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Sullivan, Sir Arthur Seymour (13th May 1842-22nd November 1900)

He was a composer born in Lambeth, London, England, as the son of a military bandmaster from Ireland.  His father was station at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, Berkshire, and this is where he would soon become a proficient player of all a band’s instruments by the time he was eight years old.

He studied in Bayswater, London, at a private school before being accepted into the Chapel Royal as a choir member and entering its school. It was during his attendance here that he started composing, with his first piece being “O Israel” which was published in 1855.  Furthering his musical education he studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and in 1958 he went to Leipzig and attended the Felix Mendelssohn College of Music and Theatre.  Here he started conducting and expanding his musical abilities, graduating in 1861 with his The Tempest, which was performed at Crystal Palace a year later after it had been expanded and undergone revision and won him immediate acclaim.

In his early career he would compose many of his more serious works including Overture in C, which was a commission from the Norwich Festival and written by him soon after his father had died.  Sadly his first opera composition, The Sapphire Necklace, has been virtually lost over time but The Royal English Opera Company staged it in Rockford, Illinois, with new libretto by Scott Farrell in 2000.

The lack of success in the world of opera initially didn’t stop him continuing with this genre of music and he would continue writing many works for voice and orchestra including The Window/Song of the Wrens where he used eleven texts from the poetry of Lord Tennyson.  By 1864 he had composed his first ballet, L’Ile Enchantee and within ten years was writing scores for stage plays such as The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Still finding it hard to cope economically, he was a church organist and composer, writing upward of 72 hymns, with his most famous being “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, and he also taught piano and singing.  In his realm of hymn writing he also wrote the music for the English version of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”.

He travelled to Vienna with Sir George Grove in 1867 and after discovering a collection of Schubert’s works, they returned to the UK with their discovery.  One of these works was the music to the opera Rosamunde.

He met W.S. Gilbert who first reviewed his work for the Magazine Fun and then several years later, in 1872, they teamed up on a commission to write the burlesque production Thespis.  They did not have much contact for the next few years, aside from two parlour ballads, until Richard D’Oyly Carte contacted them in 1875 and asked for a piece to use as a fill-out with Offenbach’s La Perichole.  This produced Trial By Jury and thus Gilbert & Sullivan, Britain’s most successful comic opera duo came into being.  They would collaborate over the next 15 years on many successful productions such as Gilbert & Sullivan works are The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore.  Although they would work on two more after this period it was done under a strained relationship as they had fought about a triviality about a theatre carpet and the grudge that was carried by them both just continued.

After their split he went back to writing more serious pieces and his one later operatic attempt with Ivanhoe, never saw the same accolade as any of his works with Gilbert.  His compositions include 2 ballets, 23 operas, piano and chamber pieces, theatre incidental music, parlour music and songs, 13 orchestral works, hymns and church pieces, eight choral and oratorio works.  Some of his best known and from his solo works Irish Symphony, Concerto for Cello and Orchestra and Overture di Ballo are particularly noted.

Recognised for his work in the field of music, he was knighted in 1883 by Queen Victoria. In the modern world of entertainment his music has been heard in at least 80 films and television programmes.   After suffering ill health throughout his life he died in his London flat on 22nd November 1900 of pneumonia, aged 58.

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear recordings
Leroy Anderson & His Orchestra
Decca B0003552-02 (CD: A Leroy Anderson Christmas)

Robert Shaw Choral recordings
RCA 6429 – 2 – RG (CD: A Festival of Carols)
Arrangers – Robert Shaw/Alice Parker