Sir Arthur Sullivan and William Schwenk Gilbert were a duo of composers of the Victorian era. Together, they composed thirteen ‘operettas’ for which Sillivan wrote the melody and Gilbert the lyrics. An operetta a light-entertainment opera in which the music is light, bouncy and jaunty and the subject matter similarly makes for easy-viewing. The majority of the operettas they wrote contain a twist at the end. Most famously, The Pirates of Penzance involves the revelation at the end that the title characters are in fact noblemen who have taken a bad turn!
Their operettas saw exciting times. Their operetta Patience, about a milkmaid’s quest to get married despite being cynical of love, was their first to be performed with electrical lighting. The only ‘twist’ at the end of this operetta is Patience’s unexpected choice of husband.
Their operetta Iolanthe is a social critique in many ways which saw as much politics on the stage as off of it. The thread of the story focuses on the Fairy Queen, who represents Queen Victoria, and her son Strephon- who is half man and half fairy, represents William Ewart Gladstone, whom the Queen detested. In a key scene of Iolanthe, Private Willis, a guard on sentry duty outside the Houses of Parliament, sings a number known as The Sentry Song. It is unusual for a song by Gilbert and Sullivan to earn such a title, for the majority of the songs they wrote are entitled by the song’s first line. In this Sentry Song, Private Willis, though from a modest background, is able to observe that everyone on earth is either to the Left or to the Right. His observations, however, will be ignored by the population at large because he is not wealthy.
This song also contains a line that cost Gilbert his knighthood, while Sullivan was duly knighted. The offending line that lyricist Gilbert constructed was about leaders of political parties having the last say on how their members vote on any issue. Queen Vitoria was, it is safe to say, “not amused”.
The Buxton Festival takes place every August, alive with performances of the operettas and talks thereon, to celebrate and commemorate Gilbert and Sullivan’s work.