Biography of Arthur Sullivan

Photo of 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 is promoted to the rank of First Boy in the Chapel Royal Choir.

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

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

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

1866: The premieres of the Irish Symphony and the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra are performed. He writes the Overture in C In “Memoriam” shortly after the death of his father. He composes the music for the comic opera “Cox and Box” with a libretto by F.C. Burnand. This was originally written for a private performance.

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

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

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

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

1872: He composes his Te Deum and writes the music to the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

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

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

1875: The first performance of “Trial by Jury” is given.

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

1877: First performance of “The Sorcerer”. Sullivan wote many popular songs and perhaps the best-known “The Lost Chord” is 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: On the 10th October Richard D’Oyly Carte opens the Savoy Theatre which was to make the joint works of Gilbert and Sullivan famous. the first performance of “Patience”, a satire about Oscar Wilde and his circle is given. 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 composes 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 quarrels with Gilbert supposedly about the style of carpet in the Savoy Theatre.

1891: Sullivan composes a serious opera “Ivanhoe”. He also writes many ballads and hymn tunes. His most famous song cycles were “Orpheus with his Lute” and “The Lost Chord”.

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

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

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

1896: First performance of “The Grand Duke”.

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

1899: Composition of “The Rose of Persia” with a 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 of heart failure, following an attack of bronchitis.

Age at Death:



Sullivan had liaisons with many women but never married. In 1896, aged 54 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).

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