The work which pointed most clearly to the cultural appetite of the growing urban middle class and set in motion major changes in operatic entertainment was The Beggar's Opera by John Gay (1685-1732). It was in every respect the antithesis of opera seria. Instead of gods and heroes the characters were highwaymen and prostitutes; instead of broad spans of embellished melody, the tunes were simple and direct; instead of a falsetto the protagonist was a tenor a rarity in opera seria. Gay satirized the court and aristocratic entertainment at the same time as he carefully instilled into his work a moral purpose which, while designed to appeal to the taste of a middle-class audience, was calculated not to offend the aristocracy at large.
Ironically, Gay had really written a play rather than an opera and originally [4/5] intended the songs to be sung entirely without accompaniment. When Colley Gibber refused him the opportunity of performances at Drury Lane, it was John Rich, at whose theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields the piece was first seen in 1728, who persuaded Gay to allow his resident musical director Johann Pepusch to provide accompaniments. This alteration of Gay's plans did not work to the play's advantage throughout. The pace of Act 3: scene 13, for instance, where Macheath sits in the condemned cell drinking and singing snatches often different songs, is seriously impeded. In consequence of its being a last-minute decision, Pepusch's arrangements are fragmentary and sketchy, and because of this the unusual convention arose that all revivals of the work became musically 'updated'. Arne and then Bishop, who both produced later versions, were among the first to build a tradition which has lasted to the present day. Frederic Austin's 1920 arrangement of the score, which ran for over three years at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, has been the most acclaimed revival so far this century. The Beggar's Opera also provided the stimulus for Brecht and Weill's revolutionary landmark in the history of modern musical theatre, Die Dreigroschenoper, written to commemorate the bicentenary of Gay's pioneering drama in 1928. This time, however, the shafts of political satire were aimed from the perspective of the proletariat rather than the bourgeoisie.
The source for the majority of Gay's tunes was the collection Pills to Purge Melancholy by the bawdy Restoration poet Tom Durfey (or, spelt in the quasiaristocratic manner he preferred, D'Urfey). This fact is clear because they are cited by the names they bear in this collection, even when they exist under different titles elsewhere. Most of the Scottish songs are from Thomson's Orpheus Caledonius, to which Gay's patroness, the Duchess of Queensbury, subscribed. Many other songs are originally from theatrical productions, and among them are simple, tuneful pieces by Purcell, Eccles, Leveridge, and even Handel and Bononcini. They are sometimes not simple enough, however, as the incorrect version of Handel's march from Rinaldo demonstrates. No doubt the reason for this error was that it was notated from memory, either from its regular performance by the band of the Royal Horse Guards, or its previous parody as a tavern song, 'Let the Waiter Bring Clean Glasses'. Gay may have been entirely unaware that he had converted what in Rinaldo was a march of the Christians into a march of the highwaymen.
Allan Ramsay's The Gentle Shepherd (1725), which he described as a Scots pastoral comedy with songs to ballad airs, is often considered a forerunner of The Beggar's Opera and other ballad operas, as they came to be labelled. The truth is that, until the success of Gay's opera, it was a spoken play with just four songs. Only following an Edinburgh production of The Beggar's Opera did Ramsay augment its musical substance to twenty 'sangs'. Theophilus Gibber adapted this version for performance in London as Patie and Peggy (1730). The latter's father, Colley, who had shown initial lack of enthusiasm for Gay's piece, had already leapt onto the bandwagon with his own ballad opera. Love in a Riddle (1729). That same year in Dublin the major theatrical centre outside London, Charles Coffey produced The Beggar's Wedding.
The success of ballad operas depended on their librettists alone since it was [5/6] they who selected the tunes to which they wished to write new or parodied words. It is not surprising to find prestigious literary figures such as Henry Fielding joining the growing numbers attracted to this genre. Fielding was also not averse to creating political controversy, as The Welsh Opera of 1731 shows. Here political satire is directed at both parties and even involves the Royal Family. In 1737 the government had had enough and passed the Licensing Act in response to continuing satirical attacks. From now on there were to be only two legitimate theatres in London, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, and all plays were subject to a well-regulated system of censorship. The limitation on theatre numbers lasted until 1843, but the strict enforcement of censorship begun by the Act lasted until 1968.
