in 1900 he wrote a Te Deum, a dignified choral piece in which the opening phrase of his hymn tune “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is a recurring motif.  A few months earlier he had written a lively setting of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, “The Absent-minded Beggar” (referring to the men serving in the war), which at once became enormously popular.  The refrain of each verse ends “Pass the hat for your credit’s sake, and pay, pay, pay!”; and all the money raised from the sale of the song was donated to the support of the families of the enlisted men.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 35.

One of the operas composed by Sullivan during the four-year hiatus (1889-93) in his partnership with Gilbert was Haddon Hall, a romantic story set in the Cromwellian period, with a libretto by Sydney Grundy.  (Among the characters is a ridiculous caricature-Scotsman, whose first song begins “My name it is McCrankie, I am lean and lang and lanky…”)  The libretto, though not the score, was severely criticised, and Grundy was compared unfavourably to Gilbert.  He responded by writing in a letter to the press “May I venture to suggest that a short bill be introduced into Parliament making it a penal offence to supply the Savoy Theatre with a libretto?  …  I would respectfully suggest [as punishment] ‘something lingering with boiling oil in it’.”

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 36.

To commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Sullivan composed the music for a ballet (really more like a pageant with short scenes and tableaux) entitled Victoria and Merrie England.  The finale includes an ingenious section intended to symbolise the United Kingdom, in which the tunes of “The British Grenadiers”, “Scots! wha hae wi Wallace bled” and an Irish march tune are developed contrapuntally, alternating with “Home Sweet Home” and “He is an Englishman” (from H.M.S. Pinafore).  Sullivan had planned also to include “Men of Harlech” but found it impossible: as he wrote in a letter, “Gallant little Wales has been sacrificed, and I am triumphant.”

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 37.

The women’s suffrage movement did not arouse any sympathy in Gilbert.  In 1908 he wrote a new verse for Ko-Ko’s “little list” song in The Mikado which includes the lines “That well-intentioned lady who’s too bulky for her boots – The lovely suffragist: I’ve got her on the list”; and on hearing that suffragettes were chaining themselves to the railings in Downing Street and shouting “Votes for women!” he commented “I will chain myself to the railings outside Queen Charlotte’s Maternity Hospital and shout ‘Beds for men!’”

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 38.

A central part of Gilbert and Sullivan’s contribution to the history of the nineteenth-century musical theatre is their success in raising the prestige of the acting profession and the respectability of theatre-going as a social pastime.  (A joke in Patience is a reference to “marrying a girl from the corps de ballet” as if this were the ultimate social degradation.)  One aspect of this is Gilbert’s insistence on unfailingly proper behaviour both by and towards the members of the Savoy company.  Jessie Bond in her memoirs recalls that when once she received a note from a party of four young men inviting her to meet them after the performance, Gilbert went to their box and furiously ordered them out of the theatre.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 39.

For much of his life Gilbert suffered from gout, a painful condition which – in the opinion of the Savoy company at least – often exacerbated his always uncertain temper at rehearsals.  In 1900 he also began to be afflicted with rheumatism, and for much of the time was confined to a wheelchair.  A change of diet, however, brought him almost complete relief from both conditions: as he expressed it, his gout and rheumatism “eloped together – the only scandal I ever had in my family”; and his health remained good till his death in 1911.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 40.

In 1888 Gilbert initiated the building of the Garrick Theatre in Charing Cross Road, which is still operational.   When the foundations were being dug it was found that an underground stream flowed under the site, causing a major hindrance to the project: Gilbert’s comment was that if the theatre building proved impossible he could always let the fishing rights.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 41.

Sullivan’s grand opera Ivanhoe was originally planned as the spectacular opening to an ambitious project of D’Oyly Carte’s: nothing less than the initiating of a whole genre of English grand opera, with a series of new works presented in Carte’s purpose-built Royal English Opera House.  Ivanhoe had a highly successful opening, its initial run of 155 performances still standing as a record for English grand opera; but the enterprise as a whole proved the most disastrous failure of Carte’s career: his hoped-for sequence of commissioned grand operas by other composers did not materialise, and he was obliged to abandon the project and sell the Royal Opera House at a loss.  (It is now the Palace Theatre.)

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 42.

Gilbert’s middle name Schwenck was the surname of a maternal uncle of his father;  Sullivan’s middle name Seymour was after a cousin of his mother.  Gilbert was known as Schwenck in his immediate family and as Uncle Schwenck to the children of his sister Jane; Sullivan in the course of his career dropped the use of the name Seymour entirely – apparently because of the unfortunate initials A.S.S.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 43.

Gilbert was a talented artist, designing the sets and in some cases the costumes for all his plays and operas and illustrating his comic verses and prose writings with cartoons.  Lewis Carroll, in search of an illustrator for Through the Looking Glass, wrote to his publisher: “With regard to my unfortunate Alice II both Tenniel and Noël Paton [the illustrator of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies] appear to be hopeless. Have you seen the pictures in Fun signed ‘Bab’? The artist’s name, I am told, is Gilbert: his power in grotesque is extraordinary – but I have seen no symptoms of his being able to draw anything pretty and graceful. I should be very glad if you would ascertain (without directly communicating with him, so as to commit me in any way) whether he has such a power. If so, I think he would do. Some of his pictures are full of fun.”  In the event Tenniel was persuaded to illustrate the book and Gilbert was not approached.

Miscellaneous Trivia No. 44.

Sullivan’s early one-act farce Cox and Box is regularly revived, but apart from it only one of his non-Gilbert operas has retained a place of any size at all in the regular amateur repertory.  This is The Rose of Persia, written in 1899 to a clever libretto, very much in the Gilbertian manner, by Basil Hood.  Nothing that Sullivan had written, with or without Gilbert, since The Gondoliers ten years earlier had come even close to matching the success of most of the G&S operas; and Sullivan’s entry in his diary for the opening night reads: “I conducted as usual.  Hideously nervous as usual – great reception as usual – great house as usual – excellent performance as usual – everything as usual – except that the piece is really a great success I think, which is unusual lately.”