Monday 20 July 2020

The Invention of English Opera: part two, the brief flowering of English opera, the rise of Italian opera and the development of ballad opera

The Old Palace of Whitehall by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675
The Old Palace of Whitehall by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675
The Palace is probably where John Blow's Venus and Adonis premiered

Considering that the country went through two revolutions, including an interregnum when music was ostensibly banned, there was a surprising amount of music theatre in England in the 17th century, and like other countries artists, performers and aristocrats eagerly experimented music and drama, sometimes creating something which we would recognise as opera, and sometimes coming up with hybrid forms. The vigour and ubiquity of Italian opera in England in the 18th century should not blind us to the importance of the tradition of the 17th century English opera. In the first part of my article, we looked at how the first operas, and the distinctive English genre of semi-opera, developed out of the masque tradition.

Beaufort House, showing Gorges House, the Priests' school, centre left with red rooftop
Beaufort House, showing Gorges House, Josias Priest's' school (centre left with red rooftop)
where Purcell's Dido and Aeneas was performed

In this second part, we look at the brief flowering of English opera, the rise of Italian opera and the development of ballad opera.

English Opera

The first major English opera, through-composed, was Venus and Adonis by John Blow (1649-1708) which was written in about 1683 for the court of King Charles II. The actress Moll Davies, one of King Charles II's mistresses played the part of Venus and her daughter by Charles, Lady Mary Tudor (then aged around nine), was Cupid.

Mary ‘Moll’ Davis after Sir Peter Lely (pastel in Chirk Castle, © National Trust / Susanne Gronnow)
Mary ‘Moll’ Davis after Sir Peter Lely
(pastel in Chirk Castle, © National Trust/Susanne Gronnow)
In overall form the opera owes much to French operas, and it was French music in general which had the greatest influence on English music of the period. During his exile, King Charles II had spent time at the French court (King Louis XIV was Charles’ cousin), and after the restoration Charles sent composer Pelham Humphrey (1647-1674) to France for training.

Blow’s opera uses a French-influenced overture and a Prologue, which refers in scarcely veiled terms to the court for which it was written, as was as popular dances. It is also through composed, with no clear arias or set pieces. Blow was organist of Westminster Abbey and composer to the Chapel Royal, and Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was both a pupil and friend of Blow, and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was clearly indebted to Venus and Adonis. We now know that in the 1680s, both pieces were performed at the school for young ladies run by the dancing master, Josiah Priest (who, as we saw in Part One, worked extensively on Purcell's semi-operas). Though it seems that presenting opera was not popular with the school's parents, and in fact Thomas D'Urfey wrote a satirical comedy about a school, Love for Money, or the Boarding School where Priest's establishment was thinly disguised.

But dating Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is more complex than that. It clearly dates after 1683, it was composed no later than July 1688, and had been performed at Josias Priest's girls' school in London by the end of 1689. No score in Purcell's hand has survived, and the only seventeenth-century source is a libretto, possibly from the original performance. The earliest extant score was copied well over sixty years after the opera was composed; no later sources follow the act divisions of the libretto, and the music to the prologue is lost.

It is thanks to a letter from the Levant merchant Rowland Sherman that we associate Dido and Aeneas with Josias Priest's girls' school in Chelsea, London at a date no later than the summer of 1688, and evidence suggests that the opera was performed at the school again in 1689. Because we know that Blow’s opera was also performed at Priest's school, scholars have argued that Dido and Aeneas was also composed for the English court. Following the Chelsea performances, the opera was not staged again in Purcell's lifetime, its next performance was in 1700 as a masque incorporated into an adapted version of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at Thomas Betterton's theatre in London.

The influence of La Didone, the 1640 opera by Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) is also apparent. Besides having the prologue/three acts format in common (French opera typically used five acts), some solo passages in Purcell’s work suggest Cavalli’s influence, compare Mercury's solo in Didone with the sailor’s "Come away fellow sailors" in Dido and Aeneas. Purcell clearly knew both French and Italian opera, but the temper of the times and Purcell's own temperament do not seem to have been drawn to it. After Dido and Aeneas, Purcell never again wrote anything which approached continental opera in form.

The Judgment of Paris: a pastoral composed for the music-prize, 1700, by Daniel Purcell
The Judgment of Paris: a pastoral composed for the music-prize, 1700, by Daniel Purcell
The Judgement of Paris   

Five years after Purcell’s death, a group of nobles headed by Lord Halifax became interested in promoting English opera after the continental form, ie. All-sung rather than semi-opera. In an announcement in the London Gazette of 18 March 1700 they offered a "Musick Prize" for the best setting of a short libretto by playwright William Congreve (1670-1729), The Judgement of Paris; first prize was 100 guineas.

