Arthur Sullivan

13 May 1842–22 November 1900

SIR ARTHUR SEYMOUR SULLIVAN, born in London, May 13, 1842; son of Mr. Thomas Sullivan, a musician, a native of Cork; was a chorister in the Chapel Royal, 1854 to 1857; elected Mendelssohn scholar at the Royal Academy of Music, London, 1856; studied there under Sir John Goss and Sir W. Sterndale Bennett till 1858; afterwards at Leipzig under Plaidy, Moscheles, Richter, Rietz, and Hauptmann, from 1858 to 1861; organist of St. Michael’s, Chester Square, till 1867, and St. Peter’s, Cranley Gardens, London, till 1871; received the degree of Doctor in Music from the University of Cambridge 1876, and from Oxford University, 1879; knighted May 15, 1883; died in London, November 22, 1900.

by William Cowan & James Love
The Music of the Church Hymnary (1901)

SIR ARTHUR SEYMOUR SULLIVAN was born in London, May 13, 1842. His father, a native of County Cork, was a bandmaster, and chief professor of the clarinet at Kneller Hall; he was thus born amongst music. His first systematic instruction was received from the Rev. Thomas Helmore, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, which he entered April 12, 1854, and left on the change of his voice, June 22, 1857. While at the Chapel Royal he wrote many anthems and small pieces. One of them, “O Israel” a “sacred song,” was published by Novello in 1855. In 1856 the Mendelssohn Scholarship was brought into active existence, and in July of that year Sullivan was elected the first scholar. Without leaving the Chapel Royal he began to study at the Royal Academy of Music under Goss and Sterndale Bennett, and remained there till his departure for Leipzig in the autumn of 1858. An overture “of considerable merit” is mentioned at this time as having been played at one of the private concerts of the Academy.

Sir Arthur Sullivan, in Arthur Lawrence, Sir Arthur Sullivan: Life Story, Letters and Reminiscences (London: James Bowden, 1899), from the painting by John Millais (1888).

At Leipzig he entered the Conservatorium under Plaidy, Hauptmann, Richter, Julius Rietz, and Moscheles, and remained there in company with Walter Bache, John F. Barnett, Franklin Taylor, and Carl Rosa, till the end of 1861. He then returned to London, bringing with him his music to Shakespeare’s “Tempest” (op. 1a, dedicated to Sir George Smart), which was produced at the Crystal Palace, April 5, 1862, and repeated on the 12th of the same month. This beautiful composition made a great sensation in musical circles, and launched him into London musical society. Two very graceful pianoforte pieces, entitled “Thoughts,” were among his earliest publications. The arrival of the Princess of Wales in March 1863, produced a song, “Bride from the North,” and a Procession March and Trio in Ely; and a song entitled “I heard the Nightingale” was published April 28 of the same year. But his next work of importance was a cantata called “Kenilworth,” words by the late H.F. Chorley, written for the Birmingham Festival of 1864, and produced there. It contains a fine duet, for soprano and tenor, to Shakespeare's words, “On such a night as this.” His music to the ballet of “L’ Ile enchantée” was produced at Covent Garden, May 16, 1864.

At this date he lost much time over an opera called “The Sapphire Necklace,” also by Chorley; the undramatic character of the libretto of which prevented its representation. The music was used up in other works. In March 1866 Sullivan produced a Symphony in E at the Crystal Palace, which has been often played subsequently, there and at the Philharmonic, etc. In the same year he expressed his grief for the loss of his father in an overture entitled “In Memoriam,” which was produced (Oct. 30) at the Norwich Festival of that year. A concerto for violoncello and orchestra was played by Piatti at the Crystal Palace on Nov. 24. This was followed by an overture, “Marmion,” commissioned by the Philharmonic Society, and produced by them June 3, 1867. In the autumn of that year he accompanied his friend, Sir George Grove, to Vienna, in search of the Schubert MSS., which have since become so well known. At the same time his symphony was played at the Gewandhaus at Leipzig. In 1869 he composed a short oratorio on the story of the “Prodigal Son,” for the Worcester Festival, where it was produced on Sept. 8. In 1870 he again contributed a work to the Birmingham Festival, the “Overtura di Ballo” (in Ely), which, while couched throughout in dance-rhythms, is constricted in perfectly classical form.

