25 best Gilbert and Sullivan songs of all time

Daniel Jaffé counts down his top 25 Gilbert and Sullivan songs of all time, but do you agree with his choices - or has he missed your favourite?

Best Gilbert and Sullivan songs
Published: May 13, 2022 at 2:04 pm

Yes we're talking the best Gilbert and Sullivan songs, moments and highlights - not just solo numbers – and you won’t even find them all here. Why not? First, limiting the number to 25 forces one to really consider which are arguably the very best to make the cut (believe me, a lot of personal favourites fell by the wayside with such a stringent limitation).

Advertisement

And then, quite simply, it’s impossible to do justice to Gilbert and Sullivan and the shows without including some of the most glorious moments involving the chorus: they may be singing an anthem (‘For he is an Englishman’ from HMS Pinafore is just one of the most famous – check our list for some more), or one of Sullivan’s cunningly crafted double choruses (in which two apparently distinct choruses are then performed simultaneously to glorious effect). Then again, the lead characters, as well as singing songs, often sing duets – sometimes intimate and touching, but often lively and mischievous; and then there are those sometimes quite intricate ensembles, involving three or more characters, which range from fiery to reflective.

So, here in ascending order is a list of (at least many of) the very best moments in Gilbert and Sullivan, whether they are ‘songs’ or otherwise…

Which are the best Gilbert and Sullivan songs ever?

25 Ruddigore (1887): ‘Welcome gentry’

Written following the success of The Mikado and first staged in 1887 as Ruddygore (the spelling subsequently changed to appease Victorian sensitivities), in this show we see a good deal of the (intentionally) irritating bridal chorus before, a good half hour into the show, the gentlemen of the chorus finally make their appearance. They are ‘bucks and blades’ (as described in the libretto) from the city visiting the village of Rederring to have a bit of pleasure with its fresh-faced local beauties. Here is a very fine example of a double chorus, in which the women’s chorus – beguiling, swooning and yearning all at once – is contrasted with the swaggering ‘gentlemen’ singing ‘When thoroughly tired of being admired’, their affected urbanity giving way in their final beguiling line: ‘your slaves for the moment are we’.

24 The Mikado (1885): ‘The sun whose rays are all ablaze’

For many G&S fans, Yum-Yum’s big solo number is the lyrical highlight of The Mikado, the creative duo’s most popular show; for some listeners, though, it is just too sickly and sentimental. Yet, as Yum-Yum’s preamble makes clear, it’s a song by a young lady who quite unashamedly glories in her own beauty. While her very un-English – and, indeed, hardly typically Japanese – lack of modesty would have appeared comical to Gilbert and Sullivan’s audience (indeed, the English continued to find this quality amusing in Agatha Christie’s Poirot, for instance), Sullivan responds with a melody which is both artful yet – to those who respond to it – guilelessly lovely. In the 1920s, music professor Percy Buck evidently felt this: ‘The writing of a learned eight-part fugue is within the power of any musician who cares to waste his time in learning how to do it; but if he tries to reset the words, “The sun whose rays are all ablaze” and then compares his music to Sullivan’s, he will have no doubts as to which is the more serious task.’

23 The Mikado: ‘I am so proud’

And just in case anyone is beginning to think contrapuntal dexterity was beyond Sullivan’s armoury, here is one of his most virtuoso demonstrations, not simply combining two contrasting choruses (as in ‘Welcome gentry’), but presenting three characters singing in utterly different styles – appropriate to their individual temperaments – and then having them sing together so their parts create a coherent piece of music. (Benjamin Britten – though he blew hot and cold over Gilbert and Sullivan – pulled off a similar trick some 74 years later with his Fanfare for St Edmundsbury for three trumpets.) The coda is also much celebrated for its rattling alliterations, not least the still much-quoted ‘short, sharp shock’.

22 Patience (1881): ‘So go to him and say to him’

Although Gilbert and Sullivan relied on a core of proficient and sometimes superb singers, some of their regulars were far more noted for their abilities as comic actors. George Grossmith, who was also co-author of The Diary of a Nobody, was one of these, and this comic duet was written for him and the formidably substantial contralto Alice Barnett – who made her name creating several of Gilbert’s formidable middle-aged women such as Ruth in Pirates of Penzance and the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe. Sullivan’s playful music is a perfect setting of Gilbert’s punchy lyrics.

