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Æsthetics and Politics: Italian Opera as Revealed in the Correspondence of James Harris

Entre esthétique et politique : l’opéra italien dans la correspondance de James Harris
Donald Burrows

Résumé

La correspondance de James Harris, premier comte de Malmesbury, est une source importante de documents sur la période passée par Haendel à Londres et sur la réception en cet endroit de l’opéra italien au cours du dix-huitième siècle. L’opéra italien est avec le théâtre français le genre de divertissement le plus prisé en Europe. En Angleterre, ce genre en vogue est le théâtre d’affrontements les plus rudes entre compagnies concurrentes. En 1736, Haendel et une compagnie rivale, The Opera of the Nobility, protégée par le prince de Galles, s’affrontent durement. C’est le moment aussi où se discute au Parlement la protection de la production artistique. La concurrence féroce épuise Haendel qui décide que l’opéra italien n’a décidément pas sa place à Londres et cesse d’en composer. Entre les années 1740 et 1780, les sources sur la vie musicale à Londres sont rares, mais la correspondance d’un frère de James Harris révèle qu’une nouvelle forme d’opéra, plus légère, apparaît à ce moment : l’opéra-bouffe. Cependant, au moment où s’amorce une division nette entre l’ancien et le moderne dans la musique telle qu’elle est pratiquée en Angleterre, la pratique musicale tend à se concentrer sur la sphère privée et à devenir plus socialement exclusive, sous l’influence de la France.

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Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

18th century, XVIIIe siècle

Index thématique et géographique :

art, culture, Grande-Bretagne, Great Britain, literature, littérature
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Texte intégral

  • 1 We received considerable encouragement from the 6th Earl of Malmesbury and, following his death in (...)
  • 2 Donald Burrows and Rosemary Dunhill, Music and Theatre in Handel’s World: The Family Papersof James (...)

1In 1994 the 6th Earl of Malmesbury added the papers of his ancestors James Harris and his son the 1st Earl of Malmesbury to the substantial family archive already deposited at the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester. To those who had worked on Handel’s music, the “Malmesbury Collection” of early eighteenth-century manuscript scores was already well known, at least by reputation; it was also known that the family papers included documents referring to Handel, extracts from sixteen of which had appeared in print. Following the deposit of the Harris papers I embarked on a project jointly with Rosemary Dunhill, then the Hampshire County Archivist, for the publication of all of the music-relevant documentary material that we could discover by searching what turned out to be a very extensive collection of letters and diaries1. As this developed wemade two fundamental decisions that considerably extended its scope. The first was to give coverage to the complete time-span from Harris’s earliest surviving diaries in 1732 until the time of his death in 1780, and the second was to incorporate all references to theatre as well as music, since the two areas were closely interconnected. Thanks to an admirable optimism on the part of Oxford University Press which matched that of the authors, the project finally came to publication in 2002 as a handsome volume of more than 1200 pages2; the Index of Persons involved the identification of more than 2,500 names.

  • 3 The London Stage, 1660-1800, 11 vols. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1960-68). Th (...)
  • 4 See Donald Burrows, “Gottfried van Swieten and London Publications of Handel’s Music”, Händel-Jahrb (...)

2My own initial interest in the archive was in relation to the new material referring to Handel, but the prolixity of the archive and the extension of coverage took me into many areas of musical activity and of repertory with which I had previously been unfamiliar. James Harris’s family home was in the city of Salisbury, and there he was one of the directors of the local concert society and the annual music festival. Harris’s son, whom I shall refer to as James junior, followed a diplomatic career, gaining experience in the Netherlands and in Poland, and then receiving appointments in the British embassies at the courts of Spain, Prussia and Russia. References in his letters required me to become familiar with research on the musical and theatrical programmes of many European centres: one of the consequences of this was that I became especially appreciative of the excellent documentation for the calendar of London’s musical and theatrical life that was provided by the city’s 18th-century newspapers, and which is accessible through the volumes of The London Stage 3. The Harris archive proved to be very rich in a number of unexpected areas: it includes, for example, what seem to be the only extant letters from the harpsichord maker Herman Tabel and the music publisher John Walsh, and a series of letters from Gottfried van Swieten in the 1770s about the purchase of printed scores of Handel’s music: Van Swieten was responsible for the performances in Vienna for which Mozart arranged Messiah and other works4.

3The archive, rich as it is in first-hand material on music and theatre, naturally also has some limitations. It is inherently discontinuous and uncomprehensive. Apart from the accidents of loss or preservation for individual items, there are factors arising from the location and thevaried interests of the participants. The papers of James Harris himself fall into two fairly discrete sections. Up to 1760 he resided in Salisbury, and as a result there is some excellent material from correspondents reporting on the latest events in London. Even so, there are some frustrating gaps: for example, Harris was visiting London at the time of the first performances of Messiah, so sadly there is no documentation about the controversy that is suggested by contemporary newspaper articles. In 1761 he was elected a Member of Parliament and thereafter spent about half of each year in London, taking his family with him. From these final two decades there are some years for which Harris’s journal survives, recording in brief the events that he attended each day. On the other hand, references to events in London in his correspondence are less copious at this time, since no doubt they were the subject of immediate conversations in the capital that have left no literary record.

