Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan was an English composer of Irish-Italian ancestry. His operatic collaboration with 14 operas made him popular across the globe. He composed many interesting works and operas in collaboration with Gilbert. Sullivan was recognized as the most talented young composer of England. His works were noted for their magical music and appealing libretto. He enjoyed parties and get-togethers with singers and actors. Sullivan’s comic operas were appealing to both the layman and professionals; this was the chief reason of his huge success. Sullivan’s compositions were based on classical styles and he was not much interested in the contemporary style of composition. He was highly devoted to his parents, especially, to his mother. He never got married but is said to have had intimate relationships with several women. Read on to know more about the life and success story of this great musician.
Sullivan was born on 13th May 1842 in Lambeth, London. His father, Thomas Sullivan, was a clarinetist and a military bandmaster. His mother, Mary Clementina, was of Irish-Italian descent. He had a brother named Fred. Being born to a musical family, young Sullivan was very much acquainted with many musical instruments and composed an anthem “By the waters of Babylon” at the age of eight. Sullivan’s father did not agree with his decision to pursue a musical career because he knew the insecurity and disappointments of this profession. But deeply passionate about music and naturally endowed, Sullivan could not stay away from music for a long time. At the age of 11, while he was a student at a private school in Bayswater, Sullivan gained admission to the choir of the Chapel Royal as a soloist and later, in 1856, got promoted as “first boy”. He learned under the master of choirs, Reverend Thomas Helmore, and began composing songs and anthems. Helmore was highly supportive and helped him by arranging one of his pieces, “O Israel”. This work got published in 1855 and was Sullivan’s first published work.
In 1856, at the age of 14, Sullivan received Mendelssohn Scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music and consequently, got a year’s training in the Academy. While Sullivan continued with his solo performances with Chapel Royal, his scholarship got extended to second and then third year; during the third year, he studied in Leipizig Conservatoire. Here, he received composition lessons from Julius Rietz; piano lessons from Louis Plaidy and Iganz Moscheles; counterpoint from Moritz Hauptmann. Also, he got to learn various styles of music like Verdi, Wanger, Schubert and Bach. His graduation piece was an incidental music for Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. After returning to England in 1862, he gave a very successful performance in the Crystal Palace and thus started building reputation as the most promising young composer of England.
Career And Success
After returning to England, Sullivan started composing more frequently, which provided him with enough financial support. Along with composing music, he worked as a church organist for additional income. In 1863, Sullivan got a chance to compose several pieces for the wedding of the Prince of Wales and he also got royalty for these compositions. He then joined the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and composed “L’lle Enchantee”.
The ‘Overture di Ballo’ was Sullivan’s most successful orchestral work. This work was composed for the Birmingham Festival in 1870 and was a grand success. The year 1871 was a busy year for Sullivan and he composed many works in succession, notably the series of incidental music for the Shakespearean plays by West End Theatre. In the same year, he composed a dramatic cantata, ‘On shore and Sea’, which was performed in the opening ceremony of the London International Exhibition. Other major works during 1871 were ‘Hymn Onward’ and ‘Christian Soldiers’. The Salvation Army adopted ‘Christian soldiers’ and made it their processional hymn and thus, it became the most enduring hymn by Sullivan. In 1871, Sullivan also collaborated with W.S Gilbert for the first time to compose a burlesque-style comic opera, ‘Thespis’. This was the starting of a long-lasting relationship.
Sullivan was commissioned to write a sacred choral work ‘Martyr of Antioch’ for which he selected Henry Hart Milman’s dramatic poem, based on the life and death of Saint Margaret the Virgin. With the help of Gilbert, who helped Sullivan by abridging, rearranging sections, reassigning lines and adding some lines of his own, Sullivan created a commendable piece. ‘The Martyr of Antioch’ received an exemplary reception and an excited Sullivan presented Gilbert with a silver cup bearing an inscription, “W.S Gilbert from his friend Arthur Sullivan”.
Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria on 22 May 1883. He composed a cantata for the Leeds festival 1886 based on Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Golden Legend’, and kept the same name for the work. This was Sullivan’s best-received full length work apart from comic operas. The year 1890 witnessed the dissolution of the warm friendship bond between Sullivan and Gilbert. Sullivan regretted the relationship being allowed to end abruptly and tried to reconcile with him. Gilbert and Sullivan reunited once again and together they worked for ‘The grand Duke’ which was a failure. This was the end of their partnership and they never worked together again.
Sullivan had serious love affairs with many women but, never got married in his life. His first relationship was with Rachel Scott Russell. This relationship came to an end as Sullivan started a simultaneous relationship with Rachel’s sister, Louise. However, his relationship with Louise also ended in early 1869. Sullivan met Mary Frances (Fanny) Ronalds in Paris in 1867 and this relationship lasted for a long time and was the longest affair of his life. Fanny was three years elder to him and had two children. Sullivan regarded her as the best amateur singer in London. This relationship had ups and downs but it continued until his death, even though they were never married. There are references of some other women in his diary, indicated by their initials and hence, unidentified. Sullivan had proposed to a 20 year-old lady named Violet Beddington but she refused the proposal.
Sullivan’s brother Fred died at an early age of 39, leaving behind his pregnant wife and seven children. Sullivan visited Fred’s family very often and became guardian to his children. Charlotte, Fred’s wife, migrated to Los Angeles leaving their oldest child Bertie with Sullivan. Charlotte died a year after she shifted to Los Angeles, leaving her children to her brother. Sullivan took care of Fred’s children, their education, marriage and other financial needs. Bertie stayed with his uncle for the rest of his life.
Sullivan had suffered from recurring kidney diseases and, in 1880s, he started conducting his pieces, sitting in a place. Sullivan then suffered from bronchitis and died on 22November 1900 following a heart attack. Sullivan wanted his body to be buried in Brompton Cemetary where his parents and brother were buried. But, he was entombed in St. Paul’s Cathedral by the order of the Queen. A monument with weeping muse was erected in his memory in the Victoria Embankment Gardens, London.
Awards And Recognitions
Doctor in Music, honoris causa, by the University of Cambridge, 1876.
Chevalier, Légion d’honneur, France, 1878.
Doctor in Music by the University of Oxford 1879.
Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria, 1883.
The Order of the Medjidieh, by the Sultan of Turkey, 1888.
Member of the Fourth Class of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO), 1897.
Cox and Box, 1866
The Contrabandista, 1867
Incidental Music To Plays
The Tempest, 1861
The Merchant of Venice, 1871
The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1874
Songs and Parlour Ballads
Ballets And Song Cycle