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date: 14 April 2021

Great Britainlocked

  • Nicholas Temperley


Nicholas Temperley

Opera does not have deep roots in Britain. Only in the last hundred years has a flourishing tradition of English-language opera, in the fullest, continental, sense, existed. Most writers have been tempted to treat the earlier history in a teleological fashion: as a series of faltering steps towards the presumed goal, reached perhaps with Peter Grimes in 1945. They have singled out the rare examples of all-sung opera in English before 1900 as brave attempts at ‘progress’, generally followed by a deplorable relapse, which then has to be explained by some combination of prejudices and hostile forces.

Yet this mainstream opera towards which the English are supposed to have been feebly groping was, after all, a problematic and often unsatisfying form, in which music’s tendency to run away with the show was a matter for reproach and periodic adjustment. The inventors of opera, and its reformers in each era, set out to tame music – to keep it subservient to drama. They had very limited success. So it should not cause surprise that a nation with a powerful school of drama, where music enjoyed an established but subordinate place, tended to resist encroachments from a form in which it seemed that dramatic truth was so readily sacrificed to musical ends. Foreign opera was welcomed in elite circles, and many of its individual features were absorbed into English musical theatre. But an English opera was often felt by critics, probably speaking for the majority of theatregoers, to be a malformed hybrid, aping foreign musical achievements at too great a cost to English theatrical virtues....

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Music & Letters
Musical Times
The London Stage, 1660-1800 (Carbondale, IL, 1960-68)
Music Review
A. Nicoll: The History of English Drama, 1660-1900 (Cambridge, 1952-9)
C. Burney: A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (London, 1776-89); ed. F. Mercer (London, 1935/R) [p. nos. refer to this edn]