Giving deserved merit to Gilbert-without-Sullivan

Portarit of WS Gilbert by Herbert Rose Barraud
Portarit of WS Gilbert by Herbert Rose Barraud

WILLIAM Schwenck Gilbert, or WS Gilbert as he is more generally known, has a little more independent exposure in this year’s International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, which begins for the 18th time in Buxton this Saturday.

The reason: he died in 1911, on May 29 to be precise, when at the age of 74 he suffered a heart attack after jumping into the lake of his home at Grim’s Dyke in Harrow to save a young girl he was giving swimming lessons to when she got into difficulty.

Gilbert will always be indelibly associated with Sullivan, as he will be forever umbilically tied to Gilbert, and yet the 14 works they penned are a relatively small part of each man’s creative output.

Gilbert was hugely prolific, writing reams and reams of verse, including the humorous Bab Ballads (around 100), along with some 80 opera libretti and plays.

Also, in his day, he was also a stage director much admired by such people as George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.

These days, he may well have become long ago largely a name in Victorian theatre statistics but for his collaborations with Sullivan who, by the same token, would not have the name he has without Gilbert, although it would have been a better-known one.

It can be said that Sullivan had more success with other collaborators than Gilbert did as many of his non-Gilbert stage works are performed with some regularity.

Despite often fine music in them, though, it is interesting to speculate if they would have been without Sullivan’s name attached to them. If that is the case, why haven’t Gilbert’s non-Sullivan stage works attracted wider attention for the same reason?

It wasn’t as if he worked with duff composers: Frederic Clay, Edward German and Alfred Cellier; the latter did after all have the biggest hit on the London stage in 1886, Dorothy, which ran for 931 performances, far outrunning Gilbert and Sullivan’s best effort a year earlier of 672 for The Mikado.

Cellier’s librettist was BC Stephenson, Sullivan’s collaborator on The Zoo in 1875, and his two works with Gilbert included The Mountebanks in 1892, an accident-prone concert performance with piano of it at last year’s G&S Festival nevertheless being sufficient to show it was worthwhile and not without merit.

Gilbert’s single work with Edward German in 1909, Fallen Fairies, was not a success to the extent that it ended the composer’s career and Gilbert’s excursions into writing opera libretti.

In fact, he was to write only one thing further, a play called The Hooligan in 1911 (see below).

Gilbert’s most regular collaborator after Sullivan was the tuneful Fred Clay as he was known, the first of their four works being Ages Ago in 1869. Clay introduced his good friend Arthur Sullivan to Gilbert for the first time at rehearsals for the show!

Very popular in its day, the work was also encountered in last year’s G&S Festival in a staging by Chapel End Savoy Players (sadly, not there this year), a much happier affair than The Mountebanks but again showing it to be an eminently worthwhile piece.

The music for Gilbert’s second and third works with Clay, the former his first full-length opera libretto The Gentleman in Black (he’s a gnome, actually!) in 1870, is long lost but it isn’t for the fourth, Princess Toto, in 1876.

At the time, The Times wrote that Princess Toto “is probably surpassed by no modern English work of the kind for gaiety and melodious charm” – so this sounds like another worthwhile Gilbert-without-Sullivan piece.

Gilbert collaborated with other composers on 14 works, which took in musical entertainments and plays with music, both with limited music input and in some cases lost, and two further comic operas in which the composers, although successful elsewhere, were out of their depth in light opera.

George Grossmith, who penned numerous party and salon songs, found setting a full-length libretto beyond his limited musical means when confronted with Haste to the Wedding 1892 and it quickly failed, but His Excellency with music by F(rank) Ormond Carr fared better in 1894.

An influenza outbreak halted its initial London run and it had brief international forays but, while Gilbert’s libretto was highly praised, the efforts of Carr, one of the earliest writers of musical comedies and very successful in the field, were generally deemed pleasant and sub-Sullivan.

So there are Gilbert-without-Sullivan works with merit out there, not many to be sure, possibly four if His Excellency is counted, it’s just that they don’t seem to have the lure that Sullivan-without-Gilbert does.