4The other major limitation concerns the interests of the individual correspondents, which influenced the quality of information and comment. The extreme case here concerns James junior, whose unmusical character was a standing joke in the family. There is an extensive and virtually complete correspondence between him and his mother during his periods of service abroad, but she clearly did not think that it was worth going into any detail about London’s musical events when writing to him, except in their social aspect. James junior himself went to the theatre and to concerts as part of his social round. Concerning the theatre, it seems that he found two theatrical genres for diversion and entertainment in most major cities and courts of continental Europe: Italian opera and French drama. He relates a certain amount of gossip about the performing companies, but when it comes to the performances themselves he names works and participants only in the vaguest of terms. However, while James junior is rather uninformative for the relevant period of his contribution (between about 1765 and 1780), there is some compensation as a result of the greater sensibilities of his sisters, and in particular his younger sister Louisa. She developed a practical interest in music, receiving tuition on the harpsichord and the harp, and also singing lessons from some of the leading opera singers in London (castrati, as it happens). She also knew that there was not much point in writing much about music to her brother, but her own activities seem to have given her some insights into the nature of performance. Louisa sang and played at private concerts in London, and with her sister she took part in plays that were given by a group of young ladies at their home in Salisbury.

  • 5 Burrows and Dunhill 24-25.

5Our present concern, however, is with the information that the Harris papers provide about Italian opera in London. Fortunately the topic is one to which frequent, though not continuous, reference is made,since it was an area of interest to James Harris, his family and his associates. Material from the 1730s, the earliest decade represented in the archive, is particularly rich on account of the contribution of one of Harris’s most interesting correspondents: Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 4th Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury commented on the nature of the musical and theatrical events that he reported, in terms that include references to both aesthetics and politics. The occurrence of aesthetic commentary reflects Shaftesbury’s own intellectual outlook, but it was also the result of the happy coincidence with Harris’s interests at this time. In 1736 Harris drafted a “Discourse on Music, Painting and Poetry” which eventually came to published form as one of his Three Treatises in 1744: he sent this draft to Shaftesbury and we have a fascinating exchange of letters between them on the subject in April 1737, when Shaftesbury was in London5. It seems certain that the dialogue on the subject continued in an unrecorded form thereafter, when Shaftesbury returned to his estate at Wimborne St Giles, within an easy journey from Salisbury, even in eighteenth-century conditions. As to politics, the reason that Shaftesbury was in London in April 1737 was of course that Parliament was sitting and he was active in the House of Lords, at a time when public business was unusually concerned with matters relevant to the arts: the Theatrical Licensing Act passed, in spite of an impassioned speech against censorship by Lord Chesterfield, and there were other matters with which Shaftesbury was more directly involved, as will be noted shortly.

  • 6 See Romney Sedgwick, ed., Lord Hervey’s Memoirs (London: Batsford, 1963) 42-43, quoted in Donald Bu (...)

6The Harris-Shaftesbury correspondence begins in 1736, at the height of the period of competition in London between Handel and a rival opera company, the Opera of the Nobility. Here various forms of “politics” are involved: the struggles for attention or survival between the opera companies, but also the background of court and Parliamentary politics, for the Opera of the Nobility was patronised in a very demonstrative manner by Frederick, Prince of Wales, who was increasingly at odds with his parents and his sisters6. In 1734 the Nobility Opera had moved into the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, London’s regular venue for Italian opera, and Handel had come to an arrangement to continue his own performances in John Rich’s new theatre at Covent Garden. In the season of 1734-5 he had run head to head against the other company, performing even on the same nights and presenting a programme of exceptionally attractive Italian operas, as well as experimenting with a substantial run of English oratorios. Programme content was not the only important factor, however, and the other company had many advantagesover him: novelty, the cultivation of fashionable new musical styles from the continent, the support of many influential patrons from the old opera company and a number of new ones from the younger generation, the employment of many of the best singers (and probably orchestral players) from Handel’s previous company, and above all the incorporation of the castrato singer Farinelli, performing for the first time in London.

  • 7 Shaftesbury to Harris, 18 January 1736/7; Burrows and Dunhill 22-23. Punctuation and paragraphs (bu (...)

7There is no doubt as to where the loyalty of Shaftesbury, and indeed virtually all of Harris’s known acquaintances, stood on the matter of the opera companies: he was a devoted supporter of Handel. It is clear from the correspondence that for him Handel was a supremely charismatic figure, the personification of what a creative artist in music should be. He reports with enthusiasm on each of Handel’s successive theatre works— operas and oratorios—and gives vivid descriptions of the chain of Italian singers that Handel employed to fill the position deserted by Senesino, for example in a letter written in January 1737, soon after the first performance of Handel’s opera Arminio 7:

I was at Arminius last Saturday where I had the pleasure to meet many of our musical friends […] Mr Handel has a much larger orquestre (I know not how to spell that word) than last year, & the loss of Castrucio is abundantly supplied by Martini who plays immediately above Clegg where Castrucio used to sit. The overture is a very fine one & the fuge I think as far as I can tell at once hearing not unlike to that in Admetus; it (the overture) ends with a minuet strain. The first song is a duet between Annibali and Strada & is but short, but like the whole piece in every respect excellent and vastly pleasing.

To tell you my real opinion of Annibali I found him widely different from the idea I had conceiv’d of him but it was on the right side that I was mistaken, for he prodigiously surpassed my expectations. His voice it must be confess’d is not so good as some we have had; the lower noates of it are very weak & he has not the melowness of Senesino, nor (as far as I can guess) the compass, but the middle part of it is clear strong & manly & very tunable […]. He is as exact in his time as Caporali who plays the base, though he sings with the greatest ease imaginable & his closes are superior to them all (but Strada); he comes to them in the most natural rational way, always keeps within the air & scarce ever makes two alike throughout the opera [...]. His action indeed is incomparable & he sings with all the passion his voice will admit.

