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Gilbert, William Schwenck

Gilbert, William Schwenck (1836–1911). Gilbert is one of the rare examples where the librettist is as well known as the composer. His achievement in his partnership with Sullivan was threefold. Like all good librettists, he stimulated his composer and helped him to produce colourful and sparkling music. Secondly, Gilbert spiced his plots with contemporary satire, which helped to sell tickets, had a cutting edge, and has lasted remarkably well. Finally, like all great writers, he created his own world, a world of gentle cynicism, honest simplicity, and legal quibbling, and he peopled it with memorable characters—the reluctant policemen; the decent, patriotic pirates; the philosophical sentry; the modern major-general; the skittish judge in Trial by Jury; the duke of Plaza-Toro, who led his regiment from behind; the three little maids who, all unwary, came from a ladies' seminary; Little Buttercup and Sir Joseph Porter, K C B. Though occasionally the humour degenerates into facetiousness, the verbal dexterity of the verse is superb.

Gilbert was born in London and educated at King's College. He spent his early years as an ‘impecunious party’ practising the law, before turning, with great success, to literature. He met Sullivan in 1871 and Trial by Jury, their first success, was produced in 1875. They worked together until 1896 when The Grand Duke was a comparative failure. Gilbert's many publications brought him considerable wealth, he was knighted in 1907, and he died after rescuing a woman from drowning in the lake at his home.

J. A. Cannon

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