Victorian Composer Frederic Clay

Samantha PillingHistory


English composer Frederic Clay, was a great friend of Arthur Sullivan, who he subsequently introduced to W.S. Gilbert at the Gallery. Together, Clay and Gilbert produced four comic operas, before a stroke paralysed Clay at the age of 44 and cut short his productive life. Cay died in 1889, aged 51 when he was found drowned in the bath at his sister’s house.

His early life

Born on 3rd August 1838, Clay was born to creative, music-loving parents. His father James Clay was a member of parliament, but he was also a celebrated whist player and an amateur composer. His mother Eliza, came from a musical background, as her mother was an opera singer. They used private tutors to educate him at home, where he studied piano, violin and musical composition. Clay studied under German composers Bernhard Molique and Moritz Hauptmann.

Frederic ClayClay’s first play was a short play written for the amateur stage in 1859. It was called ‘The Pirate’s Isle’, and was followed a year later by ‘Out of Sight’. Clay didn’t work as a full-time composer until the age of 35. It was upon his father’s death that the subsequent inheritance enabled him to make that leap to full-time composition.

Clay and W.S. Gilbert collaborations

Gilbert and Clay collaborated on four plays – ‘Ages Ago’ (Royal Gallery of Illustration, 1869), ‘The Gentleman in Black’ (Charing Cross Theatre, 1870), ‘Happy Arcadia’ (Royal Gallery of Illustration, 1872) and ‘Princess Toto’ (Theatre Royal, Nottingham, 1876).

In total, Clay composed the music for 17 pieces – three for amateur performances, two vocal compositions (cantatas) and 12 stage operas. ‘The Black Crook’ with Georges Jacobi, for the Alhambra Theatre, London, had the highest number of performances (204), but it was ‘Princess Toto’ and ‘Ages Ago’ (1869) (written by W.S. Gilbert) that were seen as his most successful pieces.

Clay’s most popular works

‘Ages Ago’ was a one-act piece. It opened at the Royal Gallery of Illustration on the 22nd November 1869 and ran for 350 performances. It was also revived several times too, achieving critical and popular success in both London and New York. It was the start of a seven-year collaboration between Clay and Gilbert.

Clay, Seymour Egerton and Sir Arthur Sullivan, 1860s

Clay, Seymour Egerton and Sir Arthur Sullivan, 1860s

Originally opened at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, on 26th June 1876, The three-act comic opera ‘Princess Toto’, was then placed in the Strand Theatre in London (1876), the Standard Theatre, New York (1879) and revised for Opera Comique, London (1881). ‘Princess Toto’ was considered to be his most tuneful and attractive works. Clay bought the acting and publishing rights to it from W.S. Gilbert for £525 – with the copyright reverting back to Gilbert after ten years.

The last composition for Clay was ‘The Golden Ring’, a fairy opera in three acts. It opened at the Alhambra Theatre, London on 3rd December 1883 and ran for 195 performances. It was after conducting his second performance of ‘The Golden Ring’ that Clay suffered the stroke that was to cut short his productive life.

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