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Past Images of the Month

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Photograph by Bassano, London, c.1885.

Photograph by Bassano, London, c.1885.

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GILBERT, Sir William Schwenck (b.London, 18 November 1836; d. Harrow Weald, Middlesex, 29 May 1911)
This month we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir William Schwenk Gilbert, the dramatist whose mastery of rhythm and fun stimulated Arthur Sullivan to produce some of the most delightful light music of the nineteenth century and to transform British musical theatre. Sullivan was an established composer at the time of his first collaboration with Gilbert, and had already produced his orchestral masterpiece, Overture di Ballo, as well as highly respected oratorios, songs and incidental music. Their relationship was stressful, but nevertheless without Gilbert it is doubtful whether Sullivan’s gift for melody and rhythmic invention would ever have flowered as fully as it did. His reputation as a serious composer was later to be overshadowed by Elgar, Stanford and Parry but, thanks to Gilbert, his standing as a theatre composer is unchallenged.

Among the most successful of Gilbert’s early works were five burlesques or ‘extravaganzas’ parodying the plots of popular operas by Donizetti, Bellini, Balfe and Meyerbeer. The first of these was Dulcamara; or, The Little Duck and the Great Quack (on Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore; St James’s Theatre, 29 December 1866) and the most lavish Robert the Devil; or, The Nun, the Dun and the Son of a Gun (on Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable; Gaiety Theatre, 21 December 1868). It was through the actor/ composer Thomas German Reed (1817-1888) that he began to collaborate with composers on original musical plays. No Cards, a one-act ‘musical comodietta’ to a score probably by Reed himself, was performed at the latter’s Royal Gallery of Illustration, Regent Street, on 29 March 1869 - immediately preceded by Sullivan’s Cox and Box, which had been first performed professionally in 1867 and was now itself making a first appearance at the Gallery of Illustration. Eight months later at the same venue, Ages Ago: a Ghost Story was the first of five frankly ‘operatic’ collaborations between Gilbert and the composer Frederic Clay. Clay (1838-1889) was a friend and colleague of Sullivan’s, and the man responsible for introducing the two future partners during one of the rehearsals. (Again Cox and Box shared the bill, this time as afterpiece.)

From 1870 Gilbert was also writing serious dramas for the Haymarket and Court Theatres, as well as political satires. Indeed he played a leading role in raising standards in the London theatre by reducing its common reliance on burlesque and farce. It was against this background that he first collaborated with Sullivan, on Thespis; or, The Gods Grown Old (Gaiety Theatre, 26 December 1871). However it was with Trial by Jury, first performed at the Royalty Theatre on 25 March 1875, that the great partnership which was to give us the thirteen Savoy Operas truly began.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Robert the Devil; or, the Nun, the Dun, and the Son of a Gun. Gaiety Theatre, 21 December 1868. Programme for the first performance of Ages Ago!!, Royal Gallery of Illustration, 22 November 1869. Wordbook for the first performance of Thespis, Gaiety Theatre, 23 December 1871.

Ages Ago!!. Engraving from the Illustrated London News,  15 January 1870. The Princess (Olympic Theatre, 1870) was Gilbert’s first parody of Tennyson’s narrative poem of 1847.  He returned to the subject in the Savoy opera Princess Ida in 1884. Engraving from the Illustrated London News, 29 January 1870. One of the most successful of Gilbert’s straight plays, the comic drama Sweethearts ran for 132 performances at the Prince of Wales Theatre from November 1874 and enjoyed many revivals up to the 1920s.  Engraving from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 24 November 1874.

First edition vocal score of Trial by Jury, ‘a novel and original dramatic cantata by Arthur Sullivan and W.S.Gilbert’, [1875].

Songs of a Savoyard. A selection of lyrics from the Savoy Operas with Gilbert's own illustrations and a dedication to Sullivan. London, [1890].

Cartoon by Linley Sambourne, Punch, 6 August 1881. The Ironmaster at the Savoy.  Caricature by Alfred Bryan from The Entr’acte Annual, 1885.  Gilbert controlled all aspects of his productions with rigorous discipline; the submissive figure on the left is Richard D’Oyly Carte. The 'Carpet Quarrel' settled: cartoon by Alfred Bryan from Judy, 4 June 1890.

Photograph by Elliott and Fry, London, c.1883. Photograph by Elliott and Fry, London, c.1886-7. Photographer unknown, c.1905-7.

Although Sullivan constantly complained of Gilbert’s fondness for the absurd, the librettist was ready to temper his plots with greater realism and stronger human emotion to satisfy his collaborator. In return Gilbert unlocked in Sullivan a fund of musical wit and exuberant invention. Following the breakdown of the partnership - the famous 'Carpet Quarrel' - Sullivan found another librettist, Sydney Grundy, whom this time he found totally congenial, and whose ideas on emotional and dramatic content entirely matched his own. The result was Haddon Hall. Music history has good reason to honour W. S. Gilbert.

Colin Bradbury © 2011

(This display has been mounted in collaboration with the Peter Joslin Collection. We are most grateful to Mr Joslin for allowing us to reproduce all the rarer images shown above.)