There were also completely original works, like Thomas Arne's Thomas and Sally (1760), composed to a libretto by Isaac Bickerstaffe. This has a small cast, lasts under an hour, and was performed at Covent Garden as an 'afterpiece' opera. Although described by Burney as having 'very little musical merit' (1016), it was an immediate and lasting success. For the most part Arne writes the simple strophic settings (that is, the same tune for each verse) which dominate ballad opera. The melodic style, however, is more ornate than the ballad airs, indicating a return to the influence of the Italian aria which, because of its aristocratic tics, was felt to be more refined than the English song. Another Italian feature is the use of the declamatory musical style known as recitative instead of spoken dialogue. Arne also has a penchant for Scottish elements of a fashionable artificiality the overture contains a 'Scotch Gavotte' which demonstrates this quality in its title and style.
The reason for the opera's appreciation must be attributed in part to the hero's chauvinism; he arrives on stage fresh 'From ploughing the ocean and threshing Mounsieur' (See No. 17, Air with Chorus, Thomas and Sailors; Britain was in the midst of the Seven Years War). Thomas is a forerunner of the jolly Jack Tar who is later given enormous popularity by Dibdin. He constantly employs nautical metaphors and even interprets the squire's attempted rape of his beloved Sally as 'A pirate just about to board my prize!' (See No. 23, Recit., Thomas, Sally and Squire). The moral of the piece is one that became a great favourite of the Victorian bourgeoisie, who never tired of recommending it to those who lacked fortune or position; it is summed up in Sally the milkmaid's remark, 'Virtue commands me - Be honest and poor' (See No. 14, Duetto, Sally and Squire). The emphasis throughout is on trueheartedness, thus contrasting markedly with the fickleness of the characters in The Beggar's Opera, an arrangement of which Arne had produced at Covent Garden the year before.
There is no space here — see Fiske — to discuss the stage entertainments of composers like Samuel Arnold (whose Inkle and Yarico (1787) concerned slavery in the West Indies and was contemporary with Wilberforce's agitation), James Hook, Thomas Linley, or Stephen Storace (whose The Cherokee was the first English opera based on the American Wild West). Charles Dibdin, although he too created some pieces in the ballad-opera vein, such as The Waterman (1774) and The Seraglio (1776), will be treated separately in connection with his more original entertainments.
The most 'popular' type of opera towards the close of the century was a light [6/7] sentimental comedy which contained a mixture of original music, favourite tunes from other operas, and traditional airs. Musical director of Covent Garden at this time was William Shield (1748-1829), and those of his operas which were most admired were of the afterpiece variety rather than full length, and used traditional airs alongside freshly composed music. Rosina (1782) contained the tune now sung to the words 'Auld Lang Syne', and was, indeed, responsible for the spreading of this melody's popularity throughout Britain. The song 'The Plough Boy', with its attractive 'whistling' piccolo part, comes from The Farmer (1787), one of the many operas he wrote in partnership with the Irish dramatist John O'Keefe.
An authentic composition of Shield's which became a war horse of the Victorian drawing room was 'The Wolf, from his and O'Keefe's The Castle of Andalusia (1798).
At the peaceful midnight hour,
Every sense, and every pow'r
Fetter'd lies in downy sleep;
Then our careful watch we keep.
While the wolf in nightly prowl,
Bays the moon with hideous howl.
Gates are barr'd - a vain resistance;
Females shriek, but no assistance;
Silence, or you meet your fate!
Your keys, your jewels, cash and plate.
Locks, bolts, and bars, soon fly asunder,
Then to rifle, rob, and plunder.
It held a place throughout the nineteenth century as one of the half-dozen best-known bass songs. Shield's 'The Wolf does much to encourage a cult for the low-pitched menacing song. Not that it is so very alarming: no one had heard the 'hideous howl' of a wolf in Britain for over half a century It is specifically aimed at the wealthy 'Silence, or you meet your fate!' might be taken by the average person as a threat of death, but the main emphasis is on the fear of losing possessions rather than one's life. The precious possessions whose possible loss chills the hearts of the drawing-room audience are the vanities of luxury — jewels, cash, and plate.
