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An Introduction to ... Gilbert & Sullivan
William Schwenk GILBERT (1836-1911) and Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
Written by Thomson Smillie
David Timson, narrator
Musical examples taken from the catalogue of The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and New Promenade Orchestra/Isidore Godfrey
Overtures: Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Andrew Penny DDD
NAXOS 8.558166-67 [79:29 + 78:40]

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I doubt that one can find an adult in the English speaking world that has never encountered the works of Gilbert & Sullivan in some form. Their comic operettas have so infiltrated the Western world that they are still performed, referenced, and lampooned in theatres and on television daily. Gilbert’s words are part of the international lexicon. His characters are archetypes; in daily conversation, it is possible to find Poor Little Buttercups, Modern Major Generals, Pirate Kings and Three Little Maids from School. Likewise, Sullivan’s melodies are commonly enough encountered that many would consider them simply “traditional”.  The irony is that most of those people could not even make an educated guess as to the famous pairing’s first names. Even more ironically, the two men never considered their work with the other as their best or most important. They both considered themselves serious artists, and these musical theatre productions were in their eyes lesser works. However, today their names are indelibly linked and their comic works epitomize the genre.

As he has done for many other artists and operas, Thomson Smillie now sets out to present a solid grounding in the lives and works of Gilbert and Sullivan. He tells the story of the two men as well as of Richard D’Oyly Carte and the other men who were able to bring them together. Or more accurately perhaps, the men that were able to keep them together amid all their differences. After all, they were never close friends and were from vastly differing backgrounds. They never mixed socially and had fundamentally different personalities. The most remarkable thing is that they were able to work together at all despite their quarrels and differences. That they were collaborators for more than fifteen years is nothing short of amazing. As the script makes very clear, neither man needed the other to be a success. Gilbert was the greatest name in theatre for the Victorian age, and Sullivan was considered the greatest English composer since Purcell. However, both men seemed to drive the other to greatness by working as master and master. Their combination never required either man to subjugate his work to the other.

Each of their collaborations is given attention, including their first, Thespis from 1871; now largely lost. Trial by Jury, a very early one-act comic operetta is given extensive time as the primogenitor of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertory. The Sorcerer, Patience, and Princess Ida are all briefly discussed and excerpted as well, though obviously a great deal more attention is given to H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, the Mikado, Ruddigore, and The Gondoliers.

The biography, both in audio and in the supplemental booklet, is engaging and often fascinating. It does a very good job of explaining the circumstances surrounding the creation of each work and adroitly highlights Sullivan’s musical innovations (such as the double chorus) as well as many of Gilbert’s more memorable or notable linguistic devices. It enlightens the modern listener in many ways, explaining some of the more dated topical references in Gilbert’s language and showing how Sullivan would expose the target of Gilbert’s words through musical cues or quotations.

The vocal performances are all vintage recordings from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. Also presented are excerpts from two of the overtures composed entirely by Sullivan and performed by the New Promenade Orchestra and Isidore Godfrey. Considering the esteem of Godfrey in Gilbert and Sullivan’s works and the special standing of the D’Oyly Carte company this allows for a certain assuredness that the performances are good. However, when compared side-by-side with the voice-over the lack of high fidelity sound is difficult to overlook. It feels backward that the speaking voice is so pleasantly vibrant where the singing voices are obviously dated. They are still skillfully utilized as didactic tools, but it would be nice if some of the recordings were updated.

The packaging does a better job of complementing the audio-biography. It covers some of the same material on the recording, but supplements the story by discussing the life of the musicals after the death of the creators. Also, it notes the similarities between the D’Oyly Carte Company traditions and the Wagner legacy. There are parallels drawn between Bayreuth and the Savoy theatre, as well as the impassioned responses of their fan-bases to any innovation or alterations to the original performances. Generally speaking, this is an excellent primer for this collection of great works.

There are two obvious audiences for this history-on-disc. The most energetic of the G&S fans would enjoy owning this as a vehicle for introducing others to their love. These people may also appreciate the short history, and could find some new trivia to appreciate. The other group is the novice or student that has never (well hardly ever) seen a Gilbert and Sullivan musical, but wants instantly to have a smattering of information at their fingertips in accessible form. For this latter group, a better resource could hardly be imagined. Smillie is incredibly knowledgeable, and quite good at making that learning readily obtainable. As this type of understanding is the first step in winning new fans, one can only hope that Smillie continues to produce this series.

Patrick Gary



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