Techniques | The Beggar’s Opera | Late Baroque | Opera
Although endeavours to formulate a native style of English opera were all doomed to long-term failure, John Gay’s spoof The Beggar’s Opera was tremendously successful. Gay chose existing popular tunes, but Johann Christoph Pepusch provided the musical substance of the arrangements. Like Handel, Pepusch was an immigrant composer from Germany who had worked for James Brydges, the Earl of Carnarvon, during the 1710s. In fact, the so-called ‘ballad opera’ is hardly an opera at all, and contains over 60 short songs, based on country dances, folk tunes from Scotland and France, and an occasional sliver of Purcell and Handel. Unlike the Royal Academy of Music’s expensive Italian singers, Gay and Pepusch’s entertainment featured actors who were not trained singers.
The alleged influence of The Beggar’s Opera on Handel’s increasingly difficult career, composing Italian operas for London, has often been overstated. It was primarily a satire directed at the Whig government, although it incidentally pokes a little fun at the loftier world of Italian opera during the process. We can imagine that the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, who attended the first performance, was not amused by the Tory Gay’s frequent references to the low moral standards and corruption of politicians.
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