Daniel also named Patience the best Gilbert and Sullivan opera ever

21 The Grand Duke (1896): ‘Take my advice’

Here is a gem of a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s final show, much overlooked since The Grand Duke is overall one of the most convoluted, bewildering and least engaging of Gilbert’s plots. The flashy and extravagant Prince of Monte Carlo, though, is quite unlike the usual run of G&S anti-heroes, his belated first appearance in Act II scarcely prepared for by any of the preceding action. Having just invented the game of roulette, the Prince with Mephistophelean relish extols its merits to those heavily in debt, as Sullivan’s skipping music suggests both the character’s exuberance and the dance of the ball on the spinning roulette.

20 The Pirates of Penzance (1879): ‘Away, away, my heart’s on fire!’

In this fiery trio, Frederic (the romantic tenor hero), the Pirate King, and Ruth (Frederic’s one time nurse and now part of the pirate band) react to the revelation of the Major-General’s ‘traitorous’ deception – to avoid being killed, he pretended to be an orphan, the Pirates of Penzance being renowned for their mercy to such unfortunates. While the King and Ruth vow to kill the Major-General, Frederic is appalled that his sense of duty has forced him to reveal this deception. The result is one of Sullivan’s pithiest ensembles, the music urgent and driven (though many productions cannot resist adding visual gags involving the Pirate King and Ruth).

19 Patience: ‘I hear the soft note’

Patience is on the surface a comedy involving two absurdly pretentious poets who vie for the adoring attentions of ‘the young ladies’. Yet Sullivan’s music in particular expresses longing and often forlorn hope through much of its length. All the more touching, then, is the score’s one moment of unadulterated calm: the sextet ‘I hear the soft note’. This is sung in the final scene of Act I by three Dragoon officers reunited with their fiancées (subsequently joined by the chorus), who together swear ‘never, oh never, our hearts will range / From that old, old love again!’ Such is the heartfelt, touching simplicity of their music, that we are all the more appalled and amused when at the next moment Grosvenor, a vision of youthful male beauty and a self-declared poet, makes his first appearance, and the ladies instantly distracted from the men to whom they have just declared undying love, abandoning their beaus for their new idol.

18 HMS Pinafore (1878): ‘He is an Englishman’

This perhaps most famous of G&S anthems (helped, no doubt, by being featured in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire) was the last in which Gilbert and Sullivan indulged in more-or-less straight patriotism. HMS Pinafore was written in 1878 just as the British prime minister, Disraeli, was meeting apparent Russian threat by dispatching the British fleet to Constantinople and so was written on a wave of patriotism which had swept the country. In the show, the song is sung in praise of the ordinary seaman, Ralph Rackstraw, who aspires to marry the captain’s daughter (which leads to Captain Corcoran to blurt in outrage – to the horror of all present – ‘Why, damme, it’s too bad!’). Gilbert would never essay such straightforward patriotism again, and starting with HMS Pinafore’s sequel, The Pirates of Penzance, he offered increasingly ludicrous representations of monarchist sentiment and patriotic fealty.

17 HMS Pinafore: ‘A British tar’

Almost as famous as ‘He is an Englishman’ is the glee supposedly composed by Captain Corcoran, sung by his loyal crew in Act I of the operetta. Its opening lines, ‘A British tar is a soaring soul, As free as a mountain bird, His energetic fist should be ready to resist A dictatorial word’ are sung by Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark; a great deal more is sung by Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: Insurrection. Sullivan’s setting, sung with vigour, is highly effective and almost makes one overlook Gilbert’s deliberately OTT portrayal of the good British tar.

16 The Pirates of Penzance: ‘Hail Poetry’

‘For what, we ask, is life without a touch of poetry in it?’ asks the Pirate King in preface to this a cappella choral paean to either poetry or to finer feeling – take your pick. Either way, Sullivan provides a noble and stirring anthem-like moment which perhaps gently sends up a pirate’s pretensions to be civilised, but actually succeeds in making the sentiment appear sincere and one of the finer qualities that binds humanity.

