Arthur Sullivan Biography

Arthur Sullivan was a great English music composer. Read this biography to learn about the profile, childhood, life and timeline of this famous musician.

Arthur Sullivan

Quick Facts

Also known as: Arthur Seymour Sullivan (English)
Gender: Male
Birthday: 13 May 1842
Died: 22 November 1900
Nationality: British
Sun Sign: Taurus
Education: Royal Academy of Music, University of Music and Theatre Leipzig
Awards: Knight of the Legion of Honour, Mendelssohn Scholarship, Member of the Royal Victorian Order, Knight Bachelor

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan was an English composer of Irish-Italian ancestry. His operatic collaboration with 14 operas made him popular across the globe. He had composed many interesting works and operas in collaboration with Gilbert. Sullivan was recognized as the most talented young composer of England. His works were noted for its magical music and appealing libretto. He was a man who enjoyed parties and get together with singers and actors. Sullivan’s comical operas were appealing to both layman and professionals and this was the reason behind the huge success of his works. Sullivan’s compositions were based on classical style and he was not much interested in the contemporary style of composition. Sullivan was highly devoted to his parents, especially, to his mother. He never got married in his life but, had relationships with several women. Read on to know more about the life and success story of this great musician.

Early Life

Sullivan was born on 13th May 1842 in Lambeth, London. His father Thomas Sullivan was a clarinetist, band master and a military band master. His mother Mary Clementina was of Irish-Italian descent. He had a brother named Fred. Being born to a musical family, young Sullivan was very much acquainted with many musical instruments and composed an anthem “By the waters of Babylon” at the age of eight. Sullivan’s father did not agree with Sullivan’s decision to pursue a musical career because he knew the insecurity and disappointments of this profession. But deeply passionate about music and naturally endowed, Sullivan could not stay away from music for a long time. At the age of 11, while he was a student at a private school in Bayswater, Sullivan gained admission to the choir of the Chapel Royal as a soloist and later, in 1856, got promoted as “first boy”. Sullivan learned under the master of the choirs Reverend Thomas Helmore and began composing songs and anthems. Helmore was highly supportive and helped him by arranging one of his pieces, “O Israel”. This work got published in 1855 and was Sullivan’s first published work.
In 1856, at the age of 14, Sullivan received Mendelssohn Scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music and consequently, got a year’s training in the Academy. While Sullivan continued with his solo performances with Chapel Royal, his scholarship got extended to second year and even to third year and during the third year he was able to study in Leipizig Conservatoire. There Sullivan received lessons on composition from Julius Rietz, piano with Louis Plaidy and Iganz Moscheles and counterpoint with Moritz Hauptmann. Also, he got to learn various styles of music like Verdi, Wanger, Schubert and Bach. His graduation piece was an incidental music for Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. After returning to England in 1862, he gave a performance in the Crystal Palace and that was a huge success. Thus he started building reputation as the most promising young composer of England.

Career And Success

After returning to England he started composing more frequently, which provided him with enough financial support. Along with composing music, he worked as a church organist for additional income. In 1863, Sullivan got a chance to compose several pieces for the wedding of the Prince of Wales and he got royalty for these compositions. He then Joined Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and composed “L’lle Enchantee” and his first opera while at here.
The Overture di Ballo was Sullivan’s most successful orchestral work. This work was composed for the Birmingham Festival in 1870 and was a grand success. 1971 was a busy year for Sullivan, composing many works in succession, notably the series of incidental music for the Shakespeare plays by West End Theatre. In the same year he composed a dramatic cantata, ‘On shore and Sea’, which was performed in the opening of the London International Exhibition. Other major works during 1871 were Hymn Onward and Christian Soldiers. The Salvation Army adopted Christian soldiers and made its processional hymn and thus, it became the most enduring hymn by him. In 1871 Sullivan collaborated with W.S Gilbert for the first time for the burlesque-style comic opera Thespis. This was the starting of a long-lasted relationship.
Sullivan was commissioned to write a sacred choral work ‘Martyr of Antioch’ for which he selected Henry Hart Milman’s dramatic poem based on the life and death of Saint Margaret the Virgin with the help of Gilbert, who helped Sullivan by abridging, rearranging section, reassigning lines and adding some lines of his own. The Martyr of Antioch received an excited reception and an exited Sullivan presented Gilbert with a silver cup with an inscription “W.S Gilbert from his friend Arthur Sullivan”.
Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria on 22nd May 1883. Sullivan composed a cantata for the Leeds festival 1886 based on Longfellow’s poem, the Golden legend and kept the same name for the work. This was Sullivan’s best-received full length work apart from comic operas.
The year 1890 witnessed the dissolution of the warm friendship bond between Sullivan and Gilbert. Sullivan regretted the relationship being allowed to end abruptly and tried to reconcile with him. Gilbert and Sullivan reunited once again and together they worked for ‘The grand Duke’ which was also a failure. This was the end of their partnership as they never worked together again.

