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Addison, Josephlocked

  • Donald R. Boomgaarden

(b Milston, Wilts., May 1, 1672; d Kensington, London, June 17, 1719). English librettist and writer on opera. He studied at Oxford, then held minor political offices and toured on the Continent (1699–1704), hearing performances in the most important operatic centres. He documented his impressions of opera in his Remarks upon Several Parts of Italy (London, 1705), commenting perceptively on the differences between the Italian, French and English poetic styles and criticizing the dramatic vacuity of Italian opera librettos. He later wrote a libretto on the story of Rosamond, mistress of Henry II, which was set by Thomas Clayton (1707) and was not successful, partially because of the composer's ineptitude. The libretto, while not Addison's best work, is an elegant attempt to create an opera on a British theme and shows that he had studied the dramatic and technical sides of opera. It was set successfully by T.A. Arne (1733) and, in a revised form and with less success, by Samuel Arnold (1767).

In his contributions to The Tatler (1709–11) and The Spectator (1711–12) Addison made his most extensive comments on the London opera scene and put forward suggestions for the improvement of British opera. He ridiculed Handel's Rinaldo (1711) and the mixing of realistic stage props (such as live sparrows) with unrealistic ones (pasteboard seas, painted dragons etc.). He exhorted British composers to follow Lully's model and create native opera traditions.

Addison's essays had a considerable impact on the development of musical aesthetics and criticism. Mattheson translated and adapted many of them in Die Vernünftler (1713–14) and used Addison's arguments to support his advocacy for the creation of a German operatic tradition. Gottsched knew Addison's works, and his wife translated Addison's contributions to The Spectator as well as his plays Cato and The Drummer. J.A. Scheibe mentioned Addison frequently in Der critische Musicus (1745). The Spectator had many imitators, including the Discourse der Mahlern (1721–3) by the Swiss writers Bodmer and Breitinger. Addison's ideas were cited by mid-century operatic reformers, particularly Algarotti, whose pupil Calzabigi also knew Addison's works. Addison's emphasis on naturalness in opera, the need for librettos of high literary quality and for national opera independent of Italian models helped to prepare the way for the operatic revolution of Gluck.


  • GroveO (D.R. Boomgaarden)
  • W. Graham, ed.: The Letters of Joseph Addison (London, 1941)
  • S. Betz: ‘The Operatic Criticism of the Tatler and Spectator’, MQ, 31 (1945), 318–30
  • P. Smithers: The Life of Joseph Addison (Oxford, 1954, 2/1968)
  • M. Tilmouth: ‘Music and British Travellers Abroad, 1600–1730’, Source Materials and the Interpretation of Music: a Memorial Volume to Thurston Dart, ed. I. Bent (London, 1981), 357–82
  • D. Boomgaarden: Musical Thought in Britain and Germany During the Early Eighteenth Century (Berne, 1987)
The New Grove Dictionary of Opera
Musical Quarterly