Georgian Music

When Henry VIII severed links with Rome, England then had a problem as to what sorts of arts would be acceptable, as they continued to be Christian, but Rome was seen as decadent and dangerous, so Protestant countries had to invent their own forms of worship and entertainments.

This is from a BBC feature, Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in 18th Century by Suzy Klein.

When the royal oganist and composer Henry Purcell died in 1695, he left a huge vacuum in the music scene, which could not be filled locally, so as London recovered from the Great Fire and overtook Paris as the biggest and busiest city in Europe. Grand Tourists returned from Rome with a passion for Italian opera, and in 1719 the Royal Academy of Music was founded, some 60 years before the Royal Academy of art, showing the importance of music not just as an entertainment but as a means of helping to unite the newly United Kingdom with the inclusion of Scotland, and the ascension of a new dynasty, the Hanoverians.

But there was much opposition to Italian opera, being a bunch of degenerate Catholics, and especially with the inclusion of castrati to sing the high notes as a result of women being banned from singing. Though castrati had fine voices, they were seen by some as examples of Roman effeminacy, and a Trojan horse for the spread of homosexuality and other vices, they were also physical freaks, either fat with stumpy legs or thin with tiny torsoes. Which didn’t help. (they were replaced in the late 18th century with tenors. Today their parts are sung by counter tenors, ie tenors singing falsetto) French opera became popular, but with the many wars against France, and the fear of spies, there were rumours that secret messages were being sung so, together with the rise in British nationalism, there was a hunger for songs to be written in English.

So the arrival of Handel signaled the dawn of local music, with his spectacular opera of 1710, Rinaldo (still on an Italian theme) with spectacular sets and costumes, the music fast and furious, so able to entertain even the London audiences. They were a far cry from the hushed opera fans of today; with people playing cards, and talking during the recitatives, only paying attention during the arias which began with an introduction to warn them to put away their cards and pay attention. They were only really there for the arias, which were to show off spectacular singing techniques which made huge stars of the singers with theatres and wealthy patrons competing for their performances.

There was no shortage of music in the streets, with ballad singers selling printed words to popular songs which they demonstrated to help sales. The first and still most successful was John Gay’s Beggars’ Opera, based on the life of Jack Shephard who was convicted of highway robbery and faced hanging, but escaped Newgate prison so became Gay’s Macheath. It says much about society at the time that such a villain was raised to the status of hero, but Walpole’s government was widely seen as thieves, but it took him some time to realise it was a satire of him. It was also a satire on Handell’s warbling heroines Polly and Lucy, warbling nonsense at each other in imitation of the two most popular Italian sopranos of the time. By 1750 the Beggars’ Opera was an international hit, with performances in New York and Jamaica, making it the most successful musical of all time.



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