Mr Handel has just this minute been with me; he is in high spirits and tells me he has now ready & completed two more operas & can have something else this winter besides if there is occasion.

  • 8 Shaftesbury to Harris; Burrows and Dunhill 26.

8Notwithstanding Handel’s high spirits, the sheer quantity of his activity under pressure of the competition took its toll on his health and he was incapacitated a few months later with a “rheumatic palsie”. The letter in which Shaftesbury reported this, on 26 April 1737, takes us straight into politics8:

I was near an hour with Handel yesterday; he is in no danger upon the whole though I fear, or am rather too certain, he will loose a great part of his execution so as to prevent his ever playing any more concertos on the organ.

I have been slaving for the Author’s Bill which Lord Hervey & Lord Delawar oppose violently. But I hope by our unwearied endeavours some regard will be had at last to merit; surely I may say to merit when the opposition to the bill is founded upon personal pique to Mr Pope and Mr Handel. To what a condition is learning reduced when such persons are singled out for persecution & resentment?

  • 9 Harris to Shaftesbury, 5 May 1737; Burrows and Dunhill 28.

9The “Author’s Bill” to which Shaftesbury referred was an attempt to introduce parliamentary legislation giving an author (and within this definition, also, a composer) copyright over his works “during his natural life, and for the term of eleven years after his death”. Leave was given to introduce the bill into the House of Commons in February 1737. It followed a previous unsuccessful attempt at an authors’ copyright act in 1735, though a similar act for reproductive engravings (and thus favouring Hogarth) had passed in the same year. Shaftesbury had a family interest in the subject of the bill because there had been an issue over the protection of his father’s literary work, but his immediate concern seems to have been to ensure that Handel published a full score of Alexander’s Feast (referred to in subsequent letters simply as “the Ode”) Harris’s reply to Shaftesbury’s letter indicates just how far the bad atmosphere between the opera companies had extended beyond the theatres9:

I rejoice to hear from your Lordship that the Author’s Bill is like to succeed, and I am sure the lovers of both letters & harmony ought to be thankfull to your Lordship for the pains you have taken in solliciting it. Tis a bad proof of Gothic barbarity amongst us that the bill should have been opposed on account of Mr Pope & Mr Handel.

  • 10 Shaftesbury to Harris, Burrows and Dunhill 29.

10However, in spite of Shaftesbury’s participation the result was not successful, as he reported on 12 May10:

I will begin the little I have to say, with what is likely to be most disagreeable to you; & that is—to tell you, the Author’s Bill was thrown out last Tuesday, by eight majority: we had (I think) clearly the best of it in the debate, though we did not prevail [...]. But however thus much for your comfort, the Ode will be printed & subscriptions are now actually taking in at Mr Handel’s.

  • 11 See McGeary, “Farinelli and the English: ‘One God’ or the Devil?”, La Revue LISA/LISA e-journal.
  • 12 Burrows and Dunhill 31-32.

11By May 1737 the situation for Italian opera in London seems to have been beyond recovery. The seasons of competition had certainly run the Opera of the Nobility out of funds, and had probably exhausted much of the support from their patrons: of their two star castrati, Senesino had left London in 1736, and Farinelli11 himself would leave at the end of the 1736-7 season. However there had already been signs of a move towards reconciliation between the operatic factions, in that during the season of 1736-7 the Prince of Wales supported both the Opera of the Nobility and Handel’s Covent Garden season. The conclusion was that for the season of 1737-8 Handel was persuaded to compose operas for the residual company that was left from the Opera of the Nobility at the King’s Theatre, instead of continuing with his own productions. Virtually all we know about the arrangement comes in a letter from Shaftesbury to Harris on 11 June 1737, in which he also reports on the Theatrical Licensing Act12:

Concerning Handel’s agreement with the Goths, I believe it is not yet perfected though I do not see what can obstruct it unless tis Lord Cowper & Lord DeLawar’s invincible obstinacy, but the other undertakers are so desirous of hearing good music that I dare say things will turn out well. The terms proposed are two opera’s for which Handel is to receive a thousand pounds.

The Play House Bill was read a 3rd time in the House of Lords last Monday; there was no debate but Lord Stanhope upon putting the question divided the House; the division was—contentt 37, not contentt 5.

  • 13 I read all available London newspapers from this period in connection with the chapter on the Princ (...)
  • 14 See also the description of Delawar in Sedgwick, Ibidem, 115-16.

12One interesting feature of that extract is Shaftesbury’s reference to the managers of the opera company as “the Goths”, echoing Harris’s earlier comments about “Gothic barbarity” in the opposition to the Authors’ Bill. I had assumed that this was a general term of abuse that would have been commonly understood by people of the generation of Harris and Shaftesbury who had received a Classical education—an anticipation of the bad press that the Goths and Vandals were to receive later in the century in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the RomanEmpire. However, in the course of reading the London newspapers from around the time of the Prince of Wales’s wedding in 1736, the true significance of the phrase became apparent13. Lord Delawar was the person who was sent to Gotha to negotiate the marriage contract for the Prince of Wales, and indeed to bring the Princess back to England for the wedding 14 . For Shaftesbury and Harris he clearly represented the “opposition”, identified both with the Prince of Wales and with the management of the Nobility Opera. His “invincible obstinacy” was overcome to the extent that Handel came to some agreement for the 1737-8 season, but the long-term effect seems to have been that the experience persuaded the composer that he could not work any further with these people, and he returned to independence thereafter.

