Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, English composer and the son of an Irish musician, is born in Lambeth, London, England on May 13, 1842. He is best known for 14 operatic collaborations with the dramatist W. S. Gilbert, including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. His works include 24 operas, 11 major orchestral works, ten choral works and oratorios, two ballets, incidental music to several plays, and numerous church pieces, songs, and piano and chamber pieces. His hymns and songs include “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “The Lost Chord.”
The son of a military bandmaster, Sullivan composes his first anthem at the age of eight and is later a soloist in the boys’ choir of the Chapel Royal. In 1856, at 14, he is awarded the first Mendelssohn Scholarship by the Royal Academy of Music, which allows him to study at the academy and then at the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig in Germany. His graduation piece, incidental music to William Shakespeare‘s The Tempest (1861), is received with acclaim on its first performance in London. Among his early major works are a ballet, L’Île Enchantée (1864), Symphony in E, Cello Concerto in D Major (both 1866) and his Overture di Ballo (1870). To supplement the income from his concert works he writes hymns, parlour music and other light pieces, and works as a church organist and music teacher.
In 1866 Sullivan composes a one-act comic opera, Cox and Box, which is still widely performed. He writes his first opera with W. S. Gilbert, Thespis, in 1871. Four years later, the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte engages Gilbert and Sullivan to create a one-act piece, Trial by Jury (1875). Its box office success leads to a series of twelve full-length comic operas by the collaborators. After the extraordinary success of H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) and The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Carte uses his profits from the partnership to build the Savoy Theatre in 1881, and their joint works become known as the Savoy operas. Among the best known of the later operas are The Mikado (1885) and The Gondoliers (1889). Gilbert breaks from Sullivan and Carte in 1890, after a quarrel over expenses at the Savoy. They reunite in the 1890s for two more operas, but these do not achieve the popularity of their earlier works.
Sullivan’s infrequent serious pieces during the 1880s included two cantatas, The Martyr of Antioch (1880) and The Golden Legend (1886), his most popular choral work. He also writes incidental music for West End productions of several Shakespeare plays and holds conducting and academic appointments. Sullivan’s only grand opera, Ivanhoe, though initially successful in 1891, has rarely been revived. In his last decade Sullivan continues to compose comic operas with various librettists and writes other major and minor works.
Sullivan’s health is never robust. From his thirties kidney disease obliges him to conduct sitting down. He dies at the age of 58 of heart failure, following an attack of bronchitis, at his flat in London on November 22, 1900. Sullivan’s wishes are to be buried in Brompton Cemetery with his parents and brother, but by order of the Queen he is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Arthur Sullivan is regarded as Britain’s foremost composer. His comic opera style serves as a model for generations of musical theatre composers that follow, and his music is still frequently performed, recorded and pastiched.