Twenty years ago I bought, for a handful of dollars, a bound book of music from an antique shop in Nelson, New Zealand. I catalogued the 123 separate songs and dances that it contained on my computer and shoved the volume on to a shelf. Why? Because it was too old. My era was the Victorian age, and this volume was from a time notably earlier than that. The theatrical pieces were all from the 1780s. Some of the others seemed to sneak into the 19th century, but just. The most modern few seemed to be from the 1820s.
Fast forward two hundred years or so. I don’t buy music any more. I’m past the acquisitive stage of my life. Into the distributive. The days when I lumped 20 kilos of Hungarian sheet music on my back to Budapest station in a cab strike and was literally thrown on board the train by a hunky porter … all gone.
But when my main collection made its way, some years back, to join the imposing Harvard Theatre Collection, this old book stayed on its dusty shelf. And yesterday I stumbled on my catalogue. So I thought I’d investigate it and see if maybe there was something interesting therein. And there was. Among the show tunes of the day – most of which turn up in more or less library collections, even if in later American editions – the favourite ballads and the oratorio songs, some frightening ‘arrangements’ of Mozart, the Handel and the Purcell, and the quadrilles, waltzes and country dances, I came upon several pieces by Dr Henry Harrington (1726-1813) of Bath, Edward Harwood’s musicalised ‘The Dying Christian to his Soul’ and … no 91. ‘The Fishing Duett sung in the opera of Don Juan composed by Mozart’.
The WHAT duet? Now, I know C18th-19th century Britain did vile things to such works as The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville, which became standards on the London stage with scores riddled with arias and ensembles by Henry Bishop and his ilk … So do Elvira and Zerlina go FISHING in this version…?
So I looked and I found.
Don Juan or the Libertine Destroyed, produced at the Royalty Theatre 1787 … the WHAT theatre?
Enough of the foreplay. Here’s the real story. The Royalty Theatre only lived about a year. It was in Well-street, Goodman’s Fields, near Aldgate. Outside London’s walls. But the licensees of London’s patent theatres squealed like stuck boars at the thought of competition, even in the East End, so… Anyway, while it lived, the Royalty and its begetter, Mr Palmer, did pretty well. Under difficulties. And the principal difficulty was … no spoken dialogue was allowed. Dancing, singing, pantomime, recitation, but no dramatic dialogue.
So Mr Palmer hired London’s star pantomimist, the great Carlo Antonio Delpini, plus one or two well-known actor-singers, some youngsters (including a singing boy named Braham), a heap of dancers, a young muso named William Reeve … and he went to work within the permitted boundaries. He produced a sung-and-pantomimed piece called Hobson’s Choice or, Thespis in Distress which took the puss out of the patent theatres (and made them even more pussed off with him than they already were), he gave a sung version of Thomas and Susan, a musical version of Grey’s Elegy ‘with songs and choruses’, and then he mounted ‘a new grand tragi-comical pantomimic entertainment under the direction of Mr Delpini’ Don Juan, or the Libertine Destroyed with the star in the role of Scaramouch, soon to be more familiar as Leporello. Palmer played the Don. There was no Elvira, no Zerlina, just Anna. And a sailor ‘with a song’ plus two fishermen’s wives (Miss Burnett, Mrs Fox) who gave the Don his philandering opportunities and who shared ‘the Fishing Duett’.
THUS for men the women fair
Lay the cunning cunning snare
Whilst like fish the men will rove
And with beauty fall in love what is beauty but the bait
Oft repented when too late
If too rash to seize the prize
Now display’d before my eyes
How you’ll rue when all is past
Hymen's hook which holds you fast
Ere you marry then beware
Tis a blessing or a snare
But the music used wasn’t from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It couldn’t have been. Because Don Giovanni was only produced for the first time, at Prague, later in that year. The pantomime dance music was said to be borrowed from Gluck’s 1761 ballet. And ‘fishing’? I might have guessed. It’s a couple of girls, with rod and line, singing about laying a bait for a male… And the tune is by house muso William Reeve (1757-1815). The words are not credited.
Don Juan was a hit. When the Royalty was matraqued, it went on to be played at the patent theatres … at Covent Garden where star vocalists Mesdames Mountain and Martyr fished, in an enlarged version at Drury Lane, where the song quotient was delivered by Charles Dignum and Sedgwick (‘Come jolly boys who sailors be’), Dubois as Scaramouch (‘See that pretty creature there’), and Mrs Bland and Mrs Edwards got the duet, at the Haymarket, the Lyceum and across the ocean in America. The duet was interpolated into such as A Trip to Scarborough, for Mrs Bland and Fanny Kelly … and in the 1820s Delpini’s pupil, Joseph Grimaldi, took the piece up …
The pantomime had a life – in varying versions – for something like a century. But I mostly see ‘fisherwomen’ in the cast, so I gather the Duett was still there.
Well, it mightn’t have been a ‘Mi tradi’ or a ‘Non mi dir’. But the Fishing Duett did pretty well for a show song. And now I know. Not Mozart. Reeve.
(The sheet music included above isn't mine as you can tell by the G***y stamped all over it. When I get back to New Zealand I'll replace it with the real thing)