The reason needs to be explored why, at this stage of evolution of the English opera, a drawing-room classic should emerge. As noted above, the words relate to the fears of the wealthy bourgeois, but why did the song survive musically? A song such as 'The Wolf' presented itself as unaffected, realistic, while at the same time imaginative and polished. Yet, some of its features, for example, the excessive use of sequence (the repetition of a melodic phrase at a different pitch) borrowed from opera aria, would have sounded routine and old-fashioned in the nineteenth century. The principal explanation for its continued lusical fascination would seem to be the possibilities it offered for a melodramatic rendition. The tempo moves from a gentle, rocking rhythm for the sleepy world, to a slightly quicker, atmospheric section for the prowling wolf, to a vigorous final section for the [7/8] robbing and plundering. The stimulating effect of the increases in speed, which are coupled to similar increases in loudness, only wanted the addition of a dramatic flair on the part of the singer to be sure, in the language of the day, of creating astonishment in the listener.
The next operatic composer relevant to this survey, John Braham (1774-1854), one of the most celebrated tenors of the first half of the nineteenth century, contributed three perennial favourites to the drawing-room repertoire, the song 'The Anchor's Weigh'd', the duet 'All's Well', and the recitative and aria 'The Death of Nelson'. None of them display any willingness to venture beyond the simplest harmonies. 'The Anchor's Weigh'd' moved thousands to tears with its yearning pauses and its pathetic farewells uttered by the sailor lad parting from his true-love. 'All's Well' contained the drama of excited questioning between the voices but elsewhere they sing in the plainest sweetest-sounding harmony. This duet was the first to give wide popularity to the partnership of tenor and bass, a blend of voices chosen by Balfe in 1857 for perhaps the most famous of all drawing-room duets, his setting of Longfellow's 'Excelsior'. Braham's duet originally appeared in The English Fleet in 1842, an opera written for Covent Garden in 1803 in return for what was, by the standards of the time, the enormous sum of one thousand guineas.
Many Victorians expected the tenor aria 'The Death of Nelson', from the opera The Americans of 1811, to confer immortality on the name of Braham. Instead he acquired the anonymity which Auden said all great artists should aspire to, when, in 1931, the editor of The Oxford Song Book included this by now traditional song with the composer given as unknown (I, 52). This neglect was unkind, even if an old rumour was believed that Braham based his piece on a French sailors' song, for it would still have required extensive reworking in order to accommodate S. J. Arnold's lengthy stanzas. The Oxford version also omits the preceding atmospheric recitative 'O'er Nelson's Tomb' and rejects Brahams most imaginative music, the first fourteen bars of verse 3, in favour of a repeat of the equivalent bars in verses 1 and 2 (See Turner and Miall, 296—303).
RECIT. O'er Nelson's tomb, with silent grief oppress'd
Britannia mourns her hero now at rest;
But those bright laurels ne'er shall fade with years,
Whose leaves are water'd by a nation's tears.
ARIA 'Twas in Trafalgar's Bay
We saw the Frenchmen lay;
Each heart was bounding then:
We scorn'd the foreign yoke,
For our ships were British oak,
And hearts of oak our men!
Our Nelson mark'd them on the wave,
Three cheers our gallant seamen gave,
Nor thought of home or beauty;
Along the line this signal ran:
'England expects that every man
This day will do his duty!' [8/9]
And now the cannons roar
Along th' affrighted shore Our Nelson led the way:
His ship the 'Vict'ry' named
Long be that 'Vict'ry' famed,
For vict'ry crowned the day!
But dearly was that conquest bought,
Too well the gallant hero fought
For England, home, and beauty!
He cried, as 'midst the fire he ran:
'England shall find that every man
This day will do his duty!'
At last the fatal wound,
Which spread dismay around,
The hero's breast received:
'Heav'n fights upon our side!
The day's our own!' he cried.
'Now long enough I've lived!
In honour's cause my life was pass'd,
In honour's cause I fall at last,
For England, home, and beauty!'
Thus ending life as he began,
England confess'd that every man
That day had done his duty!
The tragic final verse begins with a conventional switch to the minor key to convey melancholy; and the receipt of the fatal wound is recorded loudly and sonorously in the depths of the accompaniment.
