On April 12, 1854, Arthur Sullivan became a chorister of the Chapel Royal, whose obligation was to sing Sundays and holidays at services at St. James Palace and to receive, in return, an exactingly thorough education. In May the following year, the precocious 12 year old had the satisfaction of hearing an anthem of his own composition, Sing Unto the Lord and Bless His Name, sung at services by his fellow choristers. Issued later that year by the prestigious firm of Novello, it was Sullivan's first published work. Thus, for better or worse, Sullivan was inured from the first to producing music for religious use.
Sullivan early on moved easily from royal salons to the concert hall, and from the theater to the dim purlieus where stupendously popular (and highly remunerative) hymnals were compiled. In the upshot, he produced something in the neighborhood of 100 hymns, anthems, and sacred part-songs, a number of which still linger in Protestant hymnals. Of these, Onward, Christian Soldiers is far and away the best-known and musically the most compelling, its banal phrases marshaled stirringly with complete conviction to the strident words of Sabine Baring-Gould. Sullivan facetiously named the tune "St. Gertrude," after the wife of his friend Ernest Clay Ker Seymer. It is one of those droll coincidences that Onward, Christian Soldiers should have appeared as part of an advertisement in The Musical Times for Novello's latest collection, The Hymnary, in December 1871, at just the moment that Sullivan's first collaboration with W.S. Gilbert reached the stage of London's Gaiety Theatre. Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, was hissed at its opening night, December 23, and had but a short run, while Onward, Christian Soldiers was an immediate and enduring success. Apart from two songs and some ballet music, the score of Thespis has completely vanished, while Onward, Christian Soldiers is still being heard throughout the world.