A Modern Major-General of Light Entertainment

Sir William Gilbert. Photo: Manchester Gilbert and Sullivan Society
Sir William Gilbert. Photo: Manchester Gilbert and Sullivan Society

by Ray Setterfield

May 29, 1911 — From the tongue-twisting “Very Model of a Modern Major-General”, to the “Ruler of the Queen’s Navee", the lyrics of Sir William Gilbert, put to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 14 comic operas, delighted audiences in England and throughout the world. It all came to an end on this day when Gilbert died in a gallant attempt to rescue a woman swimmer who was in difficulties.

Their most famous works include The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and The Mikado, all still frequently performed and much enjoyed.

The pair’s greatest success came after stage producer Richard D’Oyly Carte, who was managing the Royalty Theatre in London, needed a short opera and persuaded the pair in 1875 to work together on a new one-act piece. In a short time they had created Trial by Jury, which became a major success.

The team went from strength to strength, the profits from their enterprise being enough for D’Oyly Carte to build the Savoy Theatre, after which the works became known as the Savoy operas. They included The Yeoman of the Guard, The Mikado and Iolanthe.

Relations between Gilbert and Sullivan were sometimes strained and both from time to time went off to work on an individual basis, or with others. When Sullivan died in 1900 at the age of 58 he was hailed as Britain’s leading composer.

His passing was a great blow to Gilbert, who was to write four years later: “Savoy opera was snuffed out by the deplorable death of my distinguished collaborator, Sir Arthur Sullivan. When that event occurred, I saw no one with whom I felt that I could work with satisfaction and success, and so I discontinued to write libretti.”

Gilbert’s own death followed in 1911 in most unexpected circumstances. He was giving a swimming lesson to two women in a lake at his home in London, when one of them got into difficulties and shouted for help. Gilbert immediately dived to the rescue but suffered a heart attack and was dead by the time he was pulled out of the water.

It is said that more than 100 years later, a Gilbert and Sullivan opera is performed every night somewhere in the English-speaking world. Quite a legacy.

Published: April 24, 2016

Articles on Events in May