The words attempt to engage the listener's sympathy by continual use of the possessive pronoun 'our', 'our ships', 'our men', 'our Nelson' (twice), 'Heav'n fights upon our side!' Ostensibly this is because it is sung by a participant in the battle of Trafalgar; yet notice the lines 'His ship the "Vict'ry" named' (not our ship), and 'Three cheers our gallant seamen gave' (not we gallant seamen). It is clearly aimed at those who did no fighting and invites them to bask in the glory of victory, sharing the pride of being part of a nation which has produced such a hero as Nelson. Naval victories of previous years are conjured up by the quotation of words from the eighteenth-century patriotic song by Garrick and Boyce, 'Heart of Oak,' Nelson's famous call for Englishmen to do their duty could not fail to swell the patriotic breast of the industrial bourgeois faced with no more immediate danger than a decline in the rate of profit. [10/11]
Braham's junior by twelve years, Sir Henry Rowley Bishop (1786-1855) was a composer of immense importance to early nineteenth-century theatre music. Over a dozen of his songs, taken in the main from stage productions, remained in the drawing-room repertoire for the rest of the century and beyond. Even in 1918 there were prestigious musicians who believed his songs had 'put on immortality' Bishop's only compositions at all familiar today are the song Home Sweet Home!' and the dance 'The Dashing White Sergeant', taken from the song of that title composed to verses by General Burgoyne in 1826 (Corder, 78).
It was one of his English operas (in reality, for the most part a spoken play) Clari, or The Maid of Milan (1823) that his famous song 'Home, Sweet Home' was first heard, sung by Miss Maria Tree. It functioned in this domestic drama as an all-pervading melancholy tune which stamped its character on the entire piece. Yet, in 1829, Bishop decided something fresh was required to exploit the success of his song and put on a drama called, not surprisingly, Home, Sweet Home!
The tune of the verse exists in a Gouldmg and Dalmaine publication of 1821, Melodies of Various Nations, edited by Bishop. Here, also, are several other airs by Bishop masquerading under such descriptions as 'Portuguese' or 'Hindostanee'. His air labelled Sicilian' had words by the fashionable poet Thomas Haynes Bayly: 'To the Home of My Childhood in Sorrow I Came'. Bishop later deposed on oath in court that he had composed the tune himself, being unable to locate a genuine Sicilian air. The words of the second version, which now includes a refrain are by John Howard Payne, an American actor and dramatist, who ironically never had a settled home. Widespread as the song's fame was in the late 1820s its celebrity and cultural importance increased towards the end of Bishop's life when it became a favourite of the 'Swedish Nightingale', Jenny Lind. Bishop, however, seems to have felt greater financial satisfaction than musical pride in its success.
Jacqueline Bratton, in The Victorian Popular Ballad, quite rightly points out that it is an assemblage of talasmanic words', but she is misled by its emotional associations in describing it as a 'wailing, tear-laden tune' (90-91). One has only to listen to a tune like Tucker's 'Sweet Genevieve', which aptly suits that description, to realize how very plain Bishop's melody is by contrast. Even so, it has an Italianate quality in its simplicity, more reminiscent of an aria such as Handel's 'Verdi Prati' from Handel's Alcina (1735) than an English air. A typical operatic feature is the musical decoration around the significant words 'There's no place like home' (completely ironed out in many late Victorian editions). The accompaniment is a variant if an eighteenth-century cliché known as the Alberti bass. Another cliché is the trilling accompaniment to 'The birds singing gaily', although its naïve simplicity almost disarms criticism. Harmonically the song also demonstrates the same artlessness: it consists of no more than four different chords throughout. The melody, except for two of its moments of brief ornamentation, uses only the notes of the major scale and is of narrow range. Each line of the verse and refrain comes to rest on either the first or third degree of the scale. Bishop constantly requires a hushed vocal toneand asks for the voice to be slightly raised just once, for the penultimate 'There's no place like home.' [11/12]
Note that 'home' is always begun with a capital letter, as if to emphasize its hallowed quality. The words had universal appeal, for, no matter what or where one's home was, it could be argued that that there was no place like it. If a person no longer possessed a home it evoked nostalgia or recalled the Christian promise of a heavenly home in the hereafter. To the working class the home was increasingly the retreat from the exhaustion, tedium, and alienation of their labour. The many paintings which adopt the title of this song depict a multiplicity of homes, from a wealthy young middle-class couple with a baby to a dog lying content in his kennel. Its universality of appeal and the simplicity and ready comprehensibility of its musical language equipped it for a hegemonic role: the journalist and poet Dr Charles Mackay maintained that it had done 'more than statesmanship or legislation to keep alive in the hearts of the people the virtues that nourish at the fireside' (quoted Turner and Miall, 143). Even a group of Zulus, members of the only tribe in South Africa to resist the might of British imperialism, were reported to have been melted by a performance of this song by the celebrated Marie Albani in Kimberly.
