Beggar’s Opera, The
- Robert D. Hume
Ballad opera in three acts arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch to a libretto by John Gay ; London, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 29 January 1728.
The Beggar’s Opera took London by storm, and it remains one of the most frequently performed operatic works in English. There was no precedent or model for the work. Gay was a disappointed seeker of court patronage at the time of the première. A friend of Pope and Swift, he had written seven mostly undistinguished plays and a fair quantity of verse.
The ballad opera form that he created virtually out of nothing consists of spoken dialogue interspersed with thematically relevant songs, taken from a variety of mostly popular sources. Of the 69 songs, 28 have been traced to English ballads and 23 to popular Irish, Scottish and French tunes. The remaining 18 are drawn from Purcell (3), John Barrett (2), Jeremiah Clarke (2), Handel (2), Henry Carey (2), Bononcini, John Eccles, possibly Geminiani, John Wilford, Pepusch, Frescobaldi and Lewis Ramondon. The overture is based on ‘One evening, having lost my way’, an air in Act 3. The musical arrangement is usually credited to Pepusch, but there is no definite evidence to support this statement. Most of the tunes were extremely familiar to the original audience, and Gay was clever at creating ironic overtones and interplay between the music and his new lyrics. For example, the heroic overtones of the original words for Purcell’s melody clang oddly against the very ugly sexual realities of Polly’s ‘Virgins are like the fair Flower’....