15 Ruddigore: Duo: ‘You understand? I think I do’

Here is an even pithier number, whose light-heartedness is all the more striking in the show after the melodramatics of Sir Despard, heir to the terrible family curse since the apparent death of his elder brother, Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd. Ruthven’s long-standing but not-so-loyal friend, Richard Dauntless, has just revealed to Sir Despard that his brother has in fact faked his own death to escape the family curse, and now, living incognito as a young farmer Robin, is about to wed local beauty, Rose Maybud (whom Richard covets – hence his act of betrayal). One may feel in this frolicsome number – light and contagious in its excitement – both Sir Despard’s relief that he is about to lose the curse, and the treacherous Richard’s excitement at the prospect of taking Rose from ‘Robin’.

14 Patience: ‘Silvered is the raven hair’

Gilbert’s humour was particularly cruel when it came to women well past their youthful prime –Trial by Jury includes the infamous lines in the Judge’s Song: ‘She may very well pass for forty-three/In the dusk, with a light behind her!’ Gilbert exceeded even this in the lyrics to this song, sung near the start of Act II of Patience by Lady Jane, the one remaining fan of the poet Reginald Bunthorne. (Her loyalty proves to be a mere chimera – the moment the Duke of Dunstable in an act of ‘common fairness’ proposes to her, Jane instantly throws herself into the Duke’s arms.) She sings of herself: ‘Fading is the taper waist, Shapeless grows the shapely limb, And although severely laced, Spreading is the figure trim!’ Yet Sullivan setting of Gilbert’s lyrics is nobly stoic, with just the occasional passing cloud of chromaticism to suggest Jane’s forlorn state.

13 Patience: ‘A magnet hung in a hardware shop’

We now have a song from Bunthorne’s rival, the poet Grosvenor. From a not very promising lyric about a magnet attracting everything but what the poet desires – a silver churn (obviously a metaphor for the milkmaid Patience herself) – Sullivan spins a chirpy song (unusual for a baritone solo), with a particularly beguiling harmonic suspension at each verse’s closing sestet to suggest the magnet’s unfulfilled yearning. This is one of Grosvenor’s better efforts as a poet, most probably since the subject is very close to his heart – the magnet representing himself and his attractiveness drawing all ladies but the one he desires.

12 Princess Ida (1884): ‘The world is but a broken toy’

Rarely performed even in Gilbert and Sullivan’s time, Princess Ida is considered problematic today partly because of its lop-sided three-act structure, but mostly since Gilbert’s satirical view of women’s education and intellectual abilities has dated badly. Yet it includes more than one leading tenor role, and in Ida herself perhaps the most splendid of all the female roles to be found in Gilbert and Sullivan: noble, impassioned, brave and articulate – all these qualities are brought out by Sullivan in her songs and two magnificent arias (‘I built upon a rock’, and the other – ranked higher in this list – we will come to anon). Ida’s bravery is apparent even when she is fearful, as is evident from the music while she tries to assure her captive brothers that King Hildebrand’s menacing threats to kill them are ‘idle as the wind’. In ‘The world is but a broken toy’ from earlier in the show, we find her confessing her dismay at the world as she finds it, ironically in the presence of men disguised (somewhat stretching the audience’s credulity) as new female students at her university.

11 The Pirates of Penzance: ‘Poor wandr’ing one’

Here is another splendid female lead, albeit one slightly absurd and treated by Sullivan with affectionate irony. ‘Poor wandr’ing one’, sung by one of the Major-General’s daughters, Mabel, really needs a fine soprano – very specifically, a coloratura – to do it full justice. On the face of it, her song is simply an admonishment to her sisters for refusing to take pity on a handsome pirate, Frederic, who wishes to renounce his profession and, let’s say, find salvation through love. But her aria’s slinky and seductive style, reinforced by its gemütlich-style orchestral accompaniment (clearly Sullivan’s years as a student in the Leipzig Conservatoire counted for a great deal), makes quite clear that she is very attracted to this young man, and is hypocritically representing her opportunism as a selfless good deed.