Personal Life

Sullivan had serious love affairs with many women but, never got married in his life. His first relationship was with Rachel Scott Russell. This relationship came to an end as Sullivan started a simultaneous relationship with Rachel’s sister Louise. However, his relationship with Louise also ended in early 1869. Sullivan met Mary Frances (Fanny) Ronalds in Paris in 1867 and this relationship lasted for long time and was the longest affair in his life. Fanny was three years elder to him and had two children. Sullivan regarded her as the best amateur singer in London. This relationship had ups and downs but it continued until his death, even though they were never married. There are references of some other women in his diary, indicated by her initials and hence, unidentified. Sullivan had proposed to a 20 year-old lady named Violet Beddington but she refused the proposal.
Sullivan’s brother Fred died at an early age of 39, leaving behind his pregnant wife and seven children. Sullivan visited Fred’s family very often and became guardian to his children. Charlotte, Fred’s wife migrated to Los Angeles leaving their oldest child Bertie with Sullivan. Charlotte died a year after she shifted to Los Angeles, leaving her children to her brother. Sullivan took care of children, their education, marriage and other financial needs. Bertie, however, stayed with his uncle for the rest of his life.


Sullivan had suffered from recurring kidney diseases and in 1880s he started conducting by sitting in a place. Sullivan then suffered from bronchitis and died on 22nd November 1900 following a heart attack. Sulliven wanted his body to be buried in Brompton Cemetary where his parents and brother were buried. But, he was entombed in St. Paul’s Cathedral by the order of the Queen. A monument with weeping muse was erected in his memory in the Victoria Embarkment Gardens, London.

Awards and Recognitions

Doctor in Music, honoris causa, by the Universities of Cambridge, 1876
Chevalier, Légion d'honneur, France, 1878
Doctor in Music by the University of Oxford 1879
Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria, 1883
The Order of the Medjidieh, by the Sultan of Turkey, 1888
Member of the Fourth Class of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO), 1897


Cox and Box, 1866
The Contrabandista, 1867
Thespis, 1871

Incidental music to plays

The Tempest, 1861
The Merchant of Venice, 1871
The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1874

Other Works

Songs and Parlour Ballads
Part Songs
Church Music
Orchestral Works
Ballets And Song Cycle


1842: Sullivan was born on 13th May in Lambeth, London.
1862: Sullivan gave a performance in the Crystal Palace, which was a huge success.
1863: Sullivan composed several pieces for the wedding of the Prince of Wales and he got royalty for these compositions.
1864: Sullivan joined Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.
1871: Sullivan collaborated with W.S Gilbert for the first time for the burlesque-style comic opera.
1876: Sullivan was awarded Doctor in Music, honoris causa, by the Universities of Cambridge.
1878: Sullivan was awarded Chevalier, Légion d'honneur, France.
1879: Sullivan was awarded Doctor in Music by the University of Oxford.
1883: Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria on 22nd May
1888: Sullivan received The Order of the Medjidieh, by the Sultan of Turkey
1897: Sullivan became the member of the Fourth Class of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO).
1900: Sullivan died on 22nd November.

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Arthur Sullivan Biography

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Last Updated

June 05, 2019

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