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Thomas Arne: Overtures; Collegium Musicum 90, Simon Standage, Chandos torrent


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Arne, Thomas Augustine (1710-1778)

1. Life.
Arne inherited his first name from his grandfather and father, London upholsterers and undertakers and office holders in the London Company of Upholders. As a child he adopted the middle name Augustine, apparently to show his allegiance to the Roman Catholic faith of his mother, Anne. His father rented a large house in King Street, Covent Garden, where he ran a thriving business, the Two Crowns and Cushions, although he apparently allowed his own father and brother Edward to die in debtors' prisons. According to Charles Burney, who became his apprentice in 1744, Arne was sent to Eton, where a passion for music soon became evident: he tormented his fellow pupils ‘night and day’ by playing the recorder, practised the spinet secretly at night during the holidays, ‘muffling the strings with a handkerchief’, and studied composition on his own before taking violin lessons with Michael Christian Festing; Burney wrote that Arne and Festing were both present on 12 November 1725 to hear Thomas Roseingrave win the competition for the post of organist of St George's, Hanover Square.

The next year Arne was apprenticed for three years to a London attorney, Arthur Kynaston, but he soon abandoned the law for music. Burney wrote that Arne's father was reconciled to the change by the chance discovery of his son playing first violin in a concert at the house of a neighbour. The opposition cannot have been strong or prolonged, for Thomas Augustine was soon teaching his younger sister Susanna and his brother Richard to sing, and his father had some hand in the company formed in 1732 to put on English operas at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket; he sold tickets for the performances and probably provided financial backing. The company began in March with John Frederick Lampe's setting of Henry Carey's Amelia, and followed that with an unauthorized stage production of Handel's Acis and Galatea (17 May).

That autumn, however, the company split: Lampe remained at the Haymarket while Arne put on a production of Teraminta by Carey and John Stanley at Lincoln's Inn Fields (20 November) – the first definite record of his theatrical activities – and his own opera Rosamond (7 March 1733), a setting of Joseph Addison's 1707 libretto. The next season Arne put on his afterpiece setting of The Opera of Operas, or Tom Thumb the Great at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket in competition with a revival at Drury Lane of Lampe's full-length setting of the same text. Arne's setting ran for 15 nights and his masque Dido and Aeneas also did well, running for 17 performances.


Arne's position in the London theatre was strengthened by his sister Susanna's marriage in April 1734 to the actor and playwright Theophilus Cibber, whose company was in residence at Drury Lane. As a result he became house composer at Drury Lane, and wrote music for a number of plays and pantomimes over the next few years. Another profitable alliance was his own marriage to the soprano Cecilia Young on 15 March 1737, despite her father's objection to his Catholicism. He now had at his disposal the greatest tragedienne of her time (his sister) and the finest English female singer (his wife), and they contributed to his first enduring success, his setting of Milton's 1634 masque Comus as adapted by John Dalton (1738); it held the stage beyond the end of the century. Comus exploited the current fashion for old plays, the beginnings of a pre-Romantic interest in the past, though its success also had much to do with Arne's charming music; it was imitated by Handel in his Milton oratorio L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, written two years later.

By 1738 Arne was one of the leaders of musical life in London. That year he was one of the founder-members of the Society (later Royal Society) of Musicians, along with Handel, Boyce and Pepusch. In 1740 he was commissioned to set David Mallet and James Thomson's masque Alfred for performance in an entertainment given by the Prince of Wales in the gardens of Cliefden (Cliveden) House, near Maidenhead. The original work seems to have contained only seven musical numbers (including ‘Rule, Britannia’), although Arne rewrote it a number of times, turning it in 1745 into an all-sung oratorio, and in 1753 into an all-sung opera. In the theatrical season 1740–41 he composed music for the Drury Lane productions of The Tempest, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, including songs such as ‘Where the bee sucks’ and ‘Under the greenwood tree’ that have never been surpassed or forgotten since they were written. Arne had another major success in spring 1742 with Congreve's 1700 masque The Judgment of Paris, presumably inspired by the unidentified setting performed with Alfred at Cliveden in 1740.

