William Schwenck Gilbert was born in the Strand, London, on November 18, 1836. After earning a B.A. from the University of London he pursued a law career, was called to the Bar in 1863, and also joined the militia as a reserve officer, but by then had already embarked on his true calling: as a humorist, caricaturist and writer. His series of satirical poems and sketches, the self-dubbed "Bab Ballads," first appeared in Fun Magazine, and his burlesques of popular European operas, along with his original comedies, soon began playing on the London stage. By 1870 W.S. Gilbert was established as the pre-eminent dramatist of his day; no less than seven London theatres built during that time opened with his plays.
Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born in Lambeth, London, on May 13, 1842 and began a pursuit of serious music early in life, entering the choir of the Chapel Royal, St. James Palace, at the age of 8 and winning the competition for the first Mendelssohn scholarship when he was 14. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the Leipzig Conservatory and by 1870 had composed incidental music for THE TEMPEST, the Processional at the wedding of the Prince of Wales, overtures IN MEMORIAM and DI BALLO, an oratorio, THE PRODIGAL SON, and other distinguished works. Sullivan also had a flair for operetta, which lead to such early successes as COX AND BOX (1866) and THE CONTRABANDISTA (1867).
In late 1871 Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated for the first time. The result, THESPIS, OR THE GODS GROWN OLD, premiered at the Gaiety Theatre on December 26; after its brief run Sullivan's score disappeared, making the work impossible to revive. After THESPIS both men resumed their separate careers before being reunited four years later by Richard D'Oyly Carte, an impresario dedicated to the creation of English opera to rival that of the Continent's.
In Gilbert & Sullivan, D'Oyly Carte found his "dream team," and their first opera under his auspices, TRIAL BY JURY, premiered on March 25, 1875. It was a sensation, and launched the partnership that would, over the next twenty-one years, produce a dozen full-length operettas. From 1881 onwards, these works premiered at the theatre D'Oyly Carte built especially for them, the Savoy, and the entire G&S canon became collectively known as 'the Savoy Operas': THE SORCERER, H.M.S. PINAFORE, THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, PATIENCE, IOLANTHE, PRINCESS IDA, THE MIKADO, RUDDIGORE, THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD, THE GONDOLIERS, UTOPIA LIMITED and THE GRAND DUKE. Artistic conflicts simmered underneath the success however, and the partnership, which nearly severed over a financial dispute known as "the carpet quarrel" at the time of THE GONDOLIERS, came to an end following the disappointing run of THE GRAND DUKE in 1896.
In his later years, Sullivan, who had been knighted in 1883, fulfilled his ambition of writing "serious" music by composing, among other works, the grand opera IVANHOE; he is known also as the composer of "The Lost Chord" and "Onward Christian Soldiers." Sullivan died of heart failure on November 22, 1900, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.
Gilbert, who continued to write prodigiously until his death, was knighted by Edward VII in 1907. He drowned while attempting to rescue a young swimmer in the lake on his estate, Grim's Dyke in Harrow Weald, on May 29, 1911.
A memorial to Sullivan stands in the Embankment Gardens directly behind the Savoy Hotel; Gilbert's memorial, a medallion, is set into the south wall of the Victoria Embankment adjacent to the Hungerford Bridge. As for their most lasting legacy, the Savoy Operas, under the tutelage of the D'Oyly Carte family performances of the operas metamorphosed from sporadic revivals into a well-drilled repertory that became the hallmark of the internationally renowned D'Oyly Carte Opera Company until 1981. Today, well into their second century, the "innocent merriment" of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas continues to flourish throughout the English-speaking world.