Superficially, the song seems to be addressed to the person living in a lowly home; in reality it is aimed at the new urban wealthy, in whom it awakens tender reassurances that the change in their fortunes has not entailed a change in the simplicity of their hearts. The song provides them with a nostalgic yearning for the simple life which is a fantasy of rustic bliss (trotting out of the cottage to call to the gaily singing birds) rather than a picture of the actual poverty and squalor endured by most occupants of humble country cottages. The emphasis on 'home' implies that a spiritual, if not material, contentment is available to everyone peace of mind is 'dearer than all'. Listeners are assured that they would not be seduced by the glittering splendour of a palace because it would not be home.
Its Italian manner gives it polite sophistication but, unlike some of Bishop's output, it does not display an affectedly Italian style (his song 'Tell Me My Heart', for example, makes use of the characteristic turns of musical phrase designed for the common weak endings of Italian words for the setting of strong one-syllable English words). Careful attention is paid to the accenting of words (a care not shown by editors of later editions): the music is not merely repeated for verse two; rhythmic differences are notated with some subtlety. For instance, Bishop marks that the word 'dearer' is to be sung at a quicker pace than the words 'met with' which occur at the corresponding position in verse 1.
Bishop is nowadays known solely for the simplest of his songs in spite of his enormous efforts to please his contemporary audience and singers. He was willing to furnish them with music in any vein which was profitable. If this meant cashing in on the success of others, so be it. 'Tis When To Sleep', from The Maniac (1810), is a most flattering imitation of Shield's best-seller, 'The Wolf. For virtuoso singers he was ready to compose display pieces which would guarantee them rapturous applause. A few of these, such as 'Lo, Here the Gentle Lark', remained in the repertoire of operatic divas like Amelita Galli-Curci this century. His rewards were not just financial (most of these gains were quickly spent): he was one of the first professors of music at the University of Edinburgh (where Senate Jealousy restricted the time allowed for music lectures to a maximum of two per [15/16] year); he was the first musician to receive a knighthood; and he replaced Dr Crotch as professor of music at the University of Oxford towards the end of his life, becoming a doctor of music himself.
Bishop's work consolidated the new blend of drama and music which had developed in the eighteenth century, and he ensured the English opera's survival as a rival to the Italian variety. The biggest problem facing English opera was that it had won no real status as an art-form because of the scorn of the aristocracy. There was still a noticeable class division in the audience for opera: the aristocracy, on one side, showed contempt for the English opera, while the middle class, on the other, felt suspicious of the foreign variety (particularly on moral and religious grounds). The division is observable in the fact that between 1792-1843 the King's Theatre in the Haymarket (which became Her Majesty's on the accession of Queen Victoria) was the only London theatre licensed to perform opera in Italian. The middle class differed in their attitude to opera in a factional way among themselves; some respected the taste of the aristocracy and sought to emulate it, while others, notably the largely nonconformist industrial bourgeoisie, were inclined to reject all opera as decadent. For aristocratic taste the Italian language was considered the perfect medium for singing; the lack of diphthongs meant pure vowel sounds, which in turn meant steadier pitch and evenness of tone. The artistic status of Balfe's The Bohemian Girl was considerably raised when it was given at Her Majesty's in Italian translation as La Zingara. It was rare for any opera to be presented in English at this theatre, and during the years 1810—40 Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini were the most frequently performed composers.
Although Italian opera began to gain ground among the middle class thanks to the charm of Rossini, it should be stressed that this wider audience was for Italian opera in English. Rossini's music first won over the Covent Garden audience in 1829, when Robin Lacy used music from Semiramide for an operatic adaptation of Scott's Ivanhoe, giving the work the fashionable title The Maid of Judah. Virginal heroines are frequently found in opera titles at this time, perhaps as a guarantee of the moral wholesomeness of the drama. Once Rossini's music had been accepted at Covent Garden (image), there was bound to be a certain amount of influence on this theatre's other stage entertainments because the same singers were used in all the repertoire. When Alfred Bunn became lessee of both Covent Garden and Drury Lane in 1833, the influence was spread further as a result of the meanness of Bunn's contracts which committed his singers to performances at both his theatres (sometimes on the same evening).