Up to this point, Arne had worked mostly in London. But his sister took refuge in Dublin in December 1741 from the scandal surrounding the failure of her marriage to Cibber, and sang there with Handel in spring 1742, notably in the first performance of Messiah on 13 April. Handel's success in Dublin presumably inspired Arne to try his luck there: he arrived with his wife and the tenor Thomas Lowe on 30 June and worked there for two seasons. He spent most of his time performing existing compositions, including a number of Handel oratorios, though his own oratorio The Death of Abel was first given at the Smock Alley Theatre on 18 February 1744. On his return journey in August he passed through Chester, where he met the young Charles Burney and agreed to take him to London as his apprentice without the usual fee.

Over the next few years Arne continued his work at Drury Lane, and had a hit with his setting of God bless our noble king, which was sung every night during the crisis caused by the Young Pretender's rebellion in September 1745. His long association with London's pleasure gardens also seems to have started that summer, when vocal music formed part of the entertainments at Vauxhall for the first time. According to Burney, Arne's dialogue Colin and Phaebe was ‘constantly encored every night for more than three months’, and was published in September in the first collection of Vauxhall songs, Lyric Harmony; Arne's later song collections, notably in the series Vocal Melody (1749–64), also contain many songs from the pleasure gardens.

The 1750s were not very fruitful years for Arne. David Garrick, joint patentee at Drury Lane from 1747, began to prefer other composers, and Arne had several flops, including the all-sung afterpieces Henry and Emma (1749) and Don Saverio (1750). Things came to a head when Susanna Cibber defected to Covent Garden with several other actors at the beginning of the 1750–51 season. Arne followed her and a battle ensued between the two theatres, beginning with competing productions of Romeo and Juliet put on on the same day, 28 September, with rival settings by Arne and Boyce of processional dirges at the end of the play. Arne's dirge continued to be performed long after Boyce's was forgotten, but in general he was no more successful at Covent Garden than at Drury Lane, and he had to put on his next major work, the all-sung opera Eliza, at the Little Theatre (1754); it was suppressed after one performance ‘by an Order from a superior Power’. He returned to Drury Lane briefly with his setting of David Mallet's masque Britannia (1755), though in October that year he returned to Dublin with his wife, his pupil Charlotte Brent and his niece Polly Young.

It soon became apparent that Arne's marriage was in trouble. He attributed the situation to Cecilia's frequent illnesses, which he claimed resulted from her ‘passions, equal to raving madness’, while she complained of his repeated philandering. At the end of the season he returned to London with Charlotte Brent, now his mistress, while Cecilia remained in Dublin with Polly Young. He agreed to support her with £40 a year, though in 1758 Mrs Delany found her ‘much humbled’, teaching singing in Downpatrick: ‘She has been severely used by a bad husband, and suffered to starve, if she had not met with charitable people’. However, he evidently attempted to raise money at this period by publishing collections of his music with John Walsh, including Six Cantatas for a Voice and Instruments (1755), VIII Sonatas or Lessons for the Harpsichord (1756), VII Sonatas for Two Violins with a Thorough Bass (1757) and the scores of Britannia (1755), Alfred (1757) and Eliza (1757).

With Charlotte Brent at his disposal, Arne's fortunes rapidly revived. After Garrick refused her services at Drury Lane, she scored major successes at Covent Garden in Arne's revision of The Beggar's Opera (1759), his comic operas The Jovial Crew and Thomas and Sally (both 1760), his Metastasio opera Artaxerxes and his comic opera Love in a Village (both 1762), as well as his oratorio Judith, given at Drury Lane on 27 February 1761. He finally achieved a measure of official recognition on 7 July 1759 with an Oxford doctorate. Arne could not sustain this level of success for long: his comic opera The Guardian Out-Witted only lasted for six performances in December 1764, while the lost L'olimpiade, an opera seria in Italian, failed after only two nights in April 1765. Things were not helped in 1766 by the death of his sister and the marriage of Charlotte Brent to the violinist Thomas Pinto, and in the late 1760s he found little employment at either theatre. He found some compensation in his membership of the Noblemen and Gentlemen's Catch Club and the Madrigal Society, and in the profitable concerts of catches and glees he gave from 1767, although he was evidently in financial difficulty by 1770, when Cecilia's lawyer threatened legal action because he was £10 in arrears with his support payments.

