Musical prodigy Arthur Sullivan and the curse of popularity
The composer, whose parents were both Irish, is still remembered today in shows like The Simpsons
A young Arthur Sullivan in 1858, from vol 42 of The Musical Times, 1901.
Arthur Sullivan was a musical prodigy. The son of two Irish parents, Thomas Sullivan and Clementina Coghlan (Clementina was half Italian), he would become one of the best-known proponents of popular opera as one half of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan partnership.
Growing up in Lambeth in England, his father a military bandmaster, Sullivan experimented with the band’s musical instruments from a young age. A delicate child, his father wanted him to pursue a more steady profession than music - but talent will out, and Sullivan became the beneficiary of a number of scholarships which brought him to Leipzig Conservatoire. Here, he would be influenced by contemporary musicians such as Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Verdi and Wagner.
In the 1860s, he launched his career in England, working as a church organist to supplement his income and also writing popular parlour songs and hymns such as the ubiquitous Onward Christian Soldiers alongside his more “serious” output. It was during this decade that he wrote his most overtly Irish-influenced work, his Irish Symphony. This was inspired by a holiday in Northern Ireland, and he wrote to his mother, “as I was jolting home ... through wind and rain on an open jaunting-car, the whole first movement of a symphony came into my head with a real Irish flavour about it”. Despite its Irish inspiration, Sullivan never named the symphony during his lifetime, afraid of comparisons with Mendelssohn’s Scotch Symphony, an influence which his reviewers commented upon nonetheless.
As well as parlour songs, Sullivan lived during the era of popular opera, and began to write what would become known as The Savoy Operas with WS Gilbert in 1875, when the men were engaged by Richard D’Oyly Carte to work together on a one-act opera called Trial By Jury. Over the course of the next 15 years, HMS. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), The Mikado (1885), and The Gondoliers (1889) were major successes at the Savoy in London.
Despite this, Sullivan grew uncomfortable with what he considered to be the sillier aspects of these operas - in particular, Gilbert’s tendency to use weak devices such as love potions to dictate the course of the plot. In the early 1880s he refused to work with Gilbert for a time until the “magic lozenge” he’d proposed for the plot of what would eventually become The Mikado was removed. Gilbert eventually fell out with Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte in 1890, when he objected to the new carpet for the Savoy’s foyer being billed to the artists. Sullivan sided with Carte in the legal wrangle that followed, a decision he later regretted. He wrote to Gilbert, “I have not yet got over the shock of seeing our names coupled ... in hostile antagonism”. The partnership would never recover the energy of its earlier years.
When Sullivan had been knighted in 1883, comment was passed by the Musical Review on his operettas, “Here is not only an opportunity, but a positive obligation for him to return to the sphere from which he has too long descended”. After his partnership with Gilbert came to an end, Sullivan finally turned his attention back to grand opera, adapting Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for D’Oyly Carte. However, the project was delivered late leading to both Carte and Sullivan losing money, and despite the success of the opera, the Savoy’s later failure to turn a profit from grand opera (rather than the previously popular operettas) became bound up in the public’s imagination with the fate of Sullivan’s Ivanhoe.
Sullivan died in 1900, on the cusp of a new era where his operettas would be dismissed by critics who felt that he’d never lived up to his potential. After an initial round of positive obituaries calling Sullivan “England’s most conspicuous composer”, his reputation suffered. But he was remembered fondly by younger contemporaries such as Elgar, and his music has never faded from the popular imagination. Today, his operettas are still performed and have even been referenced in that barometer of 20th century pop culture, The Simpsons, when Bart escapes death at the hands of “Sideshow Bob” by asking him to sing the score of the HMS Pinafore in its entirety.
A practical man at heart, he believed that hard work was just as important a part of the creative process as inspiration: “… if I had waited for inspiration I am afraid I should have done nothing. The miner does not sit at the top of the shaft waiting for the coal to come bubbling up to the surface. One must go deep down, and work out every vein carefully”.
This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Jessica Traynor, deputy museum director at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.