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
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
to our conspiracy without having first given and
the secret sign, you are violating a fundamental
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.)
SING. You must eat a
: If, in turn, he eats another,
That's a sign that he's a brother--
Each may fully trust the other.
is quaint and it is droll,
But it's bilious on the whole.
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
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 frogs if it wasn't for the make-up!
LUDWIG. All this is rank
treason to the cause. I suffer as
any of you.
I loathe the repulsive thing--I can't
contemplate it without a shudder--but I'm a conscientious
if you won't give the sign I will.
(Eats sausage-roll with an effort.)
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
Sullivan's first venture into comic opera was in 1867,
with the writer F C Burnand. Together they produced Cox and Box and The
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
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
Gilbert refused to comply with the request to write a
more serious opera as he did not see himself subordinate to Sullivan, but rather
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
Draffen George, William S. Gilbert (AQC 66,
Dark Sidney and Grey Roland, S. Gilbert: His Life
and Letters (London, 1924).