From: Of Musick

Jack Ralph


Addressing the State of Opera In the 18th Century

This edition © 1993

SINCE the bare Name of an Italian Opera, as established at present amongst us, is to the last Degree shocking to the Ears of many honest Inhabitants of this METROPOLIS. In order to remove all groundless Prejudices, let us briefly and impartially, as possible, state the Case betwixt the contending Parties, by considering the most material Objections to this Entertainment, and framing a just Method of answering them. Thus wipe off, or at least compound for, those things they look upon as Absurdities or Impositions.

I think the Objections of greatest Weight may be reduced to four Heads. The first exclaims against an Opera's being performed in a Language too little understood. Its Enemies cry out against this as a thing highly unnatural ­ What! be attentive to what is Gibberish to us! ­ Chatt'ring Monkies! ­ Ridiculous Apes! ­ We spend Money and lose our Time, and perhaps only to be cursed or laughed at! ­ The second is started by those who are charmed with the MUSICK; particularly the Airs; but nauseate the odious Recitative: ­ Or that the Whole of an Opera should be sung ­ They die with Laughing to hear a Tyrant rage and storm in a vast Regularity of Sounds; a General sing at the Head of and Army; or a Lover, Swan­like, expire at his Mistress's Feet; and that there is not an imperial Mandate, a Word of Command, or Billet­doux delivered but in expressive Flats and Sharps. The third bears hard with a most general Out­cry upon the exorbitant Prices we pay the Performers; especially the Foreigners: ­ Intolerable! ­ so many Hundreds! ­ for a Thing of nothing! ­ a Voice! ­ a mere ha, ha! ­ nasty pusses, odious filthy Things! ­ Let them stay at home and starve, or sing at reasonable Rates. ­ The fourth is altogether critical, and raised by those Gentlemen who are Masters of so much good Sense, and just Criticism, that they are obliged to be displeased with every thing that will not stand the Test of ARISTOTLE and RAPIN. An Opera throws them into Convulsions; one Part is ridiculous, another improbable; a third unnatural; a fourth improper; a fifth irregular, ­ and so they run themselves out of Breath ­ Sounds, no Unity in Time, Place or Action observed!LET me now, as briefly as I stated these Objections, animadvert upon them, according to the sentiments of those who are professed Admirers of our present OPERAS: Then I shall naturally throw in my private Opinion, and like a true Critick, point out both Beauties and Blemishes, stand up in Defense of what is right, and propose Remedies for what is wrong.

As to the first Objection; The musical Part of this and all other modern Nations have agreed, that the Italian is undoubtedly the most proper Language to be joined to Sounds, for Reasons so obvious, that it would be Impertinence to mention them. But, not to tire my Reader with Quotations, let us hear what one of our greatest Refiners and Improvers of the English Tongue says; and every Man will allow DRYDEN to be a judge: All, says he , who are conversant in that noble Language, the Italian, cannot but observe, that it is the softest, sweetest, and most harmonious, not only of any modern Tongue, but even beyond any of the Learned. It seems to have been invented not only for POETRY, but MUSICK; the Vowels so abounding in all the Words, especially in the Terminations, that, excepting a few Monosyllables, the whole Language ends in them. Then their Pronunciation is so sonorous, that their very Speaking has more MUSICK in it, than Dutch POETRY and SONG: And if we must call it barbarous, it is the most beautiful and most learned of a Barbarism in the modern Tongues.

