Gilbert & Sullivan

Gilbert & Sullivan

Possibly the best-known librettist/composer duo in history, Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s works often parody the Victorian-era society in which the pair created their operettas, with elements of the absurd and fantasy peppered in.

Famous for their extraordinary partnership and timeless operas, Sullivan, a classically trained composer, and Gilbert, a witty librettist, joined forces in the late nineteenth century. Known world-wide for their comic operettas like The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, Iolanthe and The Yeomen of the Guard, the pair’s works have gained a cult following among lovers of humour, opera and pastiches on society at large. 

Throughout this guide, we’ll explore the fascinating, musical worlds of Gilbert and Sullivan (first names William Schwenck and Arthur). Whether you’re intrigued about the story of the opera composers, or you want to educate yourself on Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous songs – continue reading our guide to experience the dynamic duo who left an incomparable imprint on the world of opera. 

The lives of Gilbert and Sullivan: A summary

To truly understand the revolutionary pair, let’s explore the lives of each, working through their childhood and education, onto the triumphs and challenges they faced along the way.

Early life and education

Son of a naval surgeon, William S. Gilbert displayed an early interest in the arts and a great love of humour, only to be encouraged by his father to follow his artistic pursuits. Although supportive, his father had originally wished for a more conventional career for his son, which saw Gilbert study law at the King’s College London. While attending university, his admiration for the arts continued to flourish, seeing him write and perform in amateur productions. Gilbert’s upbringing and familial support contributed to his talents and later success as a legendary figure in opera. 

Arthur Sullivan was a true reflection of his future musical partner, showing an interest in the arts from a young age – however, differing in his exceptional, very early musical talent. Sullivan’s father was a military bandmaster, where he was able to learn to play every instrument in the band before he turned eight years old. His father was able to recognise Arthur’s potential and made sure he could receive a proper musical education. By the age of thirteen, Sullivan had his first piece of music published. At the age of fourteen, he started at the Royal Academy of Music where his talents flourished, earning him prestigious scholarships. His success in opera was undoubtedly thanks to his artistic education.

Career highlights 

Gilbert experienced a prolific career, marked by his notable achievements as a librettist across theatre. After beginning his career as a playwright and journalist, Gilbert went on to create early works that earned him admiration for their portrayal of comedy and drama. His librettos remained innovative, blending wit and detailed compositions in nineteenth-century opera. Throughout his life, he was able to maintain a career in law alongside his theatrical works – however, theatre always remained the priority.  

Arthur Sullivan distinguished himself as a composer and musician during his career. Sullivan remained a versatile artist throughout his time in opera, being able to venture into both comic and serious works, including a selection of orchestral and choral pieces, such as The Light of the World (1873) and the Irish Symphony (1866). Serving as the conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Society from 1885 to 1887 allowed Sullivan to showcase his talent beyond theatre, moving on to compose operas and ballets.  

Alongside their individual careers, a historic moment in time was marked when the pair were first brought together in 1871 to produce a Christmas extravaganza for West End theatre owner, John Hollingshead. However, their first complete operatic collaboration wasn’t until 1875, where Gilbert’s libretto for Trial by Jury needed a composer, leading to a first operetta and the start of a working relationship they endured for many years. 

The pair’s collaboration reached its peak in the late 1870s and 1880s, following the encouragement of Richard D’Oyly Carte whose company produced popular Gilbert and Sullivan works at London’s Savoy Theatre and elsewhere. The D’Oyly Carte company was dedicated to the Gilbert and Sullivan oeuvre and continued long after the deaths of the composer and librettist – keeping a somewhat moribund performance tradition alive right into the 1970s. 

In 1890, the duo began to experience serious tensions, which eventually led to the demise of their partnership. The groundbreaking and incredibly successful duo lasted for over two decades, between 1871 to 1896, producing an astounding fourteen operas. 

Later life

Life after the fall out was interesting, and a significant change for each. In his later years, W.S. Gilbert continued with his theatrical pursuits and projects. However, as popular culture evolved, his artistic works faced challenges in maintaining the same level of popularity that he had had with Sullivan. After pursuing new creative ventures, such as writing plays and working with different composers, Gilbert was able to continue being an influential figure in the London theatre scene.  

Tragedy struck Gilbert in 1897 when his wife, Lucy, passed away. The loss significantly affected him, causing his withdrawal from public life for a considerable amount of time. After eventually returning to theatre, Gilbert achieved small successes with writing and directing productions. 1907 saw Gilbert knighted, and 1911 saw the performance of his final play, The Hooligan. Sir W.S. Gilbert sadly passed away on 29th May 1911 at the age of 74, suffering from a heart attack while trying to save a woman from drowning in the lake on his estate. 

