Gilbert and Sullivan

About the Composer & Librettist

Both natives of London, Sullivan studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the Leipzig Academy, and went on to compose numerous oratorios and other sacred and orchestral works. Gilbert, six years older, made his name both as poet and playwright as well as a satirist and caricature artist (his humorous drawings often appeared in the fashionable magazine Punch). Both men strived for fame and acceptance as “serious” artists, Gilbert with his play Pygmalion and Galatea, and Sullivan with his grand opera Ivanhoe. However, it was their work together that would secure them a place in history.

Introduced by the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, their collaboration began in 1871 with the operetta Thespis. They would go on to write many more operettas together (although they always referred to their works as “operas”), including their first world-wide success with H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), followed in quick succession by The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Iolanthe (1882), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887) and The Yeoman of the Guard (1888). Nearly all of these were first performed at D’Oyly Carte’s Savoy Theater, and have become known as the “Savoy Operas.”

Despite their differences in personal temperament—they were never good friends and often collaborated only by correspondence—they were an ideal librettist-composer team, with Gilbert’s plots remain perfect examples of “Topsy-turvydom” in which unusual characters rub elbows with English nobility in situations that spoof social conventions with exceptional rhymes and puns that served as a model for the American musicals of Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. Although the Savoy “Operas” never achieved the same kind of fame abroad as in English-speaking countries, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are still performed all over England and the U.S., delighting people over a hundred years later.