To continue the list of his commissioned works: in 1871, in company with Gounod, Hiller, and Pinsuti, he wrote a piece for the opening of the Annual International Exhibition at the Albert Hall, on May 1, a cantata by Tom Taylor called “On Shore and Sea,” for solo, chorus, and orchestra. On the recovery of the Prince of Wales from illness, he composed, at the call of the Crystal Palace Company, a Festival Te Deum, for soprano solo, orchestra, and chorus, which was performed there May 1, 1872. At this time he was closely engaged in editing the collection of Church Hymns with Tunes for the Christian Knowledge Society, for which he wrote twenty-one original tunes. In 1873 he made a third appearance at Birmingham, this time with the leading feature of the Festival, an oratorio entitled “The Light of the World,” the words selected from the Bible by himself. The success of this work at Birmingham was great, and it has often since been performed. Sullivan succeeded Sir Michael Costa as conductor of the Leeds Festival of 1880, and wrote for it “The Martyr of Antioch,” to words selected from Milman’s play of that name. The work lies between an oratorio and a cantata, and was enthusiastically received. He conducted the Leeds Festivals from 1883 to 1898, composing for the latter “The Golden Legend,” to words selected by Joseph Bennett from Longfellow’s poem.

We will now go back to those works which have made Sullivan’s name most widely known, not only in Europe but in Australia and America—his comic operettas, and his songs. “Cox and Box, a new Triumviretta,” was an adaptation by F. C. Burnand of Madison Morton’s well-known farce, made still more comic by the interpolations, and set by Sullivan with a brightness and a drollery which at once put him in the highest rank as a comic composer. It was first heard at Moray Lodge (Mr. Arthur J. Lewis’s) on April 27, 1867, and produced in public at the Adelphi a fortnight after, on May 11. The vein thus struck was not at first very rapidly worked. “The Contrabandista” (2 acts, words by Burnand) followed at St. George’s Opera House on Dec. 18, 1867; but then there was a pause. “Thespis, or the Gods grown old ; an operatic extravaganza,” by Gilbert (Gaiety, Dec. 26, 1871), and “The Zoo, an original musical folly,” by B. Rowe (St. James’s, June 5, 1875), though full of fun and animation, were neither of them sufficient to take the public. “Trial by Jury, an extravaganza”—and a very extravagant one too—words by W. S. Gilbert, produced at the Royalty, March 25, 1875, had a great success, and many representations, owing in part to the very humorous conception of the character of the Judge by Sullivan’s brother Frederick. But none of these can be said to have taken a real hold on the public.

“The Sorcerer, an original modern comic opera,” by W. S. Gilbert, which first established the popularity of its composer, was a new departure, a piece of larger dimensions and more substance than any of its predecessors. It was produced at the Opéra-Comique, Strand, Nov. 17, 1877, and ran uninterruptedly for 175 nights. The company formed for this piece by D’Oyly Carte, including that admirable artist George Grossmith, was maintained in the next, “H.M.S. Pinafore,” produced at the same house. May 25, 1878. This not only ran in London for 700 consecutive nights (besides an unauthorised series of performances at another theatre), but had an extraordinary vogue in the provinces, and was adopted in the United States to a degree exceeding all previous record. To protect their interests there, Sullivan and Gilbert visited the United States in 1879, and remained for several months. An attempt to bring out the piece at Berlin as “Amor am Bord” failed, owing to the impossibility of anything like political caricature in Germany. But it was published by Litolff in 1882. The vein of droll satire on current topics adopted in the last two pieces was fully kept up in “The Pirates of Penzance” (April 3, 1880), and “Patience, an aesthetic opera” (April 25, 1881), during the run of which the company moved to the Savoy Theatre built especially for these operas, and opened on Oct. 10, 1881. “Iclanthe” was brought out on Nov. 25, 1882, “Princess Ida” on Jan. 5, 1884, and the most successful of the whole series, “The Mikado,” on March 14, 1885. “Ruddigore” followed it on Jan. 22, 1887, “The Yeomen of the Guard” on Oct. 3, 1888, and “The Gondoliers” on Dec. 7, 1889.