Arthur Sullivan’s later years saw him build a diverse and greatly successful career. Following the breakdown of their partnership, Sullivan set out to establish himself as a serious composer, distancing himself from the comedic, light-hearted operas that were a result of his work with Gilbert.  

Despite the success of their work together, Sullivan always felt subservient to Gilbert and their relationship was often difficult and tense. When he had been knighted back in 1883 by Queen Victoria, the sovereign took the opportunity to encourage Sullivan to write a grand opera. Nearly a decade later, the result was Ivanhoe (1891), after Walter Scott’s celebrated novel. The first major opera by an English composer in over a century, Ivanhoe enjoyed an impressive initial run of performances, but failed to establish itself in the repertory and is now a rarity. 

William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan enjoyed a remarkable career and partnership that left behind one of the most profound legacies in opera. The duo completely transformed the operetta genre, introducing a unique blend of comedic librettos and beautiful compositions. Their Savoy operas have become synonymous with the highest and most respected standards of light opera. Most of these fourteen operas continue to be performed to this day, attesting to the timeless quality of their creative works. One of the most famous partnerships in opera, William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s compositions transitioned opera into an accessible and wildly comedic experience for everyone. 

Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical style and influence

Sullivan’s music, especially in his collaborations with Gilbert, is never less than superbly crafted. His musical style draws on British and European traditions, with elements of Victorian church music, the drawing-room ballad, and the operas of Donizetti, Bellini, and middle-period Verdi melded into one. This fusion of different genres and traditions made Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas a huge success throughout Europe and overseas. 

Sullivan’s gift for matching Gilbert’s often tongue-twisting words to memorable melody is particularly noteworthy in Sir Joseph Porter’s patter song in HMS Pinafore, or the Modern Major General song from Pirates of Penzance. However, Sullivan can be as subtle as Schubert when necessary (for example, the opening women’s chorus in Pirates).  

Freed of the copyright restrictions of previous generations, the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, when presented in wholly fresh interpretations (such as Jonathan Miller’s non-Japanese Mikado set in a 1930s English seaside hotel), has won new audiences for their most famous operas. 

Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous songs 

  • ‘The Major General’s Song’ from The Pirates of Penzance (1879) 
  • ‘Nightmare Song’ from Iolanthe (1882) 
  • ‘I’ve got a little list’ from The Mikado (1885) 
  • ‘A British Tar’ from H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) 
  • ‘Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither’ from Iolanthe (1882) 
  • ‘My eyes are fully open’ from Ruddigore (1887) 
  • ‘Three Little Maids’ from The Mikado (1885) 

Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous operas

  • HMS Pinafore (1878) 
  • The Mikado (1885) 
  • The Ruddigore (1887) 
  • The Sorcerer (1887) 
  • The Gondoliers (1889) 

Here at the ENO, we have a long-standing relationship with Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, performing many in recent years to overwhelmingly positive reception.

To discover more about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s operas in previous seasons by the ENO, or to take a look at our other beginner guides for famous composers, visit our Discover Opera page. 


The final Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera was The Grand Duke, which premiered at the Savoy Theatre in London on 7th March, 1896. Their last collaborative piece is a satirical story that revolves around a brewing revolution, a love story, and the problems caused by constitutions. Despite the duo’s previous unwavering success, this final work was not a hit with audiences. 

Composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist W.S. Gilbert collaborated on a total of fourteen operas. All of which were originally performed at the Savoy Theatre in London. 

The following list consists of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas in order: 

  1. Thespis (1871) 
  2. Trial by Jury (1875) 
  3. The Sorcerer (1877) 
  4. H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) 
  5. The Pirates of Penzance (1879)  
  6. Patience (1881) 
  7. Iolanthe (1882) 
  8. Princess Ida (1884) 
  9. The Mikado (1885) 
  10. Ruddigore (1887) 
  11. The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) 
  12. The Gondoliers (1889)  
  13. Utopia, Limited (1893) 
  14. The Grand Duke (1896)  

The English National Opera frequently hosts productions of the duo’s acclaimed works. Previous ENO seasons have included performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s: The Yeomen of the Guard, Iolanthe, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado.

Creative differences, arguments over finances, frictions caused by juxtaposing personalities, and an inevitable burnout all contributed to the end of their professional and personal relationship. However, the exact, defining reason for the duo’s falling out has been debated and speculated ever since.