  • 15 Letter of 4 October 1743; Burrows and Dunhill 167.

13The effects of this independence are seen in the Harris papers during the 1740s, which give a vivid picture of the opposition that Handel faced from the “opera party”, even to the extent that society hostesses deliberately arranged alternative entertainments on the nights that he performed. Once again there was more to this than simple professional rivalry: it had a political aspect because Handel declined to co-operate with the noble opera managers and, worse still, on one occasion withdrew after he had promised to compose for them, or at least had given that impression. As John Christopher Smith, Handel’s principal music copyist (and probably his orchestral manager) put it in a letter to Harris in October 174315:

I could wish that Mr Handel had agreet with Lord Middlesex to compose for the opera’s this winter; it would turn vastly to his advantage, for you can’t imagine how the Quality—& even his friends—resent it, to refuse such offers, they have made him,

  • 16 Smith to Harris, 11 October 1743; Burrows and Dunhill 171.
  • 17 George Harris to James Harris, 6 November 1744; Burrows and Dunhill 203.

14Smith reinforced this in a further letter a week later by saying that Handel was “very ill adviced as to fly in the Prince of Wales’s and the Quality’s face as he has done 16”. Similarly in 1744 Shaftesbury said that “the opera people take incredible pains to hurt him”. However, as one of Harris’s brothers wrote at the time17,

Handel amidst this vast discouragement appeared well in spirits, and one that saw and discours’d him the next day upon the subject, assured me, he laugh’d in his usual way & seemed quite jocular and easie.

15He had decided irrevocably by then that he had no future in Italian opera in London, and he accordingly passes out of our present story.

  • 18 Curtis Price, Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, Italian Opera in Late Eighteenth-Century London, v (...)
  • 19 See, for example, Stephen Roe’s entry for Johann Christian Bach in Amanda Holden, ed., The New Peng (...)

16One of the circumstances of present scholarship concerning Italian opera in London during the eighteenth century is that there is a gap in the narrative for the middle decades. The first forty years of the century are obviously important as the context for Handel’s career, and indeed on account of the remarkable repertory of Italian operas that he created for London between 1711 and 1741. Recent years have seen the publication of a masterly two-volume exposition of the theatrical and managerial history of Italian opera in London during the last two decades of the eighteenth century18; but the forty or so years between these two periods have remained largely uncharted, apart from some specialist studies relating to the music of Johann Christian Bach, and Saskia Willaert’s investigation of the burletta companies19. References in the Harris papers go some way towards making sense of those middle decades, both in fleshing out the narrative of performance history and in giving some clues to the relative success—artistic and financial—of the opera companies and their managers. They also usefully provide some first-hand insights from people who were sitting in the audience.

  • 20 George Harris’s diary, 11 February 1749; Burrows and Dunhill 254.
  • 21 George Harris’s diray, 10 June 1749; Burrows and Dunhill 261.
  • 22 Thomas Harris to James Harris, 17 January 1754; Burrows and Dunhill 297.

17The record is admittedly rather thin for the 1750s, for various reasons. The opera companies themselves were unstable at that time: a succession of managements achieved varying success, attracting neither the status nor the controversy that had previously surrounded Handel’s opera companies, the Opera of the Nobility, or Lord Middlesex’s ventures in the 1740s. In terms of the Malmesbury archive, the decade falls between James Harris’s initial period of interest in the theatrical and musical life of London and his residence there following his election as a Member of Parliament in 1761. During the years immediately after hismarriage in 1745 he was occupied in Salisbury with family matters: furthermore, his correspondents mostly gave up going to the opera once Handel was no longer involved. An exception was George Harris, James’s youngest brother. He was a clergyman with a parish in County Durham, who also served for a time as Chaplain to the Bishop of Durham, accompanying the Bishop to spend several months of each year in the capital. (The Bishop was, of course, by right a participant at the House of Lords). Perhaps rather surprisingly, George’s clerical status did not seem to have inhibited him from attending the theatres regularly when he was in London, for plays and operas as well as oratorios. He went to the King’s Theatre in 1749, when for the first time in London there was a resident (though short-lived) company presenting a programme consisting of full-length Italian operas in the buffo style: his comment on one performance was that it was “full of drollery. The music here & there well adapted to the words”20, and when he returned again he found it “Excellent of it’s kind”21. He also went to the productions at Covent Garden in the 1750s by Giuseppe Giordani’s Italian burletta company, at a time when the King’s Theatre had reverted to serious opera. Then it seemed that the old pattern for Italian opera would be re-established, with the lighter style of Italian opera as an occasional offering in the diverse programmes offered in Rich’s theatres: the burlettas would have their place with Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and not with the high art of serious opera at the premier opera house in the Haymarket. Thus the initial assumption seems to have been that the buffa genres of Italian opera had a lower status than opera seria, but Harris’s other brother, the lawyer Thomas, reflected the more substantial impact that Giordani’s company, and in particular Giordani’s daughter, made on the London audiences, in a letter from January 175422:

The burlesque opera at Rich’s house has had a great run, and I think very deservedly: the music is highly pleasing, and there is a girl who performs, without any exaggeration, infinitely superior to anything ever seen on our stage. The action of our best players is only imitation: she alone is quite natural, without the least appearance of art, and varies infinitely as the subject requires.