Four composers entered, John Weldon (1676-1736), John Eccles (1668-1735), Daniel Purcell (1664-1717) and Gottfried Finger (1655/56-1730), and each opera was performed during 1701 and they were staged together in a grand final in 1703. The audience judged the winner.

John Eccles had been expected to win, he was very active as a composer for the theatre, and from the 1690s had written a large amount of incidental music including music for William Congreve's Love for Love, John Dryden's The Spanish Friar and William Shakespeare's Macbeth. In fact, Eccles came second, with Weldon first, Daniel Purcell third and Finger fourth, and the competition had little long-term success in promoting English opera. Tastes would soon change, and Italian opera with Italian singers became the new novelty, and both Eccles and Daniel Purcell gave up writing theatre music.

Finger’s score has been lost but the others survive, and in 1989, Anthony Rooley and The Consort of Musicke re-staged the competition at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms and this time the audience awarded the prize to Eccles’ opera.

King's (previously Queen's) Theatre, Haymarket, the 18th-century predecessor of the present theatre; watercolour by William Capon (V&A)
King's (previously Queen's) Theatre, Haymarket,
watercolour by William Capon (V&A)
John Vanburgh (1664-1726) built a new theatre, the Queen's Theatre, in the Haymarket (Her Majesty's Theatre is on on the site) for Betterton's company, and the theatre opened with a grand season which included the opera Gli amori di Ergasto by Giacomo (Johann) Greber (died 1731), a German composer who had arrived in London in 1702. It was the first opera in London fully sung in Italian by Italian singers, and the cast included the Italian soprano Margherita de L'Epine (also Greber's mistress) who would sing for Handel. The opera was a failure and Greber left London shortly afterwards. The failure of the season led to Vanburgh taking over the company from the other partners.

Eccles would have one more attempt at writing opera. He wrote Semele in about 1706, again with a libretto by William Congreve which draws on the Semele myth from Ovid's Metamorphoses. There are clear links to the nascent English opera tradition in the form of Purcell and Blow’s operas. Semele may have been intended to for Vanbrugh's new Queen's Theatre in 1707, but that became impossible when the Lord Chancellor gave Vanbrugh's competitor Christopher Rich at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane a monopoly on opera productions in London. Congreve and Eccles were forced to agree to a production at Drury Lane, but Rich never brought it to the stage. Congreve published his libretto in 1710, but Eccles's music remained unheard until the 20th century.

The first complete recording of the Eccles' Semele was conducted by Anthony Rooley with forces from Florida State University on Forum, but in November 2019 Julian Perkins conducted Cambridge Handel Opera and the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) in a concert performance of the work, and this is due to be issued on AAM’s own label early next year, making it the first fully professional recording of Eccles’ Semele. The performance of Semele is currently available on YouTube,

Eccles’ The Judgement of Paris was recorded in 2009 by Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company with Lucy Crowe, Claire Booth, Susan Bickley, Benjamin Hulett and Roderick Williams.

There is an intriguing sequel to this story. In 1741, whilst George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and his company were away from London in Dublin performing Messiah, the composer Thomas Arne (1710-1778) mounted a double bill of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast and Arne’s new setting of The Judgement of Paris. Amongst the company was John Beard, Handel’s leading tenor (who had not travelled to Dublin). Handel undoubtedly knew of the production, and this may be the germ which suggested Congreve’s libretto of Semele to Handel. He wrote his Semele in 1744, but with its risqué nature and hints of satire on the relationship between King George II and his mistress, the Countess of Yarmouth, Semele did not go down well (though labelled an oratorio, Handel's some-time collaborator Charles Jennens labelled it a bawdy opera!). The result was that English opera remained on the side-lines, and Handel developed the oratorio.
Margherita de l'Épine (with a red muff), Catherine Tofts (in white), and some opera musicians (Rehearsal of an opera, by Marco Ricci, ca. 1709)
Margherita de l'Épine (with a red muff), Catherine Tofts (in white), and some opera musicians (Rehearsal of an opera, by Marco Ricci, ca. 1709)

The rise of Italian opera

Italian opera singers started to appear in England in the late 17th century and by the early 18th there were attempts at putting on Italian opera in English translation, though when Bononcini’s Camilla was performed in 1706 it was bilingual so that the castrato Valentini could sing in his native Italian.