Bunn was one among many who believed that a fusion of elements between English and Italian opera could produce a national variety of grand opera which would be universally admired and consequently prove immensely profitable. Bunn made determined efforts to establish an English operatic tradition; together with Edward Fitzball (originally of the unadorned surname Ball), and occasionally working in partnership with him, he dominated the writing of libretti. In 1835 he staged Balfe's first success, The Siege of Rochelle (libretto by Fitzball which ran for three months at Drury Lane. The next year, scenting a windfall he overcame his customary parsimony and offered the celebrated Madame [16/17] Malibran the unprecedented salary of £125 a week in order to persuade her to sing the title role in another Balfe opera, The Maid of Artois, a setting of Bunn's own libretto. Alas, neither he nor Balfe were to make their fortune with this work, partly because they failed to recognize the exact nature of the artistic compromises which had to be made if an English opera was to achieve success. The unavoidable conflict of artistic principles which composers and librettists faced but seldom satisfactorily resolved will become evident below. Bunn often translated and adapted what he thought to be suitably romantic libretti from operas which had been successful on the continent. The Daughter of St Mark (music by Balfe), for example, is based on a French libretto by J-H. V. de St Georges, La Reine de Chypre, set to music by Halevy three years earlier, in 1841. Plagiarism was by no means confined to Bunn in England; Lachner's Catharina Comoro (Munich, 1841) and Donizetti's Catarina Comoro (Naples, 1844) are both musical settings of versions of the same original French libretto.
A survey of English opera in nineteenth-century Britain is only relevant here in so far as it acts as one of the storehouses of drawing-room song (see White). It will suffice to give brief descriptions of the character and output of the most successful composers working in this field, and to single out Balfe as a representative figure for closer scrutiny. The dream of many composers was of being the first to sow the seed of a strong English operatic tradition. The conditions for growth were made unfavourable, however, by the presence of two conflicting demands: one of these was dictated by the drama and the other by the middle-class audience. The latter tended to judge English operas by the resources they offered for use in the drawing room; a perfect opera from this point of view was a chain of 'favourite airs'. Obviously, this limited the dramatic interaction between characters because of the resulting restriction imposed upon ensemble passages (Mozart's rapid and eventful Marriage of Figaro, for example, is full of ensembles).
Samuel Beazley's Lyceum Theatre (1834), Wellington Street, Strand
While Bunn was trying to establish English opera at his theatres, the Lyceum reopened its doors as the English Opera House. In a bid to stimulate interest, it began its first season with a grand opera, Nourjahad, composed by Edward James Loder (1813-65) and based on a play by Arnold, the theatre's manager. The real success, however, came with the next production, The Mountain Sylph by John Barnett (1802-90). Barnett showed his artistic aspirations in opting for recitative instead of spoken dialogue, which gave The Mountain Sylph the distinction of being the first through-composed English opera since Arne's Artaxerxes. In spite of that, it ran for three months initially and remained in favour for the rest of the century; indeed, Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe consciously satirizes it. Nevertheless, the English Opera House was not financially viable and Barnett himself later failed in two attempts to set up a permanent venue for English opera. When he left for Cheltenham in 1841 to devote his career to the teaching of singing, he took with him the conviction that there was a conspiracy to crush English opera on the part of concert promoters.
Loder also decided to leave for the provinces, though he too had enjoyed a notable success with a fairy-tale romantic opera, The Night Dancers. He obtained the post of musical director at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, in 1851. If he had hopes of greater success for English opera in the liberal climate there, he was [17/18] mistaken. His last important opera, Raymond and Agnes (libretto by Fitzball),18 failed because the music was too difficult for a provincial theatre to cope with in 1855. Loder had a limited success in the drawing room, but his music clearly shows that he is torn by conflicting interests: sometimes he writes in the style of the English 'traditional' air, as in his two popular settings of H. F. Chorley, 'The Brave Old Oak' and 'The Three Ages of Love'; at other times he demonstrates his dramatic skills and his indebtedness to the Italian romantic operatic aria, as in 'The Diver'.
