There is not much to boast of, so far as English operatic music is concerned, from the death of Purcell to about the middle of the nineteenth century. Purcell’s work, in its limited field, was excellent, but Handel’s powerful personality attracted so much attention to the Italian methods of composition that no other style found real favor for many years.
Opera, of course, existed in England, but it was of the Italian order: indeed, there was so much said against the unfortunate English language as a medium of vocal expression that native talent had little or no chance of distinguishing itself. The only work that stands out during this period as being essentially English was a curious medley of songs and airs called “The Beggar’s Opera” produced in 1728, but even this was arranged by Pepusch, a German. The old genuine English tunes were, however, used in this, and its one or two successors, but the music is not of a serious type. The airs are simple and simply harmonized, and make no comparison with the Handel or Bononcini operas.
One of the first Englishmen to write opera on the prevalent Italian model was Thomas Arne, whose chief work was “Artaxerxes.” He also wrote many masques or plays with incidental music. To-day he is best known as the reputed author of “Rule Britannia,” and of the popular and tuneful setting of Shakespeare’s words “Where the Bee sticks.”
The English style of composition of this period, which is in the main vigorous, manly, and bold, was not at all suited to the taste of the fashionable public, who were led to believe that the florid and effeminate Italian airs were the only true method of operatic composition ; consequently we are not surprised that native talent was overlooked and ignored, and that England has nothing to show that will compare with what was going on in Italy, Germany, and France at a corresponding period.
Arne’s name is still remembered and his tunes sung, but the same can hardly be said of his followers and successors, Shield, Storace. Kelly, and others. Al-though these men attempted dramatic composition in the style of Arne, they had no very definite model upon which to work, and they were more successfulin the glee and madrigal than in stage work. Some of their songs are heard now and then, but their influence on national opera was very slight.
The eighteenth century is indeed a period of blank in English operatic history, and in spite of the work of Henry Bishop, who wrote effective concerted numbers, the earlier part of the nineteenth century had but little more to show. Bishop was content to leave the English “ballad opera” where he found it, although he had the ability to found a national school of opera had he possessed the requisite energy and initiative.
The first English composer after Arne to produce anything attaining to real popularity, and really de-serving the name of opera, was Balfe, who, following an example set by John Barnett in his opera “The Mountain Sylph,” produced in 1835 “The Siege of Rochelle,” and eight years later the well-known “Bohemian Girl.” That these operas are not of a particularly exalted type must be admitted ; the airs are tuneful and mostly commonplace. There can be no comparison, for example, between “The Bohemian Girl” and “Faust” ; for although both make a ready and immediate appeal, the artistic standard is much lower in the English than in the French work. But still the work of Balfe was an immense advance on the poorly constructed ballad opera that had hitherto found acceptance, and it helped to pave the way to higher ideals and better methods.
On about the same plane is Wallace, whose most popular work is “Maritana” even more trying to listen to (for the cultured hearer) than “The Bohemian Girl.” These works, although poor and of no interest to the musician, yet play a part in the education of the people. Those quite unenlightened in the forms of opera can make a good start by at first listening to works of this type; and as their experience grows, so their taste will undoubtedly improve, and ripen to an appreciation of better things. The admiration of the crowd for such works as these, although now less than formerly, is not to be altogether condemned, seeing that it may in some cases be the means of raising the masses to an appreciation of something better and more musically satisfactory.
As musical education in England gradually improved, so we find the composers more artistic in their outlook and more solid in their work. The operas of
Benedict (1804-85) and Macfarren (1813-87), although seldom performed now, are the output of talented and cultured musicians, who possessed, more-over, gifts of melody and dramatic characterization which must not be overlooked. Benedict’s best opera was “The Lily of Killarney,” produced in 1862.
Greater heights still were reached by Arthur Goring Thomas (1850-92), who wrote “Esmeralda” and Nadeshda,” both works of merit, and from which excerpts are frequently given in concert-rooms.
Last of deceased English opera-composers we name Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900), who wrote one serious opera, “Ivanhoe” (1891), and a host of delightful works of slighter scope to which it is hard to give a class-name. They are not quite of the opera comique type, nor do they partake of the farcical nature of opera bouffe. Perhaps a nondescript term such as “light opera” answers as well as any other to the charming, harmonious, graceful class of “Sing-spiel” which found such favor not only in England and America, but in the case of some works (such as “The Mikado”). also on the European continent. Their popularity, immense some twenty years ago, lately appears to be somewhat on the wane; but they are still models of refinement and of good sound musicianship.
More serious attention has been paid to opera in English by composers still living (1910) than by any yet named here. With the exception of Sir C. Hubert H. Parry, all the chief living composers of Englishnationality have made a bid for fame in grand opera, though with only partial success. Those whose efforts appear to have led to the best results are Stanford and Mackenzie. In England there is less opportunity for operatic composers than in almost any other country: works when written have little chance of being publicly staged. Occasionally the management of the Grand Opera invites a work from an English musician, but even then it is sometimes coupled with the condition that it be performed in a foreign language. Opera is not the delight of the man in the street, as it is in many European countries, and the works that find favor at Covent Garden seem to be chosen according to the wishes of the boxholders and members of the syndicate.
Besides Stanford and Mackenzie, among the composers making brave endeavors in face of such ad-verse conditions are Bunning, Corder, Cowen, De Lara, MacCunn, and others. But, notwithstanding what these have accomplished or attempted, it is acknowledged by native critics that, while English opera suffers much from lack of opportunity, it suffers more from want of individuality. Were English composers able to graft on to their style some trace of natural characteristics, as we find the Russians and Bohemians of to-day have done, there is little doubt but that their productions would command a greater interest and a more enduring success.