In the next place we cannot have native Performers for our Mother Tongue, but what will fall far short of the excellent Voices and Taste of those we are supplied with from Abroad: Some Women we boast of, and Boys; but the first generally lose their Voices before they begin to learn, and are then ill taught; as the latter are obliged by Nature to part with theirs, by the time they know any thing of the Matter: A tolerable Bass Voice we may meet with by Chance in an Age: But as we are denied the Liberty of artificially tuning the Pipes of those Performers who are neither Men nor Women, and who are the Foundation of the Italian OPERAS; I do aver, that I think it impossible to form a perfect and complete Musical Entertainment of our own People, or in our own Language.
NOT to go any farther back than last Winter, the Attempt of introducing English Operas at L­­n's ­ Inn ­ F­­lds Theatre, will sufficiently justify my Assertion. Their Endeavors, though headed by a great Master, and supported by some People of the best Fashion and Interest, in a few Weeks did but expose to the Ridicule of every body, that had any Notion of MUSICK, their wretched Performance; and even then, those made the best Figure of their Stage were Foreigners: 'Tis true, that Representation had a Run (as they term it), and brought several full Houses; but I speak of its Merit, and not its Success; the first was obvious to every Ear; the last was forced by a Party, during the Vacation of the Italian OPERAS.

NOTHING but the Wantonness of Plenty from the lowest Necessity, could have thrown People into such an Absurdity, thus profusely to squander away on bad Voices, what was got by clever Heels; and to choose that Season, when the whole of English MUSICK was at the lowest Ebb, and the OPERAS at the H­­y ­ M­­t at that Height (both as to Composition and Performance), which no ancient Theatre could ever have and Idea of; nay, it is almost unknown to Italy itself.

I was so fortunate, as to be oblig'd once to sit Ca­­la out, to the great Disquiet of my Ears; nor have I perfectly got rid of the Head­ache it gave me, yet; and I vow, had it not been for Mrs. B­­ier, and my old Friend L­­dge, I could have swore the Stage had returned the Favor the audience sometimes does them, and play'd a full choir of Cat­calls upon us.
THIS Season they reviv'd Thomyris at L­­ns' Inn F­­ls; but that being rather a better OPERA, and more justly performed than the other, the Town would not go near it.

SO finding their Finances run very low, by striving to so well, they thought it absolutely necessary to do something very bad, in order to retrieve their undone Affairs.

THIS indeed they have happily effected in Conjunction with a great Poet; and by giving us something more execrable in relation to MUSICK, than the World ever dreamt of seeing on any Stage, they are Made; and we run mad with Joy in being agreeably disappointed.THE Beggar's Opera, by robbing the Performers at Pye­corner, Fleet­ditch, Moor­fields (and other Stations of this Metropolis, famed for travelling Sounds) of their undoubted Properties, has reinstated them in Wealth and Grandeur; and what shock'd most Ears, and set most Teeth on edge, at turning the Corner of a Street, for half a Moment; when thrown into to regular Entertainment, charms for Hours.

I must own they never appear'd to that Advantage in any musical Light as this OPERA of Beggars: Their Rags of POETRY and Scraps of MUSICK joined so naturally, that in whatever View we consider it as to Character or Circumstance, its Title is the most apropos Thought upon Earth.

THE second Objection, at first Sight, may appear very plausible; but, upon Examination, very ill grounded; for it is impossible to have a perfect musical Dramma, without Recitative: No Ear can support the While being all Air; therefore if you take away the Recitative, it is no OPERA: And the best Judges value a Master as much upon the Merit of one as the other: The Recitative is but a tuneable Method of speaking; and in the Article of MUSICK, but refines upon Speech, as far as polite Comedy excels common Conversation, or Tragedy in Heroicks, the ordinary Style of the Great. As for the critical Part of the Objection against Recitative, I desire that our Poets, Critics, and Fine Gentlemen, banish first greater Absurdities and Inconsistencies from their Stage­Plays; for I cannot imagine, that to sing all the Parts of an OPERA is by half so unnatural, as the sparkling Nonsense, gilded Fustian, and pompous Bombast in most, if not all our Tragedies; nor so improper as the quaint Double Entendres, and forc'd Similes, squeezed out in the midst of Misfortunes, or at the Point of Death: The Heroes there quietly and stupidly sleep over four Acts in a dull regular Way of Life, till by Danger they are rouz'd from their Lethargy into a State of Wit; like the Prince born dumb, whose Tongue was never loosen'd, till the Sword was at his Father's Throat. In short, nothing is ridiculous that executes a regular Design: that of an OPERA, is to represent to us, in the Drammatick Way, some instructive Fable, where the Words are all to be deliver'd in MUSICK; therefore a King must rule, a General fight, a Lover sigh, in Harmony: Nor is there wanting in this Art a Variety to touch the different Passions, as justly as any Kind of POETRY: Nor can I observe any thing in singing a Conversation Piece more absurd or ridiculous than a familiar Dialogue in Heroick Rhime.