The Irish composer William Vincent Wallace (1812-65) was regarded with a mixture of disapproval and admiration as a wild rover. The son of a bandmaster, he became, perhaps surprisingly, not a wind player but an outstanding violinist and pianist. He was much involved with the rich musical life of Dublin as a young man; then, at the age of twenty-three he emigrated with his wife to Tasmania. A few years later, heavily in debt, he deserted his wife and child and fled to South America. Here, and afterwards in North America, he built considerable fame as a performer. He also bega concocting stories about his past - his service in punitive expeditions against the Maoris, his rescue by a chief's daughter, and all manner of well-received apocrypha. When he finally came to London in 1845, Fitzball, who nourished the idea of being a wild man himself, was impatient for his consent to the request that he compose the music to Maritana. If an operatic heroine was not a fairy or a maid then she would more than likely be, as Maritana is, a gypsy. Fitzball no doubt assumed that this would suit Wallace's temperament, and he was proved right when Wallace completed the score the same year. The opera had a successful run only exceeded in the nineteenth century by Balfe's The Bohemian Girl (another gypsy). In Maritana he had managed to maintain the delicate balance between the demands of stage drama and home music-making. It has favourite airs in plenty ('Yes! Let Me Like a Soldier Fall', 'Alas! Those Chimes So Sweetly Stealing', 'There Is a Flower', 'Scenes That Are Brightest', etc.), but also contains some well-thought-out concerted sections (such as the finale to Act II).
Michael William Balfe (1808-70), another Irish composer, was the person who seemed most likely to establish a proud future for English opera in view of the acclaim he received for The Siege of Rochelle, The Maid of Artois, and greatest of all for The Bohemian Girl, which was first presented at Drury Lane in 1843 and went on to become the most frequently performed opera after The Beggar's Opera. Balfe's experience as a professional singer (like Braham he had toured widely as a young man) obviously stood him in good stead as a composer for the voice. He was not concerned, however, with trying to thrill the opera audience with the virtuosity of vocal displays by characters on stage; musical fireworks might win admiration for the singer but they would hamper sales of the song. Balfe learned this lesson when, flushed with success, he ambitiously followed The Bohemian Girl with a 'grand opera seria' The Daughter of St Mark, making few concessions to the amateur market. It effectively demonstrated to him the financial penalty of a failure in the drawing room. He concentrated his skill afterwards into writing simple, affecting melodies. As a result, more operatic airs by Balfe found then way into the drawing room than those of any other composer. Because of the close [18/19] links Balfe and Bishop enjoyed with the fashionable area of Covent Garden, they were both able to command higher sums for their songs than the majority of composers. Balfe in particular was prepared to engage in hard bargaining over this lucrative source of income.
I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls,
With vassals and serfs at my side,
And of all those assembled within those walls
That I was the hope and the pride.
I had riches too great to count - could boast
Of a high ancestral name;
But I also dreamt, which pleas'd me most,
That you lov'd me still the same.
I dreamt that suitors sought my hand,
That knights upon bended knee,
And with vows no maiden heart could withstand,
They pledg'd their faith to me,
And I dreamt that one of that noble host
Came forth my hand to claim;
But I also dreamt, which charm'd me most,
That you lov'd me still the same.
'The Dream' is a perfect example of the detachable English operatic air: it relies in no way upon any knowledge of its function in Act II nor, indeed, is any understanding of the opera's plot necessary to make sense of the words. It therefore has the advantage of appealing to those of the middle class who felt uncomfortable about attending opera performances and who chose to avoid the risk of being infected by the theatre's not altogether scrupulous consideration of moral proprieties (on top of which, it was often a pick-up place for prostitutes). The title, The Bohemian Girl, suggests that unsavoury characters may be represented on stage. Bohemianism could also extend, in a more alarming manner, to the subversive status of a counter-culture, particularly among rebellious creative artists. In opera bohemianism is little else than simple escapism; the gypsies are no more of the real world than the fairies. In the case of 'The Dream', not only are words and music part of a self-contained unit which makes sense outside of its original operatic context, but mood and message comply with the requirements for consumption in the intimacy of the drawing room. The mood is nostalgic, the vein of melancholy Bunn tapped most successfully. Memory provides Bunn with the theme of this air, as in many of his other well-known lyrics, such as 'The Light of Other Days', 'The Heart Bow'd Down' ('mem'ry is the only friend'), 'When Other Lips' ('you'll remember me'). 'The Dream' is Arline's subconscious memory other childhood.
