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15-Minute Music Lesson about Gilbert and Sullivan

Enjoy today’s 15-Minute Music Lesson about Gilbert and Sullivan. The lesson today is an excerpt from the full 36-lesson course at called: Music Appreciation of the Romantic Era for High School. A longer lesson, online quiz, and notebooking pages are included there.

15-Minute Music Lesson about Gilbert and Sullivan, composers of operettas, from Music in Our Homeschool

Gilbert and Sullivan

Sir William S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) were Englishmen who collaborated for 20 years on 14 comic operas, also called operettas. Gilbert was the humorist who wrote the libretto (words), and Sullivan wrote the music. They weren’t really friends and did a lot of their work by correspondence. What they had in common was their humor, their hard work, and their dedication to high quality on the stage. Gilbert and Sullivan became very successful and wealthy.


Their operettas were extremely popular when written and are still popular and performed today. We can see now that they were a transition from the grand operas of the past (think Mozart and Rossini) to the modern musical (think Rogers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber). Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas were comical with light-hearted songs and had spoken dialogue rather than recitative (speech-singing).

H.M.S. Pinafore

H.M.S. Pinafore opened in London in 1878. It was their first big “hit” and became as popular in America as it was in England. The story is common to several other Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The two young people who fall in love are thwarted since her father is expecting her to marry someone else. The setting is on the ship the H.M.S. Pinafore. See if you can recognize the satire in the performances below that Gilbert and Sullivan loved to make on British society, government, fashions, and art.

The Pirates of Penzance

The Pirates of Penzance premiered in New York City in 1879 and in London in 1880. It tells the story of Frederic who has been an apprentice to a band of pirates. He has finally reached the age of 21 and is now able to leave them. Even though the pirates are softhearted and never attack orphans, he doesn’t like their pirate crimes and tells them he plans to destroy them. They land on shore, and Frederic sees young ladies for the first time, a group of sisters. He falls in love with Mabel. The pirates come to take the girls, but their father sings a song about being a “Modern Major General.” He tells the pirates he is an orphan, so they leave. Further complications arise when Frederic realizes that since he was born on February 29, he hasn’t had 21 birthdays and is still bound in contract to stay with the pirates and serve them. Furthermore, the pirates find out that the Major General isn’t really an orphan after all.

In 1982, The Pirates of Penzance was performed on Broadway with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt in the lead roles. They also made a movie of it in 1983, which I would recommend watching. (Check your library or streaming service.)

Here are some scenes from The Pirates of Penzance:


Sir Arthur Sullivan also wrote the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”:

Quote by Sir Arthur Sullivan

“I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiment. Astonished at the wonderful form you have developed and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music will be put on record for ever.” –Arthur Sullivan [in 1888 to Thomas Alva Edison referring to his invention of the phonograph]

Download a free 3-page Printable Pack to use with this 15-Minute Music Lesson:


Composer Sheet, Listen and Write (Tempo, Mood, Like it?, and Instruments/Voices), and Listen and Draw

Related Content:

If you enjoyed this 15-Minute Music Lesson about Gilbert and Sullivan, you’ll love the online courses at 15-Minute Music Lessons for Elementary and 20th Century Music Appreciation.

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  1. Thanks so much for this. I wish I had this before our recent trip to see the Pirates of Penzance! What I thought would be a great way to introduce the kids to opera left them a bit perplexed when they could not hear the lyrics properly. A bit more intro would have been handy. They really enjoyed revisitng it this morning however. I will add that I made one small change. I added Tom Lehrer’s The Elements Song at the end. The kids loved this and have added it to their favourites list. We have not studied the elements yet, but it will be even more useful if they have heard of some of them.

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