THE third Objection indeed carries great Weight with it: Our Prices are immoderately extravagant; and all we can say to justify them is , that we are arrived now to so piquant an Gou in MUSICK, that nothing but what is superexcellent will pass. What pleases at Venice or Rome may chance to be hiss'd at the H­­y ­ M­­t. If we must have those of the greatest Merit, they will be paid accordingly. If they don't meet with more Encouragement here than at Home, who will run the hazard of coming near us? Should we pay them double, still the Odds is against them; and English Morning or Evening may ruin them for ever, and a North­East Blast in July rob them of their Bread at once: 'Tis but just, that if our Ears demand the best Performers, that our Purses should pay the highest Prices; else 'tis culling the choicest Fruit at Leaden­Hall and Covent­Garden Markets, and expect it as cheap as the withered Refuse of a blind Alley­Stall.

THE exorbitant Expenses occasion'd by introducing an Italian OPERA amongst us, may be reduc'd to two Heads: First, the vast Salaries given to the singers by the Academy. Secondly, what the Audience pays to the Academy, which is the natural Consequence of the other. As to the first, I think it fully answer'd before, nor is the Academy in the least to blame; our Taste is so refin'd, and our Judgement so solid in relation to all Parts of MUSICK, that such an Entertainment cannot be supported but by the Tip­top Performers of the World; and they will have Prices equal to their Merit. As to the second, it would be highly unreasonable to expect that the Directors of the H­­y ­ M­­t Theatre should amuse us at their own private Expense; they run a great Risk to please us, in engaging for vast Sums, whilst it is left to our Choice whether we'll come or no, to ease them of Part of the Burden: Nor can they with the highest Prices be certain of coming off clear one Season, unless they have crowded Houses every Night.

THE fourth Objection is altogether critical, and carry'd on in the stiff pedantic Rules that Tribe have settled, by which they form a Judgement on every thing polite, and of consequence damn all Amusements where Spirit and Life prevail over their unanimated Works of Clay. These merry Gentlemen would reduce OPERA to the Standard of Aristotle and Rapin. Should these Entertainments in any Point prove Malefactors, they are for bringing them before improper Judges; it is carrying the Cause into as wrong a Court of Judicature, as trying a Pirate for Murder in Chancery, or a Highwayman in Doctors­Commons. An OPERA borrows no Helps from their Poetics, is no built upon the Foundation of their Stages, nor must their Rules interfere with any Part of the Superstructure: Were it otherways, why should not this Amusement as well as others, upon Occasion, plead the Benefit of their Clergy; and when it is guilty of what is irregular or unnatural, excuse it, by calling it a bright Thought and bold Beauty. It has ever been granted by those who allow OPERA any Existence at all, that things wholly super­natural and marvellous are warrantable in this Kind of Dramma; though they would be damn'd in a regular tragedy or Comedy: AN OPERA may be call'd the Tyrant of the Stage; it is subject to no poetical Laws, despises the Power of Limitations of a Parliament of Criticks; and subsist altogether by absolute Sway, and its own uncontrollable Prerogative: It has Liberty to range Heaven, Earth and Hell; calls Gods, Spirits, and Devils to its Assistance; and all this unbounded Freedom is taken for the Probable, or rather what is necessary in this Entertainment.

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Page Created 1993, Last updated February 1, 2001.