18That description has obvious resonances with contemporary developments in acting styles that were associated with David Garrick’s performances at Drury Lane theatre. Although the first full-length buffa operas came to London in 1749, the opera audience had had a previoustaste of the style in the 1730s, when the Opera of the Nobility presented some intermezzi (with separate small casts) during the 1736-7 season in one of their attempts to “please the Town”. It seems that these were given after the main operas: it may seem a contradiction in terms to perform intermezzi at the end of an evening, but in this the opera company was simply shadowing the normal practice at the patent theatres, where an evening’s programme usually comprised a main play followed by a one-act afterpiece.

  • 23 Harris and his family only lived in London for part of each year, during the time of the Parliament (...)
  • 24 Letter to William Young, 29 October 1760; Burrows and Dunhill 354.

19By the time James Harris became a London resident in 1761, the pattern of performances for the Italian opera genres in the London theatres had taken a different turn23. During her time as manager at the King’s Theatre, Columba Mattei established a new scheme that is described in a letter written by Harris in October 176024:

As for the opera, tis under the conduct of Signora Mattei: a Burletta on Tuesday & a serious one on Saturday. Besides Mattei and others, there is a Signora Elisi from Italy, much celebrated there for a capital singer.

20This sums up the features that were to govern seasons of Italian opera at the King’s Theatre for the next decades, and to a large extent ensured the continuing viability of the companies: the presentation of both genres of Italian opera (thus effectively restoring the monopoly of Italian opera to this theatre), and the employment of a succession of star singers, all in turn promoted as the new voice of the moment and usually suffering quite soon afterwards the fate of all such when they had ceased to be either new or news. However, the “Mattei pattern” was not applied in every season, for much depended on the tastes of the managers and the availability of singers from the European circuits.

21These circuits included separate groups of specialists for the buffa genres, which posed a managerial problem over casting. Various combinations were tried, from entirely separate casts for seria and buffa genres to mixed companies in which some singers (usually not the principals) performed in both the serious and the comic operas. The terms serious and comic, incidentally, soon became legitimised as the standard English terms to describe the Italian genres. In normal circumstances, if the opera management wanted to present both genres, then this meant putting under separate contracts at least a first woman and a first man (usually a castrato) for the serious operas and someburletta specialists (such as the tenor Lovattini and the soprano Zamparini) for the others. By the mid-1760s the London audience seems to have developed a taste for both genres, and expected to see both in the programmes of the opera seasons at the King’s Theatre. Inevitably there was some internal competition between the genres, and when things became difficult the burlettas usually had the greater audience appeal, but there was nevertheless a residual feeling that the presentation of serious opera should still be the main role of the King’s Theatre in London’s theatrical life.

  • 25 Elizabeth Harris to James Harris jr; Burrows and Dunhill 374.

22During his first London years James Harris probably attended the opera quite regularly, along with the other entertainments on offer at the London theatres. Most of the information we have in this period comes from incidental references in his wife’s correspondence, such as the following from 23 March 1762 referring to the pasticcio La disfatta di Dario 25:

There was a new opera last Saturday; it is the defeat of Darius. I have not seen it, but I hear the songs are collected from many operas & some are very fine. ‘Tis a very showy thing for there is a very great battle, not a common stage skirmish but a regular fight & all the men have been exercised on purpose. There is also a castle besieg’d and beat down. The fine ladies make great complaint that the gun powder stinks so they are almost kill’d, but I hope their affectation will not putt a stop to it till I have seen it which I hope to do next Saturday.

  • 26 Letter to James Harris jr, 13 February 1762; Burrows and Dunhill 370.
  • 27 Diary, 29 November 1762; Burrows and Dunhill 401.

23Among the social circle that James Harris had entered in London, opera productions gained individual reputations, for better or for worse: this letter seems entirely typical in relaying the gossip, before the writer had seen or heard the piece itself. Incidentally, she had been impressed a month previously by Arne’s Artaxerxes at Covent Garden, which she described as “the English opera which is infinitely beyond my expectation; tis a great deal in the Italian manner & some very pleasing songs in it26”. George Harris’s diary for a performance of a pasticcio Italian burletta in November 1762 at the King’s Theatre includes a comment “Dancing—but indifferent27”, apparently casual, but reflecting the increasing importance of dancers at the Italian operas; they were included every season with a regularity that had been unknown in the earlier part of the century, and indeed the leading dancers became the subject for comment on the same level as the singers. Dancing thusbecame incorporated into the aesthetic framework of Italian opera in London.

  • 28 Letter to James Harris jr, 7 December 1762; Burrows and Dunhill 402.
  • 29 Letter to James Harris jr, 9 October 1773; Burrows and Dunhill 741.

