"The Pirates of Penzance" was written in 1879 for the Fifth Avenue
Theater in New York. Gilbert and Sullivan were in New York that year
because their previous comic opera "H.M.S. Pinafore" had been
performed there in various unauthorised versions. The only legal protection
against this kind of musical piracy for the librettist and the composer was
to go to the States and present an "authentic production" of "Pinafore".
While there, they composed "Pirates". (Was it just a coincidence that
piracy was the subject of their new project?) Sullivan conducted the
priemere on December 31, 1879.
Sullivan had accidentally left most of the score of Act I. in London, so he
had to re-write much of it from memory. He recreated most of it note for,
but he could not recall the chorus that accompanies the entrance of the
Major General's daughters. Gilbert suggested that he adapt the music and
words from "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain", a song that had appeared
in their first opera, "Thespis". The song worked well, and appears almost
verbatim in "Pirates".
The opera's theme of "moral duty" reflects English society of the time. The
reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) saw an the expansion of the British
Empire and an increased awareness of moral responsibilities among the
English. The praised Victorian values included patriotism, optimism,
decency, earnestness, sexual morality, hard work and thrift. A reverence
for "character", "duty" and "will" appealed to all classes of the population.
These values and the rule of keeping up appearances were later much
criticised as prudish and repressed, and were satirised by Gilbert and
Sullivan in "Pirates".
Gilbert and Sullivan knew their ensemble well and used to write songs that
"fitted" their singers. The tongue-twisting "I Am the Very Model of a
Modern Major-General" is one such number, suited to the quick oral
delivery of their cast's General, who attempts a display of refinement of
manners and morals that is suited to his day.
Working on the music to "Pirates", Sullivan wrote home to his mother: "I
think it will be a great success, for it is exquisitely funny and the music is
strikingly tuneful and catching." In its first production in London, the opera
ran for over 400 performances.