As we have seen Margherita de L'Epine sang in Greber's opera which opened the Queen's Theatre's first season, and unlike Greber she stayed in England. And she would take part in a number of operas, right through to singing in Handel's Teseo in 1713. Many of these early operas were pasticcios, confections assembled locally from pre-existing music, and often the arranging was done by Dr Johann Pepusch. Pepusch (1667-1752) was a German composer who settled in England in 1700. For twenty years he would direct the musical establishment of the Duke of Chandos at his house, Canons, in North-West London.  Pepusch and de L'Epine had a long-standing professional relationship and a personal one too, they married in around 1718.

When George Frideric Handel was invited to London in 1710, his opera Rinaldo was the first Italian opera written specifically for England, and having lived on a diet of confections and pasticcios, the English were most enthusiastic about Rinaldo. Though Handel stayed in England, he had a five-year interregnum with no opera and regular Italian opera only appeared from 1719. But the sheer popularity and foreignness of Italian opera brought a reaction, with English writers complaining about the foreign import.   

Painting based on scene 11, act 3 by William Hogarth, c. 1728, in the Tate Britain
The Beggars Opera - Painting based on scene 11, act 3 by William Hogarth, c. 1728, in the Tate Britain

Ballad Opera

Semi-opera staggered on in various forms until 1712, but it was expensive to put on and rather over-taken by another English form, ballad opera.

The English developed their own dramatic reaction to the Italian imports with ballad opera, racy and satirical dialogue interspersed with short songs, often to well-known melodies, the subjects often involving lower-class and criminal characters. This was very much an inversion of the high moral values which applied to Italian opera in England. It should be pointed out that the style of Italian opera in London was very much governed by the aristocracy who paid for it, Handel’s temperament veered more towards highly varied fare though he was only able to experiment with this (in operas like Serse, 1738 and Partenope, 1730) in the latter part of his career in Italian opera when he was his own impresario.

One of the first ballad operas, and the one which was to virtually define the form was The Beggars Opera from 1728. The libretto is by John Gay(1685-1732) and the music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch (1667-1752). Interestingly, both Gay and Pepusch had been in the circle around the Duke of Chandos at his house Cannons in 1717/18 when Handel was resident composer and the first versions of Acis and Galatea, and Esther were produced as masques.

Both Gay and Pepusch probably experienced vaudeville theatre in Paris, and may have been motivated to reproduce it in an English form. They were also probably influenced by the burlesques and musical plays of Thomas D'Urfey (1653–1723) who had a reputation for fitting new words to existing songs. A popular anthology of these settings was published in 1700 and frequently re-issued, and a number of the tunes from this anthology were recycled in The Beggar's OperaThe Beggers Opera was premiered at the Lincoln's Inn Theatre by a company managed by John Rich (son of the company's previous manager Christopher Rich), it was so successful (the poet Alexander Pope quipped at it made Rich gay and Gay rich) that Rich was able to open his own theatre, the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House) in 1732.

Ballad opera and similar forms would remain the dominant form of English opera until well into the 19th century. The combination of spoken and sung seemed to remain close to the English theatre goers heart. When Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) wrote his English opera Oberon in 1826  for Covent Garden, he found that James Robinson Planché’s libretto was unsatisfactory with far too much spoken dialogue, and in fact Planché’s Oberon comes rather closer to semi-opera than to opera. And this vein would run strongly through English opera for the rest of the century.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Thankful to be able to play together at all: the Engegård Quartet on recording Mozart, collaborating with Ola Kvernberg and their festival devoted to Olli Mustonen's music - interview
  • Almost sacred opera: the French group Les Accents in an engaging account of one of Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorios for 17th century Rome - CD review
  • Music when no-one else is near: Michael Mofidian and Julia Lynch live from Glasgow City Halls on BBC Radio 3 - concert review
  • Vienna 1910: the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien in sophisticated and vibrant accounts of works by Mahler, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss - CD review
  • Joyful and imaginative: written for a late-18th century English aristocrat, Tommaso Giordani trios for violin, viola da gamba & fortepiano prove delightful finds - CD review
  • The Invention of English Opera: the surprising history of opera in 17th century England, part one, from masques to dramatic-opera - feature article
  • Heroic Handel: I chat to Chris Parsons, artistic director of Eboracum Baroque, about the group's plans including a large-scale on-line concert - interview
  • Incidental music to The Ruins of Athens: prime Beethoven linked to a forgetten play - CD review
  • Schubert's Four Seasons: an imaginative exploration of Schubert song from Sharon Carty and Jonathan Ware - CD review
  • They that in ships unto the sea go down - Music for the Mayflower from Passamezzo on Resonus Classics - CD review
  • French seasons and a Belgian violinist: I chat to Anna Ovsyanikova about her explorations of violin repertoire and her new disc - interview
  • 'Home

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