Masterclass on Gilbert and Sullivan

by Anthony Peter.

Though I am not knowledgeable enough to open this report with a Gilbert and Sullivan quotation, I am not so unappreciative of excellence as to fail to remark that Bernard Lockett’s presentation to Todmorden U3A on 20th October 2016 was delivered with masterfully engaging ease and enthusiasm. Bernard Lockett is a self-confessed ‘life-long enthusiast of G & S’, a fact corroborated by his involvement with the annual G & S festival that takes place in Harrogate.

It was the purpose of his afternoon to convey something of his own pleasure to us and to dispel a few myths surrounding the musical pairing that endured for 25 years. During this time they produced 14 shows which are, after Shakespeare, the most performed pieces of theatre in the world. How should this be? For Mr Lockett, it’s because both W.S.Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were experts in their own fields, and they did not interfere with each other’s areas of expertise. Moreover, Gilbert wrote meaningful words that satirised the foibles and vices of late Victorian society, but did so in a way that was humorous enough to engage rather than alienate an audience. And Sullivan, who had received some of his musical training from Rossini, a master of the comic opera, wrote music that was effervescent, emotive, tuneful, and therefore, crucially, popular.

There are, however, interesting differences between the two: Gilbert was born into the landed gentry and was wealthy; Sullivan, by contrast, was the son of an Irish immigrant labourer who played the trumpet. Gilbert was a conspicuously unsuccessful barrister who was well placed to observe how corrupt British Society was and how industry benefited a mere 5% of the British people. His observations of society fed into his ‘Bab Ballads’ (1869). Abandoning law, he went into theatre management and journalism and writing plays. Sullivan won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music and continued his studies in Leipzig. In 1867, he wrote the music for Francis Burnand’s ‘Cox and Box’, which Gilbert reviewed and liked. He approached Sullivan and together they produced ‘Thespis’ at the Gaiety Theatre in 1871. It ran for three weeks, but was acknowledged to be poor. Gilbert went back to his plays and Sullivan turned to church music in which he excelled. The impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, however, had spotted talent and in 1871 asked G&S to write a short piece for his light opera company. This was ‘Trial by Jury’ and it proved the success that ‘Thespis’ had not been. From then on, G&S and D’Oyly Carte established a succession of huge musical triumphs. They were writing and producing the ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’ of the day, and eventually they moved into the Savoy Theatre, built by D’Oyly Carte with electric lighting and, novelty of novelties, numbered seating.

Mr Lockett introduced us to three excerpts from filmed modern productions of ‘The Mikado’, ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ and ‘The Gondoliers’. He was adamant in pointing out the telling qualities of each: the mastery with which Sullivan’s music shifted the mood in ‘The Mikado’, the circumstances of ‘The Monarch of the Sea’ that satirised Disraeli’s appointment of the stationer W.H. Smith as 1st Lord of the Admiralty, and Sullivan’s capacity to write sentimental Victorian ballads as well as lively dances.

Although it is often said that G&S did not get on and that Sullivan in particular was frustrated by the limitations of the partnership, Mr Lockett suggested this was not the case. He quoted from their diaries in which they warmly expressed their gratitude to each other. Where G&S did differ, however, was over money. Gilbert was careful when it came to production expenses, whereas Sullivan was extravagant, and they came close to blows over the issue of a new carpet in the Savoy Theatre. And their knighthoods? Sullivan was dubbed in 1883 for services to music. But Gilbert, because of his lyrics, was not the darling of those with influence, and when he was knighted in 1907 it was for his services to the magistracy.

This was an excellent afternoon. A full house of 148 enjoyed many moments of laughter, and were most delightfully informed by a well practised presenter who will be vividly remembered by all.

Our next meeting will be held on Thursday, 17th November in the Central Methodist Church in Todmorden at 1.45 when our speaker will be our own member, Alan Fowler, whose subject will be ‘The Cotton Cartoons of the Great War’.

Our contact details are (website), (email), or (phone) 01706 812015.