Up to this time the happy partnership formed between Sullivan, Gilbert, and D’Oyly Carte had remained unbroken, and uniform favour crowned their successive undertakings, the run of each opera only ceasing with the production of its successor. From the time of the rupture, the management relied on revivals of the repertory that had been formed, and upon attempts by others to carry on what were called the “Savoy traditions.” Sullivan himself contributed “Haddon Hall” to a libretto by Sydney Grundy, and it was produced on Sept. 24, 1892. The reconcilement of the Savoy differences was a matter of national rejoicing, and on Oct. 7, 1893, the next Gilbert and Sullivan opera was seen, called “Utopia Limited”; for the next production, a revival of the “Contrabandista”—to a libretto of Burnand’s with various modifications of the original, was given as “The Chieftain,” on Dec. 12, 1894. On March 7, 1896, “The Grand Duke,” a new Gilbert and Sullivan piece, was produced, but after a revival of “The Gondoliers,” the continuance of the famous collaboration was once more broken, and “The Beauty Stone,” to a libretto by Messrs. Comyns Carr and A. W. Pinero, was produced on May 28, 1898.

With the production of “The Rose of Persia,” to a libretto by Captain Basil Hood, on Nov. 29, 1899, a new period of success seemed to have been begun and the reception of the work by the public was almost as great as that given for so many years to the two collaborators. “The Emerald Isle,” by the same librettist, was brought out on April 27, 1901, some months after the composer’s death; the music was finished by Edward German, who in “Merrie England” and “A Princess of Kensington” made an excellent effort to continue the genre. For one reason or another it was found impossible to keep the vogue the theatre had so long enjoyed; but in these latter days, now that the fashion of the rule of the so-called “musical comedy” seems a little on the wane, the more educated portions of the public have shown a decided inclination to return to the Savoy form of entertainment; and, while all over the country the popularity of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas has never decreased, the curious prohibition of “The Mikado,” and the still more curious withdrawal of that prohibition, have placed the work higher in popular favour than it ever was before.

It was generally felt that Sullivan was devoting himself too exclusively to the light music in which he was so accomplished a master; and in the first edition of this Dictionary Sir George Grove expressed the hope that he would “apply his gifts to the production of a serious opera on some subject of abiding human or national interest.” When a new theatre was built at Cambridge Circus by D’Oyly Carte, for the special purpose of realising this hope, public interest and encouragement reached an extraordinary intensity; and “The Royal English Opera House” was opened on Jan. 31, 1891, with the grand opera “Ivanhoe,” in three acts, to a libretto by Julian Sturgis. Everything was done to ensure the success of the important undertaking, which, had the scheme been a little bolder and more widely based, would no doubt have reached the permanent success at which it aimed. Various circumstances contributed to the ultimate failure of the scheme, and to the establishment of the “Palace Theatre of Varieties” in its stead. The composer had apparently found it difficult to throw over all the Savoy traditions at once, and accordingly he interspersed, with scenes in which real dramatic interest was displayed, some which were in a flimsy style, quite incongruous with the rest. The impression at the time was that unless a piece ran for at least one hundred nights consecutively, it could not rank as a success, and in order to secure this long run, and in view of the impossibility of any singers repeating trying parts for six or seven performances per week, two casts of principal singers were engaged; but it was impossible to foresee which representatives would appear on any given night, and as the seats had to be booked long beforehand, the admirers of the composer at last got tired of the uncertainty and withdrew their patronage from the undertaking. Another mistake was made, for although rumours were heard of various new English operas being prepared to take the place of “Ivanhoe,” none was ready when its popularity was over, and Messager’s pretty “Basoche” was produced; at the close of the run of this piece, the theatre was transformed into a music-hall.

Sullivan wrote a good many sets of incidental music to plays, beside “The Tempest,” with which his first recognition had been obtained. “The Merchant of Venice,” at the Prince’s Theatre, Manchester, 1871; “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Gaiety Theatre, 1874; “Henry VIII,” Manchester, 1878: “Macbeth,” Lyceum Theatre, 1888; Tennyson’s “Foresters,” 1892 (first produced in America, and afterwards at Daly’s Theatre); and Comyns Carr’s “King Arthur,” Lyceum Theatre, 1894, are the most important of these compositions. The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria was celebrated by Sullivan in two compositions: the ballet, “Victoria and Merrie England,” produced at the Alhambra, May 25, 1897, in which a danced fugue was the best and most interesting number; and a “Festival Te Deum,” given at the Chester Festival of 1897. The opening of the Imperial Institute in 1893 suggested a March, and various public events of the same kind were celebrated by compositions, for in some sort Sullivan ranked as a poet laureate of music. Such unprecedented recognition speaks for itself. But it is higher praise to say, with a leading critic, that “while Mr. Sullivan's music is as comic and lively as anything by Offenbach, it has the extra advantage of being the work of a cultivated musician, who would scorn to write ungrammatically even if he could.”

