5th January 1884. Savoy Operas.

He always got up in the morning to see whom he could have a quarrel’: Seymour Hicks, actor and playwright, on W.S.Gilbert. 

Original programme Cover.

Original programme cover.

Today in 1884 the premier of the operetta Princess Ida took place from the inspired partnership of the composer Arthur Sullivan and the librettist William Schwenk Gilbert.(1)

Savoy Theatre, London.

Savoy Theatre, London.

The Savoy Operas are thirteen operettas (excluding Thespis 1871), from Trial by Jury (1875) to the Grand Duke (1896).

Much loved by Queen Victoria she had the Gondoliers performed at Windsor and the Mikado at Balmoral and greatly approved of Sullivan’s contributions to her Jubilees.

The operettas parodied Victorian society: HMS Pinafore (1878) First Lord of the Admiralty, W.H. Smith politician and newspaper distributor; The Pirates of Penzance (1879), satirising the Imperialist, General Garnet Wolseley and the police, and unique in its being premiered in New York. (2)

However on arrival in New York he found he had left sketches of the first act back home and had to hastily incorporate other music.

Patience (1881), having two opening nights, at the Opera Comique on 23rd April and then the newly opened Savoy on 10th October, was originally intended to mock, as Punch Magazine had done, effete High-Church clergy, but Gilbert decided it was a step too far.

Instead of the Church, Gilbert went for a softer target the current foppish, ‘Aesthetic’ movement of Lord Leighton, Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde, whilst Iolanthe (1882) took a swipe at Parliament.

Of The Mikado (1885) satirising government and institutions under the guise of Japanese exoticism, G.K. Chesterton said, ‘not one joke would fit the Japanese’.

In the 1907 performance at the Savoy, the Lord Chamberlain banned a song Tit Willow in case it offended the susceptibilities of the visiting Japanese Crown Prince; it was not the first time the satirist Gilbert had upset the Lord Chamberlain.

Gilbert had made his name with his ‘Bab Ballads’ in the 1860.s Fun Magazine and in 1873 he wrote, under the pseudonym F.Latour Tomline, the play ‘Happy Land’ with the Gilbertian theme of chaos wreaked in Fairyland when mortal life is imported.

However the G&S relationship turned sour during a run of The Gondoliers with a quarrel over a carpet at the Savoy and from 1890 to 1893 they refused to work together, by which time their major work was done.

Sullivan had always regarded his work as trivial and yearned to be remembered as a more ‘serious’ composer. He felt the Savoy Operas were, ‘Gilbert’s pieces with music added by me’. This was a notion unacceptable to George Bernard Shaw who said: ‘They trained him to make Europe yawn, and he took advantage of their teaching to make London and New York laugh and whistle’.

Sullivan was to die in 1900, whilst Gilbert who had dominated the London musical scene in the late 19thc, was to die at his home Grimm’s Dyke, Harrow, trying to rescue a young girl from his pool. Their collaboration lives on.

(1) The operetta was indirectly inspired by Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.

(2) The main operetta would be preceded by a minor work, Curtain Raisers such as ‘Cups and Saucers’ composed by George Grossmith and ‘After All’.

‘Cups and Saucers’ was revived in 1890 at the Globe from 6th-12th of December, but hasn’t stood the test of time.

References:

Joseph, Gerhard 1969, Tennysonian Love, The strange diagonal, Uni. Minneapolis p.79 re Ida.

wikipedia.org/Pic of Savoy.

gilbertandsullivanarchive/Pic of Programme.

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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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