A Matter of Patter: An Examination of the Compositional Style of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Savoy Operas

For over one hundred and twenty years, the comic operas of W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan have delighted the English-speaking world with their combination of textual and musical charm and wit.  However, while the Gilbert’s words have been mined by literary scholars over the past century, Sullivan’s music has been largely neglected by academia.  This is largely due to the opinion held by the Victorian musical establishment, Sullivan himself included, that his popular theatrical works were beneath the dignity of a classically-trained composer.  Despite this contemporary opinion, of all Sullivan’s works, only his comic operas have enjoyed continued performance.  In fact, his collaborations with Gilbert (such as The Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore, and The Mikado) have made a significant impact on our culture.

For all of this, musicologists and music theorists have generally remained far abreast of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.  In fact, when David Russell Hulme, one of the foremost Sullivan scholars of our day, was first proposing his doctoral thesis in the 1980s, he notes that if he had made the operas themselves the sole object of his thesis, he would have been laughed at and scorned by his colleagues in the field.  What scholarship has been done has been hampered by the lack of critical editions of Sullivan’s works.  This is symptomatic of the low esteem Sullivan has been held in by serious musicians.  Editions are only now starting to emerge, but it is an uphill battle.  For instance, Oxford University Press had embarked upon a complete series of critical editions of the thirteen extant Savoy operas, with David Russell Hulme on the editorial board, but after releasing the first volume OUP abandoned the project.

Accurate scores aside, a brief examination of academic publications yields scarce few theoretical analyses of Sullivan’s work.  As a musician, I personally have always admired Sullivan’s craftsmanship, and as an aspirant composer would desire to emulate it.  This project is a study of Sullivan’s style as is embodied in his theatrical works with Gilbert, with the end result of producing a number of pieces written in that style.  In addition to the academic edification of the process, I hope to be able assimilate aspects of Sullivan’s technique into my own and develop as a composer.