HomeFrom the archiveSubscribe to MTListings & linksContact MT


Home | Archive | In memoriam

Sir JE Millais’ 1888 portrait

Arthur Sullivan 1842–1900

The first footfall of death strikes within us a chord of sorrow for the loss of one who has been summoned by the inevitable Visitor. We involuntarily exclaim – especially if he has been a benefactor of the race – ‘Ah! what a loss it will be!’ This is very true and perfectly natural. But as every cloud has its silver lining, so the death of a great man should prompt a joyous note of thanksgiving for the work he has been able to accomplish while he was permitted to draw the breath of life: for his personality, his gifts, it may be his genius. So must such a note be sounded – clear and strong – in recording the loss which our art has sustained in the removal of that great master of English music, Arthur Sullivan. His health had long been precarious, and on the morning of the 22nd ult., at his residence in Victoria Street, he entered upon his last long sleep.

Arthur Seymore Sullivan was born in London, May 13, 1842. His father, and Irishman, was bandmaster at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and subsequently a professor of the clarinet at Kneller Hall. His mother claimed descent from an ancient Italian family. The boy was reared in an atmosphere of music. At an early age he greatly longed to become a chorister. His father demurred, till one day Arthur pathetically exclaimed: ‘Father, Purcell was a Chapel Royal boy.’ Father and son sought the advice of Sir George Smart, who gave them the address of the of the Rev. Thomas Helmore, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal. But it was an old address and the house was shut up. That seemed to settle the matter in the mind of Mr. Sullivan, but not so in that of his son. ‘They must have eaten while here,’ said Master Arthur, ‘let us ask at the butcher’s shop.’ The butcher gave the new address of the Master, with the result that when he heard the boy sing ‘With verdure clad’ (accompanied by himself) he at once accepted him as one of the children, and two days later – on Maundy Thursday, 1854 – he took part in the service by singing the solo in Nares’s anthem ‘Blessed is he that considereth the poor and needy.’ ‘His voice was very sweet,’ records Helmore, ‘and his style of singing far more sympathetic than that of most boys.’ During his choristership Sullivan wrote several anthems, one of which was sung at a Chapel Royal service, and so pleased the dean (also Bishop of London) that he sent for the youthful composer to come into the vestry, and rewarded him with a pat on his curly black head to the accompaniment of a half-sovereign. His earliest published composition – a song, entitled ‘O Israel’ – was issued by Messrs. Novello in 1855. One of the friends of his boyhood was little Johnny Stainer, a chorister of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The two lads, when off duty, were wont to delight in penny trips taken together on Thames steamboats, their enjoyment of those water excursions being considerably enhanced by a copious consumption of nuts and oranges.

Sullivan as a Chapel Royal chorister

The great event of Sullivan’s early life came to him in 1856. He was then fourteen, and, in competition with nineteen others, he succeeded in obtaining the Mendelssohn Scholarship, then recently established. He had a foeman worthy of his steel in Joseph Barnby – in fact, the two boys ran a neck and neck race, and the result was a tie! In the final heat, however, Sullivan became victorious, and thus carried off this important musical prize. While still holding his choristership he entered the Royal Academy of Music. His professors at Tenterden Street were Sterndale Bennett and Mr. Arthur O’Leary for the pianoforte, and John Goss for harmony. A MS. composition by him – a duet and chorus setting of ‘It was a lover and his lass’ – was performed at an Academy concert in July, 1857, and an Overture in July, 1858. The latter was praised by the leading musical journal of the day for its cleverness ‘and an independent way of thinking, which in one so young as the Mendelssohn Scholar looks well.’

In the Autumn of 1858, under the terms of the Scholarship, he went to Leipzig and entered the Conservatorium, where he studied under Hauptmann, Julius Rietz, Moscheles, and Plaidy. Among his fellow-students at Leipzig were Walter Bache, John Francis Barnett, Carl Rosa, and Franklin Taylor. Sullivan and Franklin Taylor were members of a Christy Minstrel Troupe. Sullivan had such a shock of curly hair that a nigger wig was quite in the nature of a superfluity. Mr. Franklin Taylor lent Sullivan a copy of Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest,’ which was put to a good use when the young Mendelssohn Scholar composed his delightful music to that delightful play – some of the best music he ever composed. The ‘Tempest’ music was his exit opus from the Conservatorium. He brought it with him to England on his return, when it was played at the Crystal Palace on April 5, 1862, and repeated on the following Saturday. Charles Dickens was amongst the audience on the former occasion, and shaking the young composer by the hand, said: ‘I don’t profess to know anything about music, but I do know that I have listened to a very beautiful work.’ Dickens was not very far wrong, and the work caused a great sensation in musical circles.

