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GILBERT & SULLIVAN : Musical Masons

Of the 14 Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas only one has allusions to Freemasonry – an amusing parody in the opening act to The Grand Duke, first performed in March 1896.

The scene is set in 1750 in the marketplace at Speisesaal in the Grand Duchy of Pfennig Halbpfennig. Members of a theatrical company, of which Ernest Dummkopf is the manager, are celebrating the forthcoming marriage of Lisa to Ludwig.

Several complications come to light. There appears to be a conspiracy to depose the Grand Duke and put Ernest Dummkopf in his place. Those involved with the conspiracy have a secret sign…..


      OLGA.  Well, we shall soon be freed from his tyranny. To-morrow

the Despot is to be dethroned!

      LUDWIG.  Hush, rash girl!  You know not what you say.

      OLGA.  Don't be absurd!  We're all in it--we're all tiled, here.

      LUDWIG. That has nothing to do with it.  Know ye not that in

alluding to our conspiracy without having first given and

received the secret sign, you are violating a fundamental

principle of our Association?


            By the mystic regulation

            Of our dark Association,

            Ere you open conversation

            With another kindred soul,

            You must eat a sausage-roll! (Producing one.)


    ALL SING.   You must eat a sausage-roll!


    LUDWIG :  If, in turn, he eats another,

                       That's a sign that he's a brother--

                           Each may fully trust the other.

                       It is quaint and it is droll,

                       But it's bilious on the whole.


    ALL.           Very bilious on the whole.


The parody on the ritual continues with the members of the company in conversation:


      MARTHA.   Oh, bother the secret sign!  I've eaten it until I'm quite

                uncomfortable! I've given it six times already to-day--and

              ( whimpering) I can't eat any breakfast!

      BERTHA.   And it's so unwholesome.  Why, we should all be as yellow

                         as frogs if it wasn't for the make-up!

      LUDWIG.  All this is rank treason to the cause.  I suffer as much as

                         any of  you.  I loathe the repulsive thing--I can't      

                         contemplate it without a shudder--but I'm a conscientious

                         conspirator, and

                         if you won't give the sign I will.

                        (Eats sausage-roll with an effort.)

      LISA.         Poor martyr!  He's always at it, and it's a wonder where 

                        he puts it!


William S Gilbert, the lyricist, dramatist and critic and Arthur Sullivan, a musicalal child prodigy, composer and conductor, had enjoyed separate successful careers before they first teamed in 1871 to produce the burlesque Thespis or The Gods Grown Old.

Their Masonic careers had a parallel development. They were made Freemasons separately and unaware of each other’s pending interest in the Craft when they were introduced in 1868 by Frederic Clay (1838-1889) the English singer and composer, who had been initiated with Sullivan in 1865. After meeting as fellow Masons, however, they jointly progressed and enjoyed several degrees beyond the Craft.

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was born in the Strand in London on 18 November 1836 and died 29 May 1911 (while attempting to save what he thought to be a drowning adolescent), having established himself as England’s leading playwright, critic, humorist and satirist.

He had early ambitions to become a lawyer, and was a Justice of the Peace in Middlesex in 1891. He was the son of a retired naval surgeon, and his otherwise ordinary youth was sensationally interrupted when he was two - he was kidnapped by Italian brigands


As a young man he chose to join the militia in the first half of 1850, but was too late to serve actively in the Crimean war, which had ended by 1855.

He received his BA degree from King's College, London and after a five-year spell from 1857 as a clerk in the Privy Council Office, he took up law and was called to the bar in 1864.

It may have been his self-admitted failure as a barrister that led to his change of career. He started writing under the name of Bab, with anecdotal stories in various satirical magazines including Punch and Fun in the 1860s and Bab Ballads, his collected works, were published in 1869.

By now his first successful drama, the burlesque Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack (1866) had already concluded its run, and his second equally successful play, The Palace of Truth (1870), was about to hit the London theatrical scene.

In 1907 Edward VII knighted him. Notwithstanding his many personal achievements, William Gilbert remains most famous for his collaboration with Arthur Sullivan, in which his very special skills found their ideal vehicle. The comic opera is a genre which Gilbert and Sullivan elevated into an art form all of its own.

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born in Lambeth, London in 1842 to a very musical family. His father was a bandmaster at the Royal Military College, and young Arthur had mastered all of the wind instruments in his father’s band before the age of 10.

By then he had already composed his own anthem, and at 14 he was the youngest participant for the first Mendelssohn Scholarship competition, which he won.

He also won various scholarships to study abroad and following the Royal Academy of Music, he studied in Leipzig, Germany where he performed his final thesis in the presence of Franz Liszt.

Whilst still in Leipzig he composed the orchestral suite to Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1861. The second performance took place on 15 April 1862 at the Crystal Palace and earned him huge acclaim.