Sullivan’s songs were in their day as well known as his operettas. They are almost always of a tender or sentimental cast; and some of them, such as “Sweet day so cool, so calm, so bright”; the “Arabian Love Song,” by Shelley; “fair dove, fond dove,” by Jean Ingelow; the Shakespeare Songs and the Song-cycle of “The Window,” written for the purpose by Tennyson, stand in a very high rank. None of these, however, have attained the popularity of others, which, though slighter than those just named, and more in the ballad style, have hit the public taste to a remarkable degree. Such are “Will he come?” and “The Lost Chord,” “O ma charmante” (V. Hugo); “The Distant Shore” and “Sweethearts” (both by W. S. Gilbert), etc. His last composition, in the shape of a single song, was “The Absent-Minded Beggar” to words by Kipling; this served its purpose of obtaining substantial aid for charities consequent upon the Boer War.

The same tunefulness and appropriateness that have made his songs such favourites also distinguish his numerous Anthems. Here the excellent training of the Chapel Royal shows itself without disguise, in the easy flow of the voices, the display of excellent, and even learned, counterpoint, when demanded by words or subject, and the frequent examples throughout of that melodious style and independent treatment that marks the anthems of certain periods of the old English school. His part-songs, like his anthems, are flowing and spirited, and always appropriate to the words. There are two sets : one sacred, dedicated to his friend Franklin Taylor, and one secular, of which “O hush thee, my babie” has long been an established favourite.

His Hymn-tunes are numerous—56 in all—and some of them, such as “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” have become great favourites. The whole were republished in a volume by Novello in 1902.

If his vocal works have gained Sir Arthur Sullivan the applause of the public, it is in his orchestral music that his name will live among musicians. His music to “The Tempest” and “The Merchant of Venice,” his oratorios, his Overture di Ballo, and, still more, his Symphony in E—unfortunately his only work in this department—show what remarkable gifts he had for the orchestra. Form and symmetry he seemed to possess by instinct; rhythm and melody clothe everything he touched; the music shows not only sympathetic genius, but sense, judgment, proportion, and a complete absence of pedantry and pretension; while the orchestration is distinguished by a happy and original beauty hardly surpassed by the greatest masters.

During the early part of his career Sullivan was organist of St. Michael’s Church, Chester Square. After this, in 1867, he undertook the direction of the music at St. Peter’s, Cranley Gardens, for which many of his anthems were composed, and where he remained till 1871. He was musical adviser to the Royal Aquarium Company from its incorporation in July 1874 down to May 1876, organised the admirable band with which it started, and himself conducted its performances. For the seasons 1878 and 1879 he conducted the Promenade Concerts at Covent Garden for Messrs. Gatti; and for those of 1875-1876, and 1876-77, the Glasgow Festivals. He was Principal of the National Training School at South Kensington from 1876 to 1881, when his engagements compelled him to resign in favour of Dr. Stainer, and he was a member of the Council of the Royal College of Music. He received the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music from the University of Cambridge in 1876, and Oxford, 1879. In 1878 he acted as British Commissioner for Music at the International Exhibition at Paris, and was decorated with the Ligion d’honneur. He also bore the Order of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and on May 22, 1883, was knighted by Queen Victoria.

At the Leeds Festival of 1898 it was evident that he was in failing health, but he accomplished the difficult task of conducting the performances, although suffering much pain. He died in London, Nov. 22, 1900, and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral on the 27th. A preliminary funeral service was held in the Chapel Royal.

Besides the compositions already enumerated, Sullivan’s list of works includes thirteen anthems, six sacred part-songs, three carols, arrangements, sacred songs, etc. (see The Musical Times, 1901, p. 24). In 1868 nine part-songs, an ode for baritone and orchestra, “I wish to tune,” were composed. The popular “The long day closes” is among the former. Songs to the number of about seventy were published in his earlier years, most of them before the vogue of the Savoy operas began. Among instrumental works are to be mentioned, beside the symphony, the concerto, and the marches already referred to, a “Duo concertante” for piano and violoncello, and nine short pieces for piano solo, dating from about 1862 to 1867.