Sullivan’s mistress and muse, Mrs Ronalds

Although the ‘Tempest’ music at once stamped its composer as a man of mark, it did not supply him with bread and butter. In fact, Sullivan, like many other young musicians, had plenty of brains but not overmuch money. He had to go through the mill of teaching, as the following advertisement from the Musical World of May 11, 1861, duly records:–

MR ARTHUR S. SULLIVAN begs to inform his friends that he has returned from Germany.

All communications respecting Pupils etc., to be addressed to his Residence, 3, Ponsonby Street, Pimlico, S.W.

He also held two organ appointments, first at St. Michael’s, Chester Square, in 1867, and afterwards at St. Peter’s, Cranley Gardens. To this church period belong his anthems, which have become so widely popular. Doubtless through the influence of his friend, Sir George Grove – Sullivan was one of ‘Grove’s young men’ – he became a professor of the ‘pianoforte and ballad singing’ at the Crystal Palace School of Art, and, later on, in the spring of 1870, he gave, at the South Kensington Museum, a course of twelve lectures (illustrated by part-singing) on the “Theory and practice of music’ in connection with ‘Instruction in science and art for women.’ While thus doing the work which is the daily routine of a rank and file professional man, Sullivan was not idle with his pen. His first great success as a song-writer was his setting of ‘Orpheus with his Lute,’ which he sold for five pounds! The extraordinary popularity of his setting of ‘The Lost Chord’ is known and read of all men. Later on came a part-song of equal popularity, his setting of ‘Oh! hush thee, my babie,’ first sung at one of Henry Leslie’s concerts, and by his choir, on February 13, 1868.

More serious work, however, claimed his attention. His first Festival appearance was at Birmingham in 1864, when a cantata, entitled ‘Kenilworth’ – the libretto by his early friend and encourager, H. F. Chorley, of the Athenaeum – was produced. The came his Symphony in E (Crystal Palace, March, 1866) and the ‘In Memoriam’ Overture, on the death of his father (Norwich Festival, 1866). ‘The Prodigal Son’ (with Sims Reeves in the title part) was first heard at the Worcester Festival of 1869, and the ‘Light of the World’ at Birmingham in 1873. To complete the list of his serious works on a large scale, there must be added the Festival Te Deum, composed to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales, and performed at the Crystal Palace, in 1872; the ‘Martyr of Antioch’ (Leeds Festival, 1880) and his masterly setting of Longfellow’s ‘Golden Legend’ (Leeds, 1886), and the grand opera of ‘Ivanhoe’ (1891).

All at sea: Lynley Sambourne’s Punch cartoon

It is now time to refer to that remarkable series of comic operas that have made the name of Arthur Sullivan so famous. This species of production was hit upon in the oddest way. The death of a Punch artist, and the pecuniary straits of his widow and family, were the cause of a ‘benefit’ for which Mr. F. C. Burnand and Sullivan promised to collaborate in a musical piece. Time passed, till within a week of the performance it occurred to the collaborators, as they were walking to church one Sunday that they had collaborated nothing. ‘Let us,’ suddenly said the author of ‘Happy Thoughts,’ ‘set “Box and Cox” to music.’ ‘Book it,’ said Sullivan; and in seven days the work was written, learned, rehearsed, and performed by George Du Maurier, Harold Power, and Arthur Cecil, at Moray Lodge, Kensington (Mr. Arthur Lewis’s) on April 27, 1867. Transferred to the German Reed entertainments, ‘Cox and Box’ ran for five hundred nights. In this connection, although somewhat in the nature of a digression, we are able to quote from a letter written by Sullivan to a friendly critic on some ‘5ths’ she had discovered in one of his compositions. He wrote on February 14, 1871, as follows:–

With pleasure I enclose the little bit of the ‘Lullaby’* as a tribute of respect to one who has every right to claim it from a young musician. With regard to the phrase you quote, I am of opinion that it is one of those cases in which a rule must be broken for the sake of the effect gained, for after all, rules in music are but the means to an end, not the end itself; and although I should be the last to transgress wantonly (indeed I am sometimes taunted with being too much of a purist), yet a slavish adherence to a rule is not less open to stricture, than a reckless disregard of it.

The melody and bass are each moving independently in a sort of fixed progression; if 5ths turn up it doesn’t matter, so long as there is no offence to the ear, and I confess that the phrase you quote doesn’t hurt me.