Arthur Sullivan was now a qualified Professor of Music and spent the next decade teaching. He was regarded as the leading composer of the day, with influential friends in every circle of society and patronised by European Royalty.

Sullivan's first venture into comic opera was in 1867, with the writer F C Burnand. Together they produced Cox and Box and The Contrabandista. 

He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1883. Later in his life he spent his time in Monaco, gambling and drinking. He was also a heavy smoker.

At best he lived richly and fully, at worst he ended his life miserably and alone. From 1872 he had suffered continuous bad health and died after a long illness on 22 November, 1900.

Although their first collaboration was a success, it was their partnership with the impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte that produced the numerous dazzling operas.

The first of the string of successes, which became known as the Savoy Operas, was Trial by Jury (1875), and the triumvirate continued to collaborate over the next 20 years. The partnership was not to dissolve until the unsuccessful and last play, The Grand Duke in 1896.

In the 1870s William Gilbert participated in manoeuvres in Scotland with the Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders, a sort of military reserve of which he was an officer, having been active for the best part of 20 years. 

It was here that he was initiated into Freemasonry in Lodge St Machar No. 54, Scottish Constitution, on 12 June 1871. This ancient Lodge was constituted in March 1753 and named after a companion of St Columba of Iona, who founded a church in 589 AD, still on the site in Aberdeen.

His interest in Freemasonry continued on his return to London when, in June 1876 he became a member of Bayard Lodge No. 1615, meeting in Duke Street.

Owing to an indexing error, William Gilbert has been confused with a W B Gilbert who, in February 1868, joined Harmony Lodge No. 272 in Boston, Lincolnshire, became the organist and subsequently set Bro Walter Clegg’s words of the opening and closing odes to music.

The error has emanated from the Lodge minutes of 8 June 1869 which record:

“a vote of thanks to Bro Gilbert for the singularly able manner in which he has composed the tunes for the lodge hymns”.

Arthur Sullivan took his first degree in Harmony Lodge No. 255 on 11 April 1865, then meeting at the Greyhound Inn, Richmond, Middlesex. His friend Frederic Clay, the man that was to be instrumental in bringing about the Gilbert-Sullivan duo, was initiated with him.

Although Arthur Sullivan limited his Lodge duties to becoming the organist for a few years and took no other office in Lodge or the Province, he was honoured as the Grand Organist of the United Grand Lodge of England for the year 1887.

In January 1896 Sullivan joined the United Studholme Alliance Lodge No. 1591. He also gave his name to the Arthur Sullivan Lodge No. 2156, consecrated on 28 June 1886. The Lodge still meets in Manchester.

Sullivan, in accepting to have his name used also justified his absence, and his future intentions, in his letter of 15th March, to the Senior Warden designate Bro A H Williams:

‘. . . it is of course thoroughly understood that, in giving my name to the proposed Masonic Lodge, I am incurring no duties and responsibilities, and that my personal attendance is not expected.’

He never attended the Lodge.

Gilbert and Sullivan progressed through the Royal Arch and the Ancient and accepted Rite (Rose Croix) more or less simultaneously. They were both exalted into the now defunct Friends in Council Chapter No. 1383 in February and July 1877 respectively.

Gilbert preceded Sullivan in the Rose Croix, being perfected in the Bayard Chapter No. 71 in 1876. Sullivan followed suit in 1878 and they both resigned a few years later. Sullivan also resigned from the Chapter just five years after his exaltation, whilst Gilbert was still a member at the time of his death in 1911.

As one reads through their respective biographies, the differences in their nature become more and more apparent.

Sullivan, whose dying years were a reflection on his life style, was a likeable and gentle soul, more serious and very much a part of the establishment. Freemasonry suited him.

Gilbert on the other hand was sarcastic and well known for his caustic wit, inclined toward mockery and more critical of his surroundings and fellow musicians.

By 1896 their continuous arguments extended over important as well as trivial matters. Sullivan insulted Gilbert by stating that he could no longer produce light comic opera at the expense of his creative integrity.

Gilbert refused to comply with the request to write a more serious opera as he did not see himself subordinate to Sullivan, but rather equally brilliant.

It was Gilbert who finally ended the partnership in 1898, the year of the production of their last and least successful play, in which the Masonic allusions are made. It has been suggested that The Grand Duke was excessively long because the author and composer were no longer speaking to each other.

It is sad that their lives ended with animosity, and it is an equally consoling thought that in their joint Masonic activities, in the peaceful ambiance of a Lodge room where they sat together, they would have had occasion to enjoy that perennial Masonic message of true brotherly love and charity.





Draffen George, William S. Gilbert (AQC 66, 1953)

Dark Sidney and Grey Roland, S. Gilbert: His Life and Letters (London, 1924).