Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Eighteenth century show tunes ....

Any collection of vocal music from the turn of the 18th century is going to include numbers from the most popular musical plays of the time, and my big volume is no exception. Storace, Shield, Linley are names that appear over and over again, and of their most durable works there is very little new to say. I don’t think I could rate the biggest favourites amongst the operas of the time from one to ten, but I think I would be safe in saying that the granddaddy of them all must be R B Sheridan’s The Duenna, or the Double Elopement, with songs by Thomas Linley, produced at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, 21 November 1775. The press reported that the piece pulled 6,000 guineas in its first season, giving the theatre its most successful term in history. And it went on from there. I have actually seen a version of this delightful piece on the London stage (unfortunately, fiddled with and remusicked) during my lifetime, so it has indeed proven durable.

 I am not going to attempt to summarise Sheridan’s plot. It is dizzying farrago of mistaken identity, strayed letters, plots, disguises and all the other devices that can keep young lovers apart for two hours. We have two pairs of juveniles (Clara and Ferdinand, Louisa and Antonio), a not really stern father (Jerome), an ugly but warm-hearted and marriageable Portuguese Jew (Isaac), an enabler (Carlos) and the unstarchy duenna of the title, all of whom are intricately involved in the plot, and all of whom get more or less music to sing.

 Personally, I have a preference for the character songs allotted to the elder characters, but it was the ballads and bravuras of the young folk which found their way on to a million British and colonial pianos and into a grand popularity – up to the top of the hit parades of the era.

My book includes no less than four numbers from the sizeable score of The Duenna. The showy ‘Adieu, thou dreary pile’ a favourite song sung by Miss Stephens’, in the role of Clara, created by Mrs Cargill; ‘Ah! Sure a Pair’ ‘a favourite song sung by Mr Incledon’ as Carlos and his other main song ‘Had I a Heart for Falsehood Fram’d’ (the original Carlos was, curiously, the overtly Jewish ‘Michael Leoni’), plus ‘How oft Louisa hast thou said’, ‘a favourite song sung by Mr Broadhurst at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden’ in the role of Antonio, originated by Dubellamy.

These, we thus see, are much later examples than the original publications, which hit the music shelves within weeks of the show’s production, as rivals hurried to plagiarise, ‘parody’ and imitate the triumphant piece. I see the publisher Wilkie advertising ‘the songs, duets trios in The Duenna’ by new year’s day 1776 and The Convivial Magazine featured the piece in its pictorial pages, alongside ‘a beautiful etching of the Tarring and Feathering of Three American Ladies’.

Salisbury Theatre plagiarises the show months after its premiere

We have a fair idea of the dating of this volume by now, thanks to Princess Charlotte et al, but Incledon and Miss Stephens (in what had become the principal roles, often with added songs) are no help. Incledon was already playing Carlos in the 1790s, Miss Stephens had succeeded Mrs Billington as Clara by the 1810s, and both played those parts long and often. I see them actually featured together in the show in 1813, with special mention for her bravura ‘Adieu thou dreary pile’ and for his ‘Had I a Heart’. Kitty Stephens was still singing Clara – to the Carlos of Eliza Vestris – in 1830. William Broadhurst, however, slims the timespan more than a little. I see him playing Antonio at Covent Garden in 1814, with Miss Stephens and Sinclair, and again in – yes! 1822 – in a curiously cast edition which featured the juvenile Clara Fisher as … Isaac the Jew!

So, it seems, Mr Shade merely attached a famous and/or topical name to his publication of each piece of music, rather than those of a current cast: Incledon was well past his best when Broadhurst appeared on the scene. And Miss Stephens: well, ‘as sung by Miss Stephens’ appears on so many Shade music sheets … why not? I’m sure she sang all of the music credited at some stage, and there was no better reference than her name for a budding boudoir young lady with soprano ambitions and two spare shillings to spend.

And all those amateur almost-tenors who strove to be Incledon …

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