Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A second-hand elegiac for the heir to the throne of England.


Page 42. I’ve skipped ‘Auld Robin Gray’ sung by Miss Stephens, because everybody knows ‘Auld Robin Gray’, don’t they? Yes? I thought I did, but I didn’t know the words of the song and their story, even though it’s a much-used one. Scots lassie loves poor boy. Can’t marry because he’s got no money. He goes off to the wars, she is courted by an older, kindly man, and eventually weds him. Then Jamie comes home. The lyric was written by 21 year-old Lady Anne Lindsay Barnard to the tune of an existing ribald song, and is truly moving. Its last line ‘He’s good to me, is Auld Robin Gray’, is an absolute heartbreaker.

But on to page 42. A curiosity. Not exactly a rarity (there are copies in several libraries), but an 1810s example of commercialism and what I would call bad taste. Although a kind of bad taste that was seemingly not frowned upon at the time. Odes and elegies and other topical pieces were regularly penned to ‘celebrate’ the deaths of royals and notables, undoubtedly with the aim of cashing in on the event. But such pieces, banal as they usually were, were normally freshly minted. Mr George Shade evidently had no such qualms.

The Princess Charlotte Augusta of England was the only child of the future King George IV, and as such, first in line to succeed him to the throne of all the Britains. After some stormy politics, she finally got to marry Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, got pregnant, and died 6 November 1817 in childbirth aged 21. The mourning can, nowadays, only be imagined. Princess Diana-sized. And Mr Shade published his contribution to that mourning. ‘Charlotte’ an elegy for three voices, the music composed by J[oseph] Baildon and now adapted for the lamentable death of her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte’.

Crafty. Mr Baildon had been dead since 1774. His wife even longer. His only daughter was wed (Mrs Williams), ageing and living overseas. And the ‘adaptation’? Well, let’s start at the beginning. The poetry dated from 1747. It was penned by Lord George Lyttelton of Hagley (1709-1773) on the occasion of the premature death of his wife, Lucy Fortescue: ‘Adieu to the village delights …’. 

The poem won widespread favour and it was subsequently (I don’t know exactly when) set to music as a Glee by the respected composer Joseph Baildon (The Laurel). 

In that form it became even more well known, and even after its author’s and composer’s death, made its way into the theatre (Sheridan’s The Glorious First of June, 1794). As it made its tour of the English-singing world, it became the subject of American plagiarisms, of rip-offs in general, the ‘Lucy’ who was mourned became everything from ‘Emma’ to ‘Henry’ as the circumstances demanded, until, in 1817, Mr Shade opted opportunely for ‘Charlotte’. Which was not only the name of the dead Princess, but also of Baildon’s wife and daughter. Tacky?

Lucy's tomb
Charlotte's memorial
Yes, tacky. Prince of Wales’s feathers and all. I mean, who would buy a cheap rehash like this? But thank you, Mr Shade, we can of course date this piece, and thus probably this volume, to post 1817.

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