24Elizabeth Harris’s gossip about the first new serious opera of the 1762-3 season was “I hear the serious opera but poorly spoken of, though in a general way they allow the musick to be good; but the singers wretched28”; this seems to echo a familiar prejudice among opera buffs who pay more attention to the medium than the message. It is interesting that one of the recurring comments in the later period is that a particular new opera was not well received, but James Harris himself thought it good. Obviously this reflects a diversity of perceptions in the opera audience, and also indicates Harris’s independence from the force of current fashions. The most likely explanation for this independence is that, although an amateur, Harris came to the experience of opera as a “hands-on” musician: he directed the Salisbury concerts and was apparently a competent harpsichord player. As such, he may have appreciated the music in a different way from most members of the opera audience. He was personally supportive of the continuation of the opera companies, though never becoming involved directly with the managements, and he was involved in other ways with some of the leading performers, hiring Tenducci, Sacchini and Rauzzini successively to teach his daughters, and arranging for many of them—leading orchestral players as well as vocal soloists—to perform at the Salisbury Festival. During the festivals they stayed in Salisbury as his house guests, and there is an engaging description of the musicians for the 1773 Festival in a letter of Elizabeth Harris’s29:

Our orchestra was chiefly Germans save one Spaniard named Ximenes, two Italians Grassi and Storace. They all lik’d our table; we had them three days and by your assistance your father was enabled to give them variety of good wines, to which the Germans shew’d no dislike. Fischer was so pleased with your Tinto de Rota that I fear’d his head might have been disorder’d but that was my ignorance, for both him & Bach have heads as strong again as our squires. I must do them justice to say people never behav’d better; they all came this morning to rendre leurs devoirs, making speeches full of gratitude and respect.

  • 30 Letter to Gertrude Harris, 21 November 1767; Burrows and Dunhill 502.
  • 31 Letter to James Harris jr, 12 March 1778; Burrows and Dunhill 985.

25One of the curious features of the letters is that they reveal that during the 1760s the Harris family went into the theatre gallery for opera performances. Given James Harris’s status as a Member of Parliament, who indeed held office successively as a Commissioner for the Admiraltyand the Treasury under the Grenville government in 1763-5, we might perhaps have expected him to have been in the grander areas of the boxes or the pit. In the 1770s he sometimes attended in the pit, perhaps because his gout made it difficult for him to climb the stairs, and on one occasion in 1767 he noted that he “had the honour to sit with the Duke of Cumberland, who called me to him”, presumably in his box30. Yet in May 1778 Elizabeth Harris still described how she was going to “mount the upper gallery to hear Sacchini’s new comic opera 31”: in the earlier part of the century, the upper gallery had been regarded as the area of the theatre for the footmen and servants.

  • 32 Letter to James Harris jr, 8 March 1765; Burrows and Dunhill 441.

26The Harris papers also give an idea of the social routine that provided the context for opera-going, as for example in a letter by Elizabeth Harris in 176532:

Last night every body expected to be crowded to death at Manzolies benefitt. I gott some dinner at three & sat [i.e. set] out between four and five, though I had a place in a box. I imagin’d the croud would be such I should not gett at it, but so far from any difficulty the house was not full quite. The opera was Giardinis; I cannot say I was pleas’d with it.

  • 33 Elizabeth Harris to James Harris jr, 28 April 1772; Burrows and Dunhill 673.
  • 34 James Harris’s diary, 23 February 1771; Burrows and Dunhill 623.

27The social role that was fulfilled by opera attendance seems to have been partly a matter of being seen at the opera house and partly a matter of participating in the enjoyment of one of the regular theatrical entertainments that were on offer in London. James Harris himself is probably atypical because he was a committed opera-goer for aesthetic as much as social motives. He seems to have attended every performance, and indeed every rehearsal, that he could. His absences are usually attributable to ill health, a late sitting in the House of Commons or the pressure of other events that he felt duty bound to attend: as his wife said on one occasion, “we have so many private engagements that tis difficult to gett to an opera33”. Concerning the first night of Guglielmi’s new comic opera Le pazzie d’Orlando in 1771 James Harris complained that because he had had to dine with Lord Holdernesse “I did not arrive till the 2nd act, not agreably to my rule on such occasions, who love the whole34”.

  • 35 Richard Owen Cambridge to James Harris [18 August 1768]; Burrows and Dunhill 516.
  • 36 Diary, 7 April 1770; Burrows and Dunhill 587.

28From time to time Harris noted in his diary that the audience at the opera was crowded or sparse, though mostly he just recorded his ownattendance without further comment. My impression is, however, that attendance at or association with the opera carried rather less social cachet than it had done earlier in the century. There were occasional distinguished visitors, as for example in 1768 when “The King of Denmark, escaping the Viaggiatori Ridicoli, carried all his inattention to the Buona Figliuola35”, but then the King also went to see Garrick in The Provok’d Wife at Drury Lane as well. As to the situation with the British King, George III (in contrast to George I, and George II for the first decade of his reign) is rarely recorded as attending the opera, particularly in the 1760s. There seems to have been a breakdown in the continuity of royal patronage, caused by the untimely death of the Prince of Wales: during the 1740s and 1750s George II rarely went to the theatres and his grandson was too young to take up social leadership in this area, so by the time he came to the throne George III had simply never acquired the habit, and it was one that his mother probably did not encourage. The first mention of royal attendance in the Harris papers comes in 1770, at a performance of Orfeo, for which James Harris’s diary entry is as follows36:

Went in the evening to the opera of Orfeo, the King & Queen there—house remarkably crowded—opera very pleasing—so far French, as to admit into it dancing & chorus—the rest, pure Italian—Grassi shone & Guadagni—twas over by nine. The scenery of Hell magnificent—so also that of the Temple of Love—I have never seen there such a spectacle. The dancing excellent.

  • 37 See Patricia Howard, “For the English”, Musical Times 137 (1996): 13-15.
  • 38 See Burrows and Dunhill 786, 800, 977.