Its message out of context is clear: the love of a good man is more important than the possession of marble halls, the services of vassals, or the payment o homage by knights. The contemporary bourgeois listener is thus given room to [19/20] consider the bygone accoutrements of feudal power in a harmlessly romantic light and led to ponder instead upon the wider mysteries of the power of love and the strength of individual character. Balfe attempts to evoke a mood by eschewing the overtly dramatic technique of 'word-painting' seen in the songs which have been previously analysed. The mood is one of exhilaration: it is conveyed by the giddy waltzlike momentum and the breathless repetition of the words about being loved. Balfe creates the effect of breathlessness by allowing scarcely any time for the singer to inhale before each of the last two musical phrases in both verses.
True to his usual form, Balfe is cavalier in his word setting. He specifies an off-beat rhythmic effect in the middle of many of the bars but is unconcerned that, because of this, accents fall on unimportant words such as 'at' and 'of, or on unstressed syllables as in 'assembled'. Worse still, he rides roughshod over the enjambment in lines 5-6, breaking up the continuity of meaning by writing a separate musical phrase for each line. See the following musical example:
Balfe does the same thing with even more devastating effect in Thaddeus' Act III air 'The Fair Land of Poland' when he brings a positive conclusion to a musical phrase at the end of line 2 of the following: [20/21]
When the fair land of Poland was plough'd by the hoof
Of the ruthless invader, when might
With steel to the bosom and flame to the roof,
Completed her triumph o'er right:
Enjambment is not a device which lends itself readily to convincing musical treatment so Balfe prefers to ignore it.
Influence of the Italian opera composers on the style of Balfe's melodies and accompaniments is evident, although the contention that there is an all-pervasive imitation of Rossini would be an exaggeration. The trio in The Daughter of St Mark, for instance, bears an unmistakable family resemblance to the quartet in Beethoven's Fidelio. A typical Rossini-like feature employed by Balfe is the repetition of a musical phrase which seems to be on the point of concluding a melodic sentence. Earlier examples, however, are easily found in Mozart.20 Balfe appropriated enough Italian features to appear progressive and fashionable, but he knew full well that Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini were rarely heard in the drawing room. Rosina's aria 'Una voce poco fa' from Act II of Rossini's The Barber of Seville may have been a great favourite with opera audiences, who could appreciate the rapid runs and elaborate decorations woven around what was a simple and appealing melodic skeleton, but it demanded a virtuoso soprano technique which ruled it out for amateur performance. Balfe was careful to introduce only slight decoration in his airs, after noting that the loudly applauded virtuoso numbers he had written for celebrated singers like Malibran did more for their performers' reputations than for his own pocket. He enjoyed using the Italian procedure of following a succession of two-bar phrases with an extended and decorated closing phrase. Again, this had been done by Mozart,21 had been taken up by Rossini,22 and is found later with greater frequency in Donizetti3 and Bellini.24 Balfe uses this procedure, in preference to a straightforward repetition of his final phrase, in many of his most 'popular' airs, such as 'The Heart Bow'd Down', 'When Other Lips', 'The Light of Other Days', 'In This Old Chair' and 'The Peace of the Valley'. The beautiful cavatina 'The Power of Love', from Satanella, has its short structure elongated by a whole series of Italianate [21/22] phrase extensions, motivic repetitions, and word-painting; at the same time it retains a limpid charm typical of Balfe. It is this melodic attractiveness that allows him to succeed with a setting of Longfellow's 'The Arrow and the Song' very much arioso in style (a half-way house between recitative and aria) where others would have been dull.
Balfe's banality lies in his accompaniments: they seldom contain any melodic interest and are generally no more than repeated broken-chord patterns. It cannot be argued that he is deliberately catering for the parlour pianist, since solo piano interludes in his songs require a higher level of skill. Nevertheless, he avoids obvious clichés; an examination of the accompaniment to 'The Light of Other Days' will reveal his efforts to avoid a commonplace Alberti bass.
There was a late success for an English opera at Covent Garden in 1862 (The Lily of Killamey by Sir Julius Benedict), but otherwise interest had flagged. The dream of the national opera house still haunted Victorian composers, however, and the last attempt to make it a reality came with the building of the Royal English Opera House which opened in 1891 with Sullivan's succes d'estime Ivanhoe (libretto by J. Sturgis, after Scott). English opera was an unpredictable art-form; it always seemed ready to blossom and was always found to be blighted. A parallel might be drawn with the twentieth-century musical and the constant high hopes which have been entertained for its potential as an elevated artistic genre. The same demand for the detachability of certain songs is there; the only difference is that these demands are now born of the desire to market best-selling records instead of sheet music.
Last modified 11 June 2012