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Tuesday, 7 May 2013

John Beard - a Handelian tenor and much more

John Beard by Thomas Hudson c 1743
John Beard
The eighteenth century tenor John Beard's name is known, if at all, mainly to lovers of Handel's music. Beard created a remarkable series of tenor roles for Handel. Roles which broke the mould for 18th century dramatic works based on the castrato voice and place the heroic tenor centre stage; works like the oratorios Samson and Jephtha. But Handel's oratorio seasons consisted of a dozen or so dates in Lent and singers, no matter how great, music live. In this new biography of Beard by Neil Jenkins (himself a note singer of Handel's music), a great deal of light is shed on the remainder of Beard's life, and a fascinating one it was too.

Professionally Beard became a singing actor, performing on the stages of Drury Lane and Covent Garden in a variety of works both serious and comic, becoming associated with the role of Macheath. He also made regular appearances at the pleasure gardens like Ranelagh and Vauxhall. He became something of a musical celebrity and eventually took over the management of Covent Garden Theatre.  His private life was even more picaresque as he married Lady Henrietta Waldegrave, daughter of an earl, widow of a marquess's son, descendant of James II. This caught him up in a web of family disputes which lasted his entire marriage and reads more like a Fielding novel. But happiness caught up with him late in life as he married for a second time and settled in a happy retirement.

In his introduction Jenkins talks about all of the different threads to his research for this book, and you get the impression that this could almost warrant a book in its own right. Jenkins is not the sort of writer to create a story by blending uncertainty into a coherent narrative, instead we are presented with the full information, or lack, guided by the author's lively prose and patent enthusiasm for his subject. And what a subject.

John Beard's (1717 - 1791) origins are obscure, but he springs fully formed as a chorister into the Chapel Royal and his family may well have had links as servants to the Royal Household. Beard might have been expected to spend his working life as a member of the Chapel Royal. But he seems to have caught Handel's eye and when he was 19 appeared in Il Pastor Fido. Beard would continue to have links with the Chapel Royal, and would return for special occasions such as the performances of the court odes (music by William Boyce), but he made his career in the theatre.

John Beard (c.) as Hawthorn in "Love in a Village" by Isaac Bickerstaffe (Johann Zoffany, 1767)
John Beard (c.) as Hawthorn in "Love in a Village" by Isaac Bickerstaffe (Johann Zoffany, 1767)
For the next 25 year's of the singer's life Handel's opera and oratorio performances would be a thread running through Beard's life. They are the reason that we remember him, something about his sturdy tenor voice, quickness of study and dramatic manner encouraged Handel to take the tenor repertoire to new realms. Handel wrote Jonathan (Saul), L'Allegro, Jupiter (Semele), Samson and Jephtha for him, and almost certainly shaped the tenor solos in Messiah to his voice (Beard did not sing in the premiere in Dublin but he sang in the London premiere and was permanently associated with the Foundling Hospital performances of the work). In these works Handel developed the dramatic tenor into regions that had rarely been explored.

And it was Beard who inspired this, as Jenkins makes clear. There was a period when John Beard did not sing for Handel and Thomas Lowe did instead, the tenor parts for Lowe take a dramatic dip (the high priest in Solomon is nowhere near as important dramatically as Jonathan in Saul and Samson). This gap in Beard's career illustrates the depth of Jenkins' research, he has produced Beard's work schedule as an actor, to demonstrated that Beard could have sung for Handel if he had wanted. We don't known why. It may be that Beard did not hold his Handel performances in the high regard that we do, they may just have been one job among many, but the likelihood is that the absence was connected with Beard's complicated private life.

Here again Jenkins has done superb research, weaving a fascinating and complex narrative. John Beard married Lady Henrietta Waldegrave, daughter of Earl Waldegrave and widow of Lord Edward Herbert; the two were married by a clergyman in the Fleet Prison. It was unheard of for a female aristocrat to marry an actor. Add to that, Lady Henrietta's family was Roman Catholic, and she was descended from James II. Lady Henrietta never returned to relations with her family and their entire married life was spent in a welter of court cases relating to Lady Henrietta's inheritance (which she never did achieve a satisfactory solution). Sensibly, though Jenkins keeps the narrative roughly chronological, he makes individual chapters thematic, dealing with John Beard and Lady Henrietta's marriage in one single sweep and making an admirably gripping narrative of it. Lady Henrietta died seeing her daughter (John Beard's step-daughter) marry a far older man in Lady Henrietta's late husband's family. During all this time, Beard was an actor. There are indications that early in his marriage John Beard and his wife may have hoped to life off her expectations, with that not forthcoming John Beard returned to work.

His work with Handel may be the reason why we remember him, but Jenkins makes it clear that John Beard's main work was his acting and singing at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, under David Garrick and John Rich. John Beard became the Macheath (in the Threepenny Opera) of his day. Jenkins' exposition of this aspect of John Beard's life is admirably comprehensive and completely fascinating, illuminating the vastly different theatrical work of John Beard's day. This was a period when there were generally two performances per night, a more serious piece at 6pm with a comic after-piece. The comic after-pieces had an entirely different audience, and it was in these that Beard sang a great many roles, developing a very popular following.

His later life was in a happier vein. He ultimately married Charlotte Rich, daughter of John Rich the proprietor of Covent Garden. Eventually John Beard too over  the management of the theatre and made important strides in the modernisation of the theatrical management, He and Charlotte finally retired happily to Hampton in Middlesex.

This is quite a big book, Jenkins takes in all aspects of John Beard's career and includes extensive documentation of John Beards roles and much background detail. But he has also written a rattlingly good yarn.

There are plenty of illustrations with John Beard painted in his costume as Macheath on the cover. Whilst personal information is somewhat patchy, he has found some admirable nuggets such as poems written by a friend to celebrate moments in John Beard and Lady Henrietta's married life. Jenkins really does bring his subject to life, a subject he clearly admires. I started this book interested in John Beard the Handelian, and came out fascinated by the sheer breadth of his career.

And what did his voice sound like? Well he was the only singer who took part in all of Handel's oratorios and his voice is described as sturdy. Charles Burney talked about his 'superior conduct, knowledge of music and intelligence as an actor'. Just bear in mind the range of roles that Handel wrote for him and you can get an idea of the breadth of his talent.

Neil Jenkins - John Beard - Handel and Garrick's Favourite Tenor
Bramber Press, 2012; 391pp
ISBN 978-1-905206-13-1

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