The penalty of excessive contemporary popularity has been paid since Sullivan’s death, for although that event came like a national disaster, his more important compositions have been almost entirely neglected from that time. Even the beautiful “Golden Legend,” which enjoyed enormous popularity for many years, has been only heard comparatively seldom of late years. It is quite probable that the pendulum will swing back some day and a new period of popularity begin.

by George Grove, rev. J.A. Fuller Maitland
Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 4 (1908)

Featured Tunes:


Publications of Hymns & Tunes:

Edited by Sullivan:

Church Hymns with Tunes (1874):

Edited by Others:

Psalms and Hymns for Divine Worship, Presbyterian Church in England (London: James Nisbet, 1867): HathiTrust

Good Words (London, 1868, 1872): WorldCat

A Hymnal Chiefly from the Book of Praise, ed. John Hullah, Roundell Palmer (London: Macmillan, 1868): HathiTrust

Supplemental Hymn & Tune Book, 3rd ed., R. Brown Borthwick (London: Novello, 1868): WorldCat

The Sarum Hymnal (1869)

Christmas Carols New and Old, 2nd series, ed. John Stainer (1870): WorldCat

The Musical Times, vol. 15, no. 346 (Dec. 1, 1871), p. 311: PDF

The Hymnary, ed. Joseph Barnby (London: Novello, 1872): HathiTrust

New Church Hymn Book, ed. Charles Kemble (London: SPCK, 1874): Google Books

The Congregational Psalmist (1875)

The Musical Times (Nov. 1877, Jan. 1878)

Hymns for Children, Sarah Wilson (1888)

Hymn written by the Bishop of Wakefield (1897)

The Church Hymnary, ed. John Stainer (Edinburgh: H. Frowde, 1898): PDF

Church Hymns with Tunes, ed. Charles Lloyd (London: SPCK, 1903): PDF

For lists of Sullivan’s tunes and sources, see Hymn Tunes (1902); Young (1972) Appendix 1, pp. 278-281; and Bradley (2013) Appendix 1, pp. 188-198.


Arthur Sullivan, Hymn Tunes (London: Novello, 1902): PDF


Sir Arthur Sullivan Diaries, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University:

Arthur Sullivan Music Manuscripts, Pierpont Morgan Library, NY:

Life & Works:

Arthur Lawrence, Sir Arthur Sullivan: Life Story, Letters and Reminiscences (London: James Bowden, 1899): PDF

“Sir Arthur Sullivan as a church musician,” The Musical Times, vol. 42, no. 695 (1 Jan. 1901), pp. 21-24: JSTOR

Walter J. Wells, Souvenir of Sir Arthur Sullivan, Mus. Doc., M.V.O. (London: George Newnes, 1901): PDF

H. Saxe Wyndham, Arthur Sullivan (London: George Bell & Sons, 1903): PDF

B.W. Findon, Sir Arthur Sullivan: His Life and Music (London: James Nisbet, 1904): PDF

George Grove, “Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan,” Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. J.A. Fuller Maitland, vol. 4 (NY: MacMillan, 1908), pp. 743-747:

H. Saxe Wyndham: Arthur Seymour Sullivan (London: K. Paul, 1926): WorldCat

H.T. Sullivan and N. Flower, Sir Arthur Sullivan: His Life, Letters & Diaries, 2nd ed. (London: Cassell & Co., 1950): WorldCat

Gervase Hughes, The Music of Arthur Sullivan (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1960): WorldCat

Betty Matthews, ‘“Onward, Christian Soldiers’: A Centenary Note,” Musical Times, vol. 113, no. 1558 (Dec. 1972), p. 1232.

Percy Young, Sir Arthur Sullivan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1972): WorldCat

Arthur Jacobs, Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician, 2nd ed. (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1992): Amazon

Paul Westermeyer, “Arthur Sullivan,” Let the People Sing: Hymn Tunes in Perspective (Chicago: GIA, 2005), pp. 260-261.

Ian Bradley, Lost Chords and Christian Soldiers: The Sacred Music of Arthur Sullivan (London: SCM Press, 2013): Amazon

Jeremy Dibble, “Arthur Seymour Sullivan,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:

Arthur Jacobs, “Sir Arthur Sullivan,” Grove Music Online:

Arthur Sullivan,