29The music was a pasticcio, mixing Gluck’s with some by J. C. Bach, Guglielmi and Guadagni himself, who played the title role37: he went on to make a speciality of Orpheus roles in other European cities. After two years of the “Guadagni” version, Orfeo was revived again in London in another variant, this time with a different castrato, Millico, in the title role his novelty in playing the part was to accompany himself on the harp. Harris also reports the presence of the King and the Queen at Domenico Corri’s opera Alessandro nell’Indie in 1774, at the burletta La buona Figliuola (Piccinni) in 1775, and at Johann Christian Bach’s La Clemenza di Scipione in 177838. Royal support for the last may have been stimulated by the fact that Bach held office as a musician to the Queen, as at this time Harris himself also had the post of the Queen’s Treasurer. Harris recorded that the first night of La Clemenza di Scipione was “remarkably full”; heattended two rehearsals and all of the performances (five) of this opera for which he was available.

  • 39 See Burrows and Dunhill 729, 963, 852.
  • 40 See Burrows and Dunhill 796, 851.

30More than forty years separated the performances of Bach’s opera from those of the Handel opera on which the Earl of Shaftesbury had reported in 1737, and during that time Harris’s tastes in music had changed. In the 1770s his favourite composer was Antonio Sacchini, and he found Handel’s Jephtha tiresome39. By 1780, the aesthetics of London’s musical life were well on the way to the separation of tastes between “old” and “new” music that was to be given added impetus by the Handel Commemoration in 1784: had he lived longer Harris, like Charles Burney, would have been a “modern” with an “ancient” past. Like Burney also, however, he retained affection and respect for some parts of the older repertory: he played pieces by Handel on the harpsichord to King George III in 1775, and Messiah had an honoured annual place in the programme of the Salisbury Festival40.

31Other things had changed as well as tastes in musical styles. It seems that, while the management and patronage of London’s Italian opera company still relied on the support of the upper classes who were involved in Britain’s political life, by 1780 the important social networking between Members of Parliament at musical events was going on elsewhere. The Harris papers document an expansion in London’s concert life during the period 1760-80, particularly in private concerts that were populated by the “political classes”, though at the level of Baronets and MPs rather than Dukes and Earls. During the 1770s the Harris family’s diary is dominated by morning, afternoon and evening concerts, in some respects to the exclusion of other activity: they virtually never went to an oratorio performance because on oratorio nights (Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent) they were subscribers to the Bach/Abel concert series on Wednesdays (which sometimes also clashed with Baron Alvenslaben’s concerts), and were involved in a high-profile Friday night private concert society. It seems that by 1780 opera-going had fallen into a routine that shared the same sort of patterns and status as attendance at plays at Drury Lane and Covent Garden (though the audience was necessarily more specialised for opera in view of the Italian language as well as the music), while the important social action and political contacts took place at concerts and private assemblies. The distinction between these last two is often very vague: some private concerts were primarily social gatherings, and some assemblies included incidental musical performances.

  • 41 A high proportion of John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteen (...)

32There is one important area where I am very uncertain about the interpretation of the social background to musical activity. The period from 1760 onwards seems, on the showing of the Malmesbury archive materials, to be much more socially restrictive. This is revealed very strongly in the Harris family’s sensitivity that their daughters should not be seen to perform in public, either as singers or actresses, while at the same time taking pride in their talents and accomplishments. Given this attitude, it hardly seems rational for anyone to have complained about the money spent on Italian singers: how would a well-educated British singer ever become a leading soprano at the opera? (Cecilia Davies managed it, but her father was a professional musician). The difficulty in interpretation arises because either there was an actual change in social dynamics, or the world that James Harris entered in London in 1761 had always been like that, though the latter does not seem to be reflected in the reports from his earlier correspondents. My instinct, on the basis of what I have read in the Harris papers, is that there was indeed some change towards more rigid social structures and attitudes, probably in the early years of George III’s reign, and quite possibly under the influence of contemporary French manners. By the 1770s London society seems to be heading towards the social ambience that is familiar from Jane Austen’s novels, but I am not at all certain that this had been the type of social environment that applied in the world of Handel and the Italian operas of the 1730s. If, as I suspect from my contact with the Harris materials, both the aesthetic and the social/political frameworks of London’s cultural life underwent fundamental changes soon after 1760, perhaps we cannot generalise about “eighteenth-century London” with regard to Italian opera, or indeed other matters41. This serves as a reminder that the joined-up history of Italian opera in London remains to be written, though in the mean time the Harris papers provide a starting-point for understanding what happened.

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Notes

1 We received considerable encouragement from the 6th Earl of Malmesbury and, following his death in 2000, from the present Earl, which also enabled us to illustrate the book with portraits from the family collection, including the first reproduction of a painting showing Senesino in a scene from Handel’s Rodelinda.

2 Donald Burrows and Rosemary Dunhill, Music and Theatre in Handel’s World: The Family Papersof James Harris 1732-1780 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); hereafter “Burrows and Dunhill”.

3 The London Stage, 1660-1800, 11 vols. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1960-68). The relevant volumes for the eighteenth century were edited by Arthur H. Scouten, George Winchester Stone jr and Charles Beecher Hogan.

4 See Donald Burrows, “Gottfried van Swieten and London Publications of Handel’s Music”, Händel-Jahrbuch 47 (2001): 189-202.

5 Burrows and Dunhill 24-25.

6 See Romney Sedgwick, ed., Lord Hervey’s Memoirs (London: Batsford, 1963) 42-43, quoted in Donald Burrows, Handel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) 180-81.