Despite this, the last decade of Arne's life saw the production of some fine works, including An Ode upon Dedicating a Building to Shakespeare (7 September 1769), written for Garrick's Shakespeare festival at Stratford-upon-Avon, the masque The Fairy Prince (1771), the music for William Mason's Greek-style tragedy Elfrida (1772) and the lost music for Mason's tragedy Caractacus (1776), a score that according to Samuel Arnold contained ‘some of the brightest and most vigorous emanations of our English ‘Amphion’’. In October 1777 Arne was reconciled with his wife, though two months later he fell ill and made his will. He died of a ‘spasmodic complaint’, and was buried in the churchyard of St Paul's, Covent Garden, on 15 March 1778; his effects, including ‘a remarkably fine toned double key'd harpsichord, two guitars, a mandolin, a lute and other valuable effects’, were disposed of on 8 April.

2. Works.
Arne was one of the most prolific composers of his day, though much of his output is lost, and the circumstances of his life restricted him to only a few genres. As a Catholic, he did not write anything for the Anglican liturgy or any organ voluntaries, and was denied the sort of official patronage given to his most important English contemporaries, William Boyce and John Stanley. Furthermore, he showed little interest in writing concert music: he did not contribute to the concerto grosso repertory, his symphonies or overtures mostly derive from stage works, and his keyboard concertos, like Handel's, also seem to have been mainly a by-product of his work in the theatre. For most of his life, Arne was essentially a theatre composer, and dominated the various genres of English theatre music.

It is unfortunate that most of Arne's stage works are, for one reason or another, unlikely to be revived in the modern theatre. Some of the best, such as The Judgment of Paris (1742), Artaxerxes (1762) and The Fairy Prince (1771), only survive incomplete; few of his manuscripts survive, and those works that were printed usually appeared without choruses, dances or recitatives, and often only in vocal score. Many works use spoken dialogue (the norm at the time in the two main London theatres) rather than recitative, he set a number of poor texts – some his own work – and he was surprisingly reluctant to abandon the outdated conventions of the heroic masque, even towards the end of his life. Nevertheless, he was a consistent and courageous theatrical innovator. He seems to have been largely responsible for the revival of English opera in the early 1730s, and for alerting Handel to the commercial possibilities of large-scale works in English. He was the first English composer to experiment with Italian-style all-sung comic opera, unsuccessfully in The Temple of Dullness (1745), Henry and Emma (1749) and Don Saverio (1750), but triumphantly in Thomas and Sally (1760). Thomas and Sally was the first of three highly successful works by Arne of the early 1760s that created new genres in English theatre music, and determined much of its subsequent development. Artaxerxes (1762) was the first attempt to set a full-blown opera seria in English; it held the stage until the 1830s. Love in a Village (1762) was equally novel (fig.2). It was a modernized ballad opera, with borrowed Italian arias and specially composed numbers as well as folk tunes, all orchestrated in an up-to-date manner. It began a vogue for pastiche opera that lasted well into the 19th century.

Arne was also an important musical innovator. Charles Burney wrote that he introduced into Comus ‘a light, airy, original, and pleasing melody, wholly different from that of Purcell or Handel, whom all English composers had either pillaged or imitated’. He used this tuneful folklike style throughout his life, particularly in his songs for the pleasure gardens, though in his later stage works he began to develop a more advanced italianate style. Burney, who could never resist a sly dig at his former teacher, accused him of ‘crowding the airs’ of Artaxerxes with ‘most of the Italian divisions and difficulties which had ever been heard at the opera’, though in reality Arne was just the first English composer to go beyond the Baroque vocal technique established in England by Handel. His innovations, brilliantly demonstrated in performance by Charlotte Brent, were soon taken up by other English composers.

Similarly, Arne's orchestration developed greatly during his career. He wrote effectively for the orchestra in a Handelian idiom from the beginning of his career, but in the 1750s he began to be much more adventurous. He was the first English composer to use the clarinet (in Thomas and Sally), and in his later works he deployed wind instruments with verve and brilliance, though in such a way that the sound of a complete galant orchestra could be produced by about a dozen players: oboe, flute and clarinet parts normally alternate, so that they can be taken by the same players, while the occasional trumpet and timpani parts might have been taken by spare violinists. Artaxerxes is particularly imaginative in this respect: the opera opens with a striking evocation of the dawn, portrayed by a wind band with double bass and continuo, but without cellos, while the flowing river in ‘Water parted from the sea’ from Act 3 is beautifully rendered by dense writing for pairs of clarinets, horns, bassoons and strings. Arne could achieve equally striking effects just with strings, as in ‘O too lovely, too unkind’ from Act 1, where he muted the violins, divided the violas and mixed pizzicato and arco.


