‘I have asked myself what is missing from this nation. Kindness, love of people, humour or aesthetic sense? No, one can find all these attributes in England… Finally I have found something which distinguishes English people from all other cultures to quite an astonishing degree, a lack which everybody acknowledges – therefore nothing new – but has not been emphasised enough. The English are the only cultured nation without its own music.’
Writing in 1904, Oscar Schmitz encapsulated the oeuvre of English musical criticism at the beginning of the last century. Despite the English nation’s love of music in the early modern period, we were arguably more a nation of listeners than creators. Our speciality was metamorphoses: of transforming established European genres into anglicised counterparts.
Consider opera. The English interaction with the genre in the mid-seventeenth to early eighteenth century is a tale of one such attempted metamorphosis. The operatic genre gripped the restoration court of Charles II. On his return to England, the exiled King brought with him an increasingly Francophile court. And as opera grew increasingly popular with the French aristocracy at Versailles, the English naturally wished to keep up appearances. If Louis XIV could have Jean-Bapitise Lully write beautiful scores and librettos for performance at Versailles, then Charles could have the same performed in central London. Taking its basis from Elizabethan Court masques, Samuel Pepys notes how the bourgeoisie and royals alike, of both English and Bohemian origins, attending a performance of William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes in 1661 at Covent Garden, gorged upon the emulated European decadence, “It is indeed very fine and magnificent, and well-acted, all but the Eunuch, who was so much out that he was hissed off the stage.”
Using normative models of trends and fashions, one would expect Davenant’s production to have created a snowball effect, before either melting back to the European ether from whence it came or becoming an established genre. But the English language libretto had an extremely short lifespan. It melted like a snowflake, leaving little proof of its existence behind in the form of a few critical articles that have been written upon the subject. If one takes Ovid’s definition of metamorphosis to be a complete transformation of one entity into another, the transformation of European to English opera falls disappointingly short. To put it bluntly, it is a failed metamorphosis. To use one of the most famous of Ovid’s narratives, it is like Orpheus’ quest to return his dead lover from the underworld: he grasps her for a moment, but before she can be returned to a living body, she slips away once more.
But if Pepys’ diary depicts such a busy scene upon his own viewing of an opera in English, why did the genre fail to become established? The question is, of course, extremely subjective: how do we explain changes in taste in the modern period, let alone over three hundred years ago? The answer arguably lies in the both the staging of these productions and the socio-political ideology of the period.
Dealing with the former first, opera was not the most accessible genre. Other than The Siege of Rhodes, the only other publicly staged opera in English in the period was John Gay’s immensely popular The Beggar’s Opera (1728). Evolving from the court masque tradition, English operas remained mainly within the walls of the palaces of Whitehall and Windsor or in private home performances. It is no wonder the genre did not take off when works like Henry Purcell’s masterpiece Dido and Aeneas (1690) debuted at a girls’ school in Chelsea, whilst John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (1683) was restricted to a now unknown palatial location.
English opera may have produced works of musical and lyrical beauty in the vernacular, but they remained strictly closet dramas for the upper classes. With no complete scores of librettos published, many remained unheard and unread in manuscript form for hundreds of years.
As the audience of these works were restricted, so was their very creation. The 1670s and 80s were decades of intense religious dispute between Catholics and Protestants. The exclusion crisis of 1679-81 sought to dispel the Catholic Duke of York from the line of succession, resulting in both himself and his wife being forced into exile. But as a lover of Italian opera, the Duchess was the London champion of the genre.
Without the presence of her and her court, London was left without any staged operatic productions. Even upon her return, the works presented were restricted to private performance. Arguably, the Catholic and French connotations of the genre were too much for a nation living in fear of constant Catholic usurpers after the ‘Popish Plot’ of Titus Oates. Like the act of metamorphosis the bread and wine undergoes, becoming the body and blood of Christ according to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the British public appeared to deny the full transformation of the operatic genre.
In short, the surviving examples of the early English opera canon are few and far between. True, Handel was immensely popular amongst the English aristocracy in the mid-eighteenth century, but his librettos focused upon biblical narrative opposed to authorial creativity. There remains a vernacular libretto-shaped void in the cultural development of early English music when contrasted with our European counterparts. True, the extant examples we have are based upon typical French models and classical subject matters. But in their lyrical beauty and nuanced political allegories, they are masterpieces in their own right. Listen to the final act of Blow’s Venus and Adonis or Purcell’s Dido and tell me you do not weep at least a little. The genre may have been a failed metamorphosis in the long term, but while they were allowed to flourish, they touched the sublime: even if just for a brief instance.