It is one of the puzzles of history why England, which has contributed so richly to economic and political development and theory, to literature, science, religion, and philosophy, has been relatively barren in the more complex forms of musical composition since the age of Elizabeth I. The passage from Catholicism may serve as a partial explanation: the new faiths offered less inducement to lofty musical productions; and though Lutheran ritual in Germany and the Anglican in England called for music, the severer forms of Protestantism in England and the Dutch Republic gave little encouragement to any music above the congregational hymn. The legends and liturgy of the Roman Church, often stressing the joys of faith, were replaced by somber predestinarian creeds stressing the fear of hell; and only Orpheus could sing in the face of hell. The madrigals of Elizabethan England died in the Puritan frost. The Restoration brought a merrier spirit from France, but after the death of Purcell a pall fell upon English music again.
Except for songs. These ranged from the corporate sonorities of glee clubs to the airy delicacy of lyrics from Shakespeare’s plays. The word glee was the Anglo-Saxon gleo, meaning music; it did not necessarily imply joy. Usually it was applied to unaccompanied songs for three or more parts. Glee clubs flourished for a century, reaching their peak toward 1780 in the heyday of the chief composer of glees, Samuel Webbe. More beautiful were Thomas Arne’s settings for Shakespeare’s songs—“Blow, blow, thou winter wind,” “Under the greenwood tree,” and “Where the bee sucks, there suck I”; these are still heard in England. It was the melodious Arne who put to music Thomson’s “Rule, Britannia!” Now, or earlier, some unknown patriot composed the national anthem of Britain, “God Save the King.” So far as we know, this was first publicly sung in 1745, when news came that the forces loyal to George II had been defeated at Prestonpans by the Scots under the Young Pretender, and the Hanoverian dynasty seemeddoomed. In its earliest known form (differing only slightly from the current words and melody), it asked God for victory over the Jacobite faction in English politics as well as over the Stuart army advancing from Scotland:
God save our Lord the King,
Long live our noble King [George II],
God save the King.
Send him victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us;
God save the King.
O Lord our God arise,
Scatter his enemies,
And make them fall;
Confound their politicks,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On him [now Thee] our hopes are fixed;
O save us all.37
The melody was adopted for varying periods by nineteen other countries for patriotic songs, including Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and the United States of America, which in 1931 replaced “America” as national anthem by “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sung to an unmanageable tune from an old English drinking song.
The popularity of exquisite songs in England shows a widespread musical taste. A harpsichord was in nearly every home except among the poor. Almost everyone played some instrument, and there were performers numerous enough to provide, for the Handel commemoration program of 1784 in Westminster Abbey, ninety-five violins, twenty-six violas, twenty-one violoncellos, fifteen double basses, six flutes, twenty-six oboes, twelve trumpets, twelve horns, six trombones, and four drums, plus a choir of fifty-nine sopranos, forty-eight altos, eighty-three tenors, and eighty-four basses—enough to make Handel tremble in his Abbey tomb. The clarinet was not admitted till later in the century. There were magnificent organs, and great organists like Maurice Greene, whose anthems and Te Deums—along with those of Handel and Boyce—were almost the only memorable church music of England in that age.
William Boyce, though his hearing was impaired in youth, rose- to be master of the King’s Band (i.e., orchestra) and organist in the Chapel Royal. He was the first maestro to conduct standing; Handel and other contemporaries conducted from the organ or harpsichord. Some of his anthems—especially “By the Waters of Babylon”—are still heard in Anglican churches; and English homes still hear at least two of his songs: “Hearts of Oak,” which he wrote for one of Garrick’s pantomimes, and “Softly Rise, O Southern Breeze,” an aria in the cantata Solomon. His symphonies sound weak and thin to our macerated ears.
The only excitement in the English musical world at the outset of the eighteenth century was the coming of opera. There had been such performances as far back as 1674, but opera took the English fancy only when, in 1702, Italian singers came from Rome. In 1708 a renowned castrato, Nicolini, shocked and charmed London with his soprano voice. Some other castrati came; England became accustomed to them, and went wild over Farinelli. By 1710 there were enough Italian singers in London to present there the first opera completely in their language. Many protests were raised against the invasion. Addison devoted the eighteenth number of The Spectator to it, proposing to
deliver down to posterity a faithful account of the Italian opera.… Our great-grandchildren will be very curious to know the reason why their forefathers used to sit together like an audience of foreigners in their own country, to hear whole plays acted before them in a tongue which they did not understand.
He concluded from the plots that in opera “nothing is capable of being well set to music, that is not nonsense.” He laughed at scenes where the hero made love in Italian and the heroine answered him in English—as if language mattered in such crises. He objected to lavish scenery—to actual sparrows flying about the stage, and Nicolini shivering in an open boat on a pasteboard sea.
Addison had a grudge: he had written the libretto for Thomas Clayton’s English opera Rosamond, which had failed.38 His blast (March 21, 1711) was probably set off by the première, on February 24, of an Italian opera, Rinaldo, at the Haymarket opera house. To complicate the insult, while the words were Italian the music was by a German recently arrived in England. To Addison’s dismay the new opera was a great triumph: within three months it was produced fifteen times, always to packed houses; London danced to excerpts from its music, and sang its simpler arias.39 So began the English phase of the most spectacular career in the history of music.