Yours very truly,

Arthur S. Sullivan

The vein thus opened in this casual way proved to be a veritable Klondyke to Sullivan, especially when he joined Mr. W. S. Gilbert in that remarkable partnership which resulted in ‘Trial by Jury,’ ‘H.M.S. Pinafore,’ and others equally popular. Here is a list of Sullivan’s dramatic works:–

‘Cox and Box’ and ‘The Contrabandista’ (1867), afterwards enlarged as ‘The Chieftain’ (1894); ‘Thespis’ (1871); ‘Trial by Jury’ and ‘The Zoo’ (1875); ‘The Sorcerer’ (1877); ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ (1878); ‘Pirates of Penzance’ (1880); ‘Patience’ (1881); ‘Iolanthe’ (1882); ‘Princess Ida’ (1884); ‘The Mikado’ (1885); ‘Riddigore’ (1887); ‘The Yoemen of the Guard’ (1888); ‘Gondoliers’ (1889); ‘Ivanhoe’ (1891); ‘Haddon Hall’ (1892); ‘Utopia’ (1894); ‘The Grand Duke’ (1896); ‘The Beauty Stone’ (1898); and ‘The Rose of Persia’ (1899).

His other important works are:–


‘The Tempest’ (1862); ‘Merchant of Venice’ (1873); ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ (1874); ‘Henry VIII’ (1878); ‘The Foresters’ (1892); and ‘King Arthur’ (1894).


Procession March (1863); Princess of Wales March (1863); ‘Kenilworth’ Cantata (1864); ‘L’Ile Enchantée’ Ballet (1864); ‘The Sapphire Necklace’ Overture (1864); Symphony in E (1866); Concertino for Violoncello (1866); ‘In Memoriam’ Overture (1866); Overtures, ‘Marmion’ (18647) and ‘Di Ballo’ (1870); ‘The Prodigal Son’ (1869); ‘On Shore and Sea’ (1871); ‘Festival Te Deum’ (1872); ‘The Light of the World’ (1873); ‘The Martyr of Antioch’ (1880); ‘The Golden Legend’ (1886); ‘Exhibition Ode’ (1886); ‘Imperial March’ (1893); and ‘Victoria’ Ballet (1897).

The appointments held by Sir Arthur Sullivan were as numerous as they were important. He conducted the Glasgow Choral Union concerts, 1875-77, the Leeds Musical Festivals, in succession to Costa, from 1880 to the present time, and the Philharmonic Society, 1885-87. He was for some time Professor of Composition at his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music, of which he was a Fellow; and Principal of the National Training School for Music, 1876-81. The honours that fell to him included the degrees of Doctor in Music, honoris causâ, by the Universities of Cambridge (1876) and Oxford (1879); Chevallier, Legion of Honour, France, 1878; there were bestowed upon him the Order of the Medjidieh, by the Sultan of Turkey, 1888; he was a Member of the Royal Victoria Order. On May 22, 1883, he received the honour of Knighthood at the hands of Her Majesty the Queen.

It may be asserted, without fear of contradiction, that Sullivan was a most successful composer. One of the chief secrets of his success was his great and natural gift of melody. But in connection with his wonderful creative faculty, we cannot do better than quote the words of his friend the late Sir George Grove:

‘Form and symmetry he seems to possess by instinct; rhythm and melody clothe everything he touches; the music shows not only sympathetic genius, but sense, judgement, proportion, and a complete absence of pedantry and pretension; while the orchestration is distinguished by a happy and original beauty hardly surpassed by the greatest masters.’

The last words may be devoted to his church music, in which, as in his many songs and part-songs, his early upbringing in the school of English church music was of the greatest value to him in after years. His anthems are characterised by pure melody and dignified harmony. The same may be said, even in a more marked degree, of his hymn-tunes, which are sung by worshippers of all denominations wherever the English language is spoken. Of these, perhaps, the most popular is his fine martial setting of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers.’ And this recalls an anecdote related to the present writer by an American clergyman, who was a fellow passenger with the composer on an Atlantic liner during a voyage to America. It was a Sunday evening in mid-ocean. Hymn-singing was going on in the drawing-room, when someone remarked, ‘Let us have “Onward, Christian Soldiers!”’ The composer was asked to accompany the tune on the pianoforte. He shyly responded to the invitation. Like a young lady, he was led to the instrument and heartily entered into the spirit of that quiet hour of sacred song on the great waters of the rolling Atlantic.

Now Arthur Sullivan has left the storm-tossed sea of this life, and has passed that bourn from which no traveller returns.

Musical Times, December 1900

© 2000–2002 The Musical Times Publications Ltd