7 Shaftesbury to Harris, 18 January 1736/7; Burrows and Dunhill 22-23. Punctuation and paragraphs (but not spelling) have been modified for quotations here; for the original form, see Burrows and Dunhill.

8 Shaftesbury to Harris; Burrows and Dunhill 26.

9 Harris to Shaftesbury, 5 May 1737; Burrows and Dunhill 28.

10 Shaftesbury to Harris, Burrows and Dunhill 29.

11 See McGeary, “Farinelli and the English: ‘One God’ or the Devil?”, La Revue LISA/LISA e-journal.

12 Burrows and Dunhill 31-32.

13 I read all available London newspapers from this period in connection with the chapter on the Prince of Wales’s wedding in my forthcoming book, Handel and the English Chapel Royal.

14 See also the description of Delawar in Sedgwick, Ibidem, 115-16.

15 Letter of 4 October 1743; Burrows and Dunhill 167.

16 Smith to Harris, 11 October 1743; Burrows and Dunhill 171.

17 George Harris to James Harris, 6 November 1744; Burrows and Dunhill 203.

18 Curtis Price, Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, Italian Opera in Late Eighteenth-Century London, vol. 1: The King’s Theatre, Harmarket, 1778-1791 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Judith Milhous, Gabriella Dideriksen and Robert D. Hume, Italian Opera in Late Eighteenth-Century London, vol. 2: The Pantheon Opera and Its Aftermath (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

19 See, for example, Stephen Roe’s entry for Johann Christian Bach in Amanda Holden, ed., The New Penguin Opera Guide (London: Penguin, 2001) 28-31; Ernest Warburton, ed., The Collected Works of Johann Christian Bach 1735-1782, 48 vols. (New York: Garland, 1984-99); Richard G. King and Saskia Willaert, “Giovanni Francesco Crosa and the First Italian Comic Operas in London”, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 118 (1993): 246-75; and Saskia Willaert, “Italian Comic Opera at the King’s Theatre in the 1760s”, David Wyn Jones, ed., Music in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000) 17-71.

20 George Harris’s diary, 11 February 1749; Burrows and Dunhill 254.

21 George Harris’s diray, 10 June 1749; Burrows and Dunhill 261.

22 Thomas Harris to James Harris, 17 January 1754; Burrows and Dunhill 297.

23 Harris and his family only lived in London for part of each year, during the time of the Parliamentary session, but this usually included the performing season of the opera companies.

24 Letter to William Young, 29 October 1760; Burrows and Dunhill 354.

25 Elizabeth Harris to James Harris jr; Burrows and Dunhill 374.

26 Letter to James Harris jr, 13 February 1762; Burrows and Dunhill 370.

27 Diary, 29 November 1762; Burrows and Dunhill 401.

28 Letter to James Harris jr, 7 December 1762; Burrows and Dunhill 402.

29 Letter to James Harris jr, 9 October 1773; Burrows and Dunhill 741.

30 Letter to Gertrude Harris, 21 November 1767; Burrows and Dunhill 502.

31 Letter to James Harris jr, 12 March 1778; Burrows and Dunhill 985.

32 Letter to James Harris jr, 8 March 1765; Burrows and Dunhill 441.

33 Elizabeth Harris to James Harris jr, 28 April 1772; Burrows and Dunhill 673.

34 James Harris’s diary, 23 February 1771; Burrows and Dunhill 623.

35 Richard Owen Cambridge to James Harris [18 August 1768]; Burrows and Dunhill 516.

36 Diary, 7 April 1770; Burrows and Dunhill 587.

37 See Patricia Howard, “For the English”, Musical Times 137 (1996): 13-15.

38 See Burrows and Dunhill 786, 800, 977.

39 See Burrows and Dunhill 729, 963, 852.

40 See Burrows and Dunhill 796, 851.

41 A high proportion of John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: HarperCollins, 1997) is devoted to the period after 1760, and it is very uncertain that much of this material has relevance to the earlier period.

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Donald Burrows, « Æsthetics and Politics: Italian Opera as Revealed in the Correspondence of James Harris », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Media, culture, histoire, Culture et société, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2004, consulté le 25 juillet 2017. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/888

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Auteur

Donald Burrows

Professor, (The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK)
One of the world’s leading authorities on Handel and British 18th-century music, Pr. Donald Burrows completed his undergraduate studies in History and Music at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He then worked as a musician in Oxfordshire, teaching music, performing and conducting. In 1981 he completed his PhD on the subject of Handel and the English Chapel Royal in the Reigns of Queen Anne and King George I. The next year he became a Lecturer in Music at the Open University, receiving promotion to Senior Lecturer in 1989 and to Professor of Music in 1995. From 1991 to 2002 he was also Head of the Music Department. He conducted his first complete performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1971, marking the start of a specialist interest in Handel’s music. He has given lectures and seminars about Handel’s music in Britain, Ireland, Germany, France the USA, Canada and Japan. His publications reflect his wish to balance and connect biographical, historical or social topics with the practical and stylistic aspects of music. His books and articles are complemented by musical editions. Since 1992 he has been General Editor of the Novello Handel Edition, and since 1983 a member of the Redaktionskollegium (Editorial Board) of the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe. He has been a member of the Vorstand of the Georg Friedrich Händel-Gesellschaft since 1987 and a Vice-President since 1999. He was a founding member of the Handel Institute in 1983, and is now Chairman of the Trustees and Council.

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