May 23, 2013
Written by Victoria Baker
Thursday, 02 June 2011 12:48
Gilbert and Sullivan began their careers in a society which had an uneasy relationship with change. In many ways there was an idealistic desire to provide universal education, give more people the vote, and generally widen the number of people who could play a significant role in society. In other ways there was a fear of what these changes would bring. The end of the eighteenth century had seen revolution in France in which traditional social order had fallen apart and been replaced by anarchy.
It was in this turbulent atmosphere of change and fear of its consequences that Gilbert and Sullivan were born. Initially it might seem that there was nothing revolutionary about Arthur Sullivan or William Gilbert as they grew up. Building on early promise, scholarships sent young Arthur on to the Royal Academy of Music and then to the finest school in Europe at Leipzig. Arthur Sullivan was one of the most promising young British composers of his generation, and much was expected of him in the rarified world of classical music.
W.S. Gilbert was the son of a naval surgeon. After a degree at King’s College London, there was a drift into detested work as a Civil Service clerk, then an unsuccessful stint as a barrister with work in a volunteer army reserve in his spare time. From 1861, to supplement his income, Gilbert started writing various pieces for light entertainment magazines. There was nothing yet to suggest a popular revolution, but in many ways that is what the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan were to represent.
As popular musical entertainment, the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan couldn’t help but be a bit subversive. They were after all part of a general social trend undermining the power of the old establishment in favor of a much wider popular democracy. But direct challenge simply wasn’t acceptable. Gilbert and Sullivan found themselves naturally having to walk a tight rope.
In 1878 HMS Pinafore was a landmark; really establishing the Gilbert & Sullivan team. And it is in HMS Pinafore that we see the balance between popular and proper that was to become their hallmark. Certainly the properness was marked while the British establishment was mercilessly mocked.
People either love or hate the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan, and I shan’t influence you by sharing how I feel about them! Hopefully the team at Caramoor will use their savoir faire to convert even the most uninterested listener into a great aficionado...
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