Arthur Sullivan was the epitome of a Victorian musician. His serious music, from hymns, anthems and cantatas, to symphonies and chamber works, has become synonymous with the values and style of nineteenth century England. His early death in 1900, just two months before the death of Queen Victoria, marked the end of a musical era. Yet his operettas are still regularly performed by professional and amateur ensembles across the world.
Sullivan, together with his regular collaborator William Schwenck Gilbert, established a new genre of English comic opera - an achievement that would cement his reputation as a composer of light music. But his talents were far from wasted in the string of successes he and Gilbert enjoyed. Operettas as HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado were the products of a technical mastery and creative ingenuity honed in the tradition of mainstream European composition.
Sullivan was a chorister in the Chapel Royal and was the first to be awarded the Mendelssohn Scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. He began a four-year period of study at the Leipzig Conservatory at the age of sixteen, and his experiences there confirmed the young composer's immense gifts. His career was launched in Germany and although his reputation was quickly established at home through August Manns's Crystal Palace concerts in London, and the sensational premiere of his incidental music to The Tempest, he was always drawn back to Europe.
Throughout his life Sullivan travelled extensively on the Continent, meeting musicians and absorbing the latest musical trends. Restlessness was in his blood. His father was Irish, a bandmaster who became a professor at the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall, his mother was of Italian descent.
Unlike Gilbert, who was thrifty, meticulous in his writing, and rigidly authoritarian as a stage director, Sullivan's talents were coloured by recklessness. He was also profligate: with money (winning and losing fortunes both at the gaming tables and in financial investments); in his relationships with women; and in his devotion to social excesses. He required the white heat of an impending deadline to unleash his creative energy, a nerve-wracking characteristic for his professional colleagues.
Sullivan's popular reputation gives only a partial picture of his music. Far from being slapdash or in any way 'recycled', his gifts for melodic invention and orchestration, particularly his use of woodwind instruments, display impeccable taste and fastidious execution. Add wit and rhythmic grace to the mix, and we can be grateful that Sullivan found a literary talent in W.S. Gilbert that was fully equal to his own musical skill, however much he yearned to be taken seriously as a composer of art music.