Perhaps the most striking feature of Arne's music is its stylistic diversity. Even in Comus there is a distinction between his own tuneful folklike style and the numbers in a more elevated Handelian idiom, such as the beautiful air ‘Nor on beds of fading flow'rs’. In his later works he began to use the galant idiom as well, often in order to aid characterization. In Artaxerxes he reserved the most advanced and richly scored airs for the main characters, mostly using the older idioms for the minor characters. 20th-century criticism, influenced by 19th-century notions of progress and stylistic unity, has tended to see this practice as a weakness, although Arne doubtless thought it made large-scale works agreeably varied, and it was taken up by his younger contemporaries, such as Thomas Linley (ii) and Samuel Wesley; it was the compositional equivalent of the retrospective concert repertory that was developing in England at the time.

Arne's sets of instrumental music are similarly diverse in style. In the Eight Overtures in 8 Parts (1751), nos.3 and 5 are italianate works in the fast–slow–fast pattern, while the others are broadly cast as French overtures, starting with an introduction in dotted rhythms and a fugue. Nos.3, 7 and 8 come from Henry and Emma (1749 setting), Comus and The Judgment of Paris respectively, though it is likely that they are all theatrical in origin. The Four New Overtures or Symphonies (1767), by contrast, are all in the modern three-movement pattern, and may have been composed as concert works. They suggest that Arne had been studying the galant symphonies of J.C. Bach and Abel as well as the series of Periodical Overtures published in London by Bremner from 1763, though they have a nervous brilliance in places that is closer to C.P.E. than J.C. Bach. Arne's VIII Sonatas or Lessons for the Harpsichord (1756) and VII Sonatas for Two Violins with a Thorough Bass (1757) are even more diverse in style and structure, and were probably hurriedly assembled for publication from works composed over a long period. Newspaper reports suggest that at least some of the Six Favourite Concertos for the Organ, Harpsichord or Piano Forte were written for Arne's son Michael in the 1750s, though they were not published until 1793, and there are signs of later revisions: an early variant of no.1 exists in manuscript, while the keyboard part of no.3 appears to have been modernized, presumably to make it more suitable for the pianoforte.

Arne's non-theatrical vocal works have generally been neglected, though the best of them deserve to be much better known. Judith (1761), with its lyrical airs and surprisingly un-Handelian, forward-looking choruses, is arguably the finest oratorio by an Englishman before The Dream of Gerontius. An Ode upon Dedicating a Building to Shakespeare (1769) unfortunately only survives in an incomplete vocal score, without the music that accompanied Garrick's melodramatic declamation of the text, although it does contain ‘Thou soft flowing Avon’, one of Arne's loveliest songs. Whittington's Feast (1776), his last major work apart from the lost Caractacus, survives complete in orchestral score and contains some fine, elaborate music, though its puerile text (a line-by-line parody of Alexander's Feast) has prevented modern revivals. The Morning, with its magical ‘sunrise’ opening, stands out among his smaller cantatas, as do Cymon and Iphigenia and The Lover's Recantation, witty explorations of rustic love.

Arne was undoubtedly an uneven composer. He was often hasty and slapdash, he was too easily satisfied by poor texts and he was content to use the language of the galant style without exploring its formal implications very far. Nevertheless, at his best he was capable of far outshining his more consistent contemporaries. He has been praised for his easy, natural sense of melody, though it is often his profound command of harmony and his simple yet highly effective orchestral writing that stays in the memory. As William Stafford put it in 1830:

Arne was neither so vigorous as Purcell, nor had he the magnificent simplicity, and lofty grandeur of Handel: but the ease and elegance of his melodies, and the variety of his harmony, render his compositions attractive in the highest degree: and we may justly be proud of his name, as an honour to English music.

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