Gilbert before Sullivan
One of Gilbert's illustrations for his Bab Ballad
"Gentle Alice Brown"
Gilbert was born in London on 18 November 1836. His father, William, was a naval surgeon who later wrote novels and short stories, some of which included illustrations by his son. In 1861, to supplement his income, the younger Gilbert began writing illustrated stories, poems and articles of his own, many of which would later be mined as inspiration for his plays and operas, particularly Gilbert's series of illustrated poems, the Bab Ballads.
In the Bab Ballads and his early plays, Gilbert developed a unique "topsy-turvy" style in which humour was derived by setting up a ridiculous premise and working out its logical consequences, however absurd. Director and playwright Mike Leigh described the "Gilbertian" style as follows:
With great fluidity and freedom, [Gilbert] continually challenges our natural expectations. First, within the framework of the story, he makes bizarre things happen, and turns the world on its head. Thus the Learned Judge marries the Plaintiff, the soldiers metamorphose into aesthetes, and so on, and nearly every opera is resolved by a deft moving of the goalposts... His genius is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural. In other words, to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way.
Gilbert developed his innovative theories on the art of stage direction, following theatrical reformer Tom Robertson. At the time Gilbert began writing, theatre in Britain was in disrepute. Gilbert helped to reform and elevate the respectability of the theatre, especially beginning with his six short family-friendly comic operas, or "entertainments", for Thomas German Reed.
At a rehearsal for one of these entertainments, Ages Ago, in 1870, the composer Frederic Clay introduced Gilbert to his friend, the young composer Arthur Sullivan. Over the next year, before the two first collaborated, Gilbert continued to write humorous verse, stories and plays, including the comic operas Our Island Home (1870) and A Sensation Novel (1871), and the blank verse comedies The Princess (1870), The Palace of Truth (1870) and Pygmalion and Galatea (1871).
Sullivan before Gilbert
Sullivan was born in London on 13 May 1842. His father was a military bandmaster, and by the time Arthur had reached the age of eight, he was proficient with all the instruments in the band. In school he began to compose anthems and songs. In 1856, he received the first Mendelssohn Scholarship and studied at the Royal Academy of Music and then at Leipzig, where he also took up conducting. His graduation piece, completed in 1861, was a suite of incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest. Revised and expanded, it was performed at the Crystal Palace in 1862 and was an immediate sensation. He began building a reputation as England's most promising young composer, composing a symphony, a concerto, and several overtures, among them the Overture di Ballo, in 1870.
His early major works for the voice included The Masque at Kenilworth (1864); an oratorio, The Prodigal Son (1869); and a dramatic cantata, On Shore and Sea (1871). He composed a ballet, L'Île Enchantée (1864) and incidental music for a number of Shakespeare plays. Other early pieces that were praised were his Symphony in E, Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, and Overture in C (In Memoriam) (all three of which premiered in 1866). These commissions, however, were not sufficient to keep Sullivan afloat. He worked as a church organist and composed numerous hymns, popular songs, and parlour ballads.
Sullivan's first foray into comic opera was Cox and Box (1866), written with librettist F. C. Burnand for an informal gathering of friends. Public performance followed, with W. S. Gilbert (then writing dramatic criticism for the magazine Fun) saying that Sullivan's score "is, in many places, of too high a class for the grotesquely absurd plot to which it is wedded." Nonetheless, it proved highly successful, and is still regularly performed today. Sullivan and Burnand's second opera, The Contrabandista (1867) was not as successful.