10 Iolanthe (1882): Trio ‘If you go in you’re sure to win’

Sullivan, as we have already seen with The Mikado, had a particular skill in writing ensemble music for three male principals. Here is a very different and exuberantly light-footed example, in which Lords Mountararat and Tolloller – who have decided their friendship is too important to let their feelings for fair Phyllis, ward to the Lord Chancellor, cause them to fall out – encourage the Lord Chancellor to propose to her instead.

9 The Pirates of Penzance: ‘With cat-like tread’

Gilbert headed his lyrics for this chorus with the instruction ‘very loud’ – perhaps having in mind something like the smugglers’ chorus in Bizet’s recently premiered Carmen, who rather loudly announce that ‘death is the penalty we incur’ should they be caught. Sullivan took the unsubtle hint, but at the same time furnished Gilbert’s words with one of his superb marches, a genre he had an affinity for from his father having been an army bandmaster. The melody is carried by the pirates, all (except the Pirate King) being tenors, while discreet accompaniment is provided by the policemen (basses) hiding on-stage until the time comes to…be defeated by the pirates.

8 The Yeomen of the Guard (1888): ‘When maiden loves she sits and sighs’

Here’s another overlooked gem, albeit in a fairly well-loved show. Its very opening number is not the usual introductory chorus, but an intimate scene involving one of the secondary characters, Phoebe, who while at her spinning wheel sings of her unrequited love (which we soon learn is for one of the prisoners held in the Tower of London). An obvious precedent for this is Schubert’s song ‘Gretchen at her spinning wheel’ – one that Sullivan, as a great admirer and champion of the Austrian composer, would have known well. Yet, although he uses the sound of the spinning wheel as an accompaniment to the song (deftly suggested by the string accompaniment), pausing whenever Phoebe pauses in her work, he avoids writing a pale imitation of Schubert’s song. Phoebe, we soon learn, is a strong-willed and even reckless woman, and so her melody here is gently wistful yet stoic. Altogether, a deft demonstration of Sullivan’s ability to sketch in a character in a short song.

7 Patience: ‘If you want a receipt for that popular mystery’

This swaggering song is so infectiously tuneful and has such a spring in its step that one could easily overlook the fact it is in fact a patter song – a genre made famous and even rather notorious by the much-parodied Song of the Major-General in Pirates of Penzance. Unlike that famous example – which, in fairness to Sullivan, was probably deliberately made flat-footed to reflect the Major-General’s obvious limitations – Colonel Calverley’s song in praise of the Dragoon Guards is absolutely confident, good-natured and charismatic. One can well understand how this gentleman and the men he commands might have won the hearts of the ladies they now intend to revisit while on leave.

6 Princess Ida: ‘Minerva!...Oh, goddess wise’

But here is a leader that reaches an even higher level of inspiration. With this aria in Act II (not even its opening number), we are finally introduced to the title character. Noble and measured, she seems all the more exalted after the squabbling we have witnessed in the previous act between her father, King Gama, and her would-be father-in-law King Hildebrand.

5 Pirates: ‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment’ (‘A policeman’s lot’)

Famous and much parodied, this remains a sure-fire hit with audiences. Times have changed, but we may still identify with poor provincial coppers in deepest rural Cornwall suddenly faced with a potentially more fatal prospect than dealing with petty criminals. Sullivan admitted he drew from personal experience when writing this solo with chorus, as he used to run a church choir in the West End of London; thanks to the enthusiastic support of the local Chief Superintendent, Sullivan was able to make up the bass and tenor sections with dedicated singers from the nearby Cottage Row Police Station.

4 Gondoliers: ‘Kind sir, you cannot have the heart’

In total contrast from lugubrious basses, here is a touching soprano aria in which Gianetta, newly wedded to Marco, pleads not to be separated from her husband. Like many composers, Sullivan had an abiding love for Mozart’s work; not only the song’s key (B flat major) but also its poignancy recalls the slow movement of the Austrian composer’s D minor Piano Concerto, also recalled by its very Mozartian use of woodwind colour. Sullivan’s exquisite pizzicato string accompaniment suggests the delicacy with which Gianetta tries to maintain her dignity. The music in its simplicity yet depth of feeling – its understated style heightening all the more the minor-key tint at the words ‘Cannot be separated’, soon followed by Gianetta’s touching ‘cry’ on a high A flat, suggesting her emotional anguish – gives tremendous pathos to her song.

3 Iolanthe: Chorus ‘Loudly let the trumpet bray’

And yet another change of mood, as we encounter what is surely Sullivan’s most magnificent march disguised as a chorus. This is the procession of Peers – though, despite their office, Gilbert has them singing words more worthy of Nigel Molesworth: ‘Tantantara! Tzing! Boom! Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes! Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses!’ Yet Sullivan dignifies their march with stirring music which elevates the whole scene to something which surely swelled the heart of every red-blooded Englishman of that time. The effect was all the more enhanced in D’Oyly Carte performances (the company which premiered all G&S shows) by the hiring of members of the band of The Grenadier Guards.

2 The Mikado: ‘A more humane Mikado’

This was the aria Gilbert almost axed from the show even before its opening night – only to relent when a delegation from the chorus begged him to keep it. Possibly he thought it too similar to the even more famous ‘Little List’ song heard earlier in the show – but what a loss it would have been! Musically it is far more sophisticated, reflecting Gilbert’s inventive ‘punishments which fit the crime’. Though some of those punishments appear cryptic to a non-Victorian audience, who can resist the ‘billiard sharp’ being forced to play ‘extravagant matches in fitless finger-stalls On a cloth untrue, with a twisted cue And elliptical billiard balls!’? It’s a pity a tradition has built over the decades for the singer to add ‘blood-curdling’ laughter – the song is strong enough to stand on its own feet.

1 The Pirates of Penzance: ‘When the foeman bares his steel’

And the winner is... ‘When the foeman bares his steel’. Here are all the elements of G&S shown at their very best. We are introduced to the Sergeant of Police, who together with his force is tasked with capturing the pirates – one quite beyond their level of bravery. There is the delicious mismatch between themselves and the expectations of the Major-General’s bevy of daughters (led by Mabel singing ‘Go, ye heroes’), who even seem to relish the prospect of mourning the massacre of the ‘heroic’ Sergeant and his men (perhaps satirising the sentiments of the Charge of the Light Brigade of 1854, as memorialised that same year by Tennyson’s poem) – expectations which the Sergeant ever so tactfully (aware, too, of his socially inferior position) tries to deflate so he might protect what little vestige of confidence his men may still have.

The scene is set as the Sergeant and his force sing a morale-raising march (‘Tarantara’) in C major, one which – in the face of the dispiriting exhortations of the ladies – increasingly loses its self-confident air as it drifts into tonalities more and more remote from that home key. Sullivan’s masterstroke follows the moment the Sergeant and his men finally steel themselves and regain their C major home key, their march now neatly complemented by the women’s ‘Go, ye heroes’ sung simultaneously. We are not in the least surprised when the police, despite their stated intent (‘Yes, forward on the foe!), obstinately stay put until driven out by the protests of the Major-General.

And the afterword...

Advertisement

We might say: ‘Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual writing, and are not necessarily those of BBC Music Magazine, its parent, or any of its affiliates or employees.’ This list is compiled and offered by one G&S afficionado – who has had the pleasure of performing in several shows and even singing some of the selected ‘songs’ – principally for anyone who wants to know where to start, or where to find a favourite song or number from a G&S show. Inevitably, by limiting the number to 25, some favourites have had to be left out. We’re always happy to hear from G&S fans of any other highlights you might feel should have been included – and do outline their merits! – either on Facebook or Twitter.

Authors

daniel jaffe
Daniel JafféJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Daniel Jaffé has been associated with BBC Music Magazine since 2004 when he was the reviews editor, working in that post until he went freelance in 2011. Previously he was on the editorial teams of Classic CD and Gramophone. He is a specialist in both Russian and 20th-century British music.

Sponsored content