The Subscription Musick of 1703-04

Article excerpt

In the early years of the i8th century, subscriptions among the nobility emerged as the method by which all-sung operas in the Italian style were funded on the London stage. A crucial part in this development was played by the grand series of subscription concerts held in London's two theatres in the winter of 1703-04. These concerts have not previously received the detailed attention they deserve and there have been a number of misunderstandings about them.

The Prize Musick competition in spring 1701 for settings of William Congreve 's The judgment of Paris 'Set severally to Musick, by Mr. John Eccles, Mr. Finger, Mr. Purcel, and Mr. Weldon" seems to have been the first occasion on which a subscription organised among the wealthy was employed to fund musical performances in the theatre. Roger North, looking back at the competition in 1728, believed that 'nothing advanced musick more in this age then the patronage of the nobillity, and men of fortunes, for they became encouragers of it by great liberallitys, and countenance to the professors'.2 In 1701-02, the season after the competition, some members of the nobility were responsible for a concert series of which only fragmentary evidence survives. The key season was 1703-04. In that winter, besides subscription concerts organised by Tory grandees that featured Margherita de l'Epine there was also the 'Subscription Musick', organised by prominent Whigs. This was a series of ten concerts in the London theatres between 30 November and 30 March, usually held at fortnightly intervals on a Tuesday evening. For this series we have detailed newspaper advertisements