Biography of Arthur Sullivan

Arthur Sullivan

Sir Arthur Sullivan was a Victorian composer of classical music as well as a collaborator with W.S. Gilbert on operettas.

When and Where was he born?

13th May 1842, London, England. Christened Arthur Seymour Sullivan.

Family Background:

Arthur Sullivan was the second son of Thomas Sullivan, a sergeant bandmaster at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and Professor of Clarinet at the Royal Military School of Music and Mary Clementina Sullivan Coghlan.


He studied music under William Sterndale Bennett at the Royal Academy of Music, London after winning a Mendelssohn Scholarship and at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Germany.

Timeline of Sir Arthur Sullivan:

1856: Sullivan was promoted to the rank of First Boy in the Chapel Royal Choir.

1861: He returned to London after his studies in Leipzig. (15th April) His orchestral suite “The Tempest” was first performed at the Crystal Palace. Began composing the first of his seventy two hymns whilst he was a church organist.

1863: Sullivan worked as organist for two institutions including St. Michael’s Church in London. Composed the Symphony in E major ‘Irish’. His first attempt at an Opera collaboration was with Henry F Chorley on the “Sapphire Necklace”.

1864: He composed his first ballet entitled “L’Île Enchantée” while he was organist at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The “Mask at Kenilworth was composed for the Birmingham Festival.

1866: Premiere of the Irish Symphony and the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. He wrote the Overture in C In “Memoriam” shortly after the death of his father. He composed the music for the comic opera “Cox and Box”, libretto by F.C. Burnand. This was originally written for a private performance.

1867: He composed the two act opera “The Contrabandista”.

1869: Sullivan met W.S Gilbert for the first time. He was introduced to him by his lifelong friend Frederic Clay at a rehearsal for “Ages Ago”, an operetta with music by Clay. He wrote the Oratorio “The Prodigal Son” for the Three Choirs Festival.

1870: The “Overture di Ballo” was written for the Birmingham Festival and became one of his most popular orchestral works.

1871: Sullivan became the first Principal of the National Training College, which was later to become the Royal College of Music. Creation of “Thespis” or “The Gods Grown Old” The first collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan. He composed the incidental music for “The Merchant of Venice” for the Prince’s Theatre Manchester.

1872: He composed his Te Deum and wrote the music to the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”

1873: He composed the Oratorio “The Light of the World” for the Birmingham Festival.

1874: He composed the incidental music to a performance of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Gaiety Theatre, London.

1875: First performance of “Trial by Jury”.

1876: Richard D’Oyly Carte formed his comic opera company.

1877: First performance of “The Sorcerer”. Sullivan wrote many popular songs and the best-known “The Lost Chord” was written in this year.

1878: First performance of HMS Pinafore.

1879: First performance of “The Pirates of Penzance” in Paignton and later in New York.

Arthur Sullivan Statue
Statue to Arthur Sullivan in Victoria Embankment Gardens, London (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1880: First performance of “The Pirates of Penzance” in London.

1881: Opening of the Savoy Theatre on 10th October by Richard D’Oyly Carte which was to make the joint works of Gilbert and Sullivan famous. First performance of “Patience”, a satire about Oscar Wilde and his circle. This work transferred from the Opera Comique to the Savoy.

1882: First performance of “Iolanthe”.

1883: Sullivan is knighted.

1885: First performance of “The Mikado”.

1886: He composed his most important Cantata “The Golden Legend”.

1887: First performance of “Ruddigore”.

1888: First performance of “The Yeomen of the Guard”.

1889: First performance of “The Gondoliers”.

1890: He quarreled with Gilbert supposedly about the style of carpet in the Savoy Theatre.

1891: Sullivan composed a serious opera “Ivanhoe”. He also wrote many ballads and hymn tunes. His most famous song cycles were “Orpheus with his Lute” and “The Lost Chord”. His most famous hymn tune was “Onward Christian Soldiers.

1892: He composed “Haddon Hall” with libretto by Sydney Grundy.

1893: First performance of “Utopia Limited”. The rift between Gilbert and Sullivan was temporarily halted.

1895: He composed “The Chieftain” with libretto by Burnand.

1896: First performance of “The Grand Duke”.

1898: He composed “The Beauty Stone with libretto by Comyn Carr.

1899: Composition of “The Rose of Persia” with libretto by Basil Hood. His last years were spent in obscurity in much pain which even morphine couldn’t relieve.

(1901): Edward German completes Sullivan’s work “The Emerald Isle”.

When and Where did he Die?

22nd November 1900, London, England.

Age at Death:



Sullivan had liaisons with many women but never married. In 1896, he proposed to Violet Beddington then 20, but she tuned him down.

Site of Grave:

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England.

Arthur Sullivan's Grave
Grave of Sir Arthur Sullivan, 
Crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral London (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Places of Interest:


The Assembly Rooms.


The Royal Academy of Music.
The Savoy Theatre, The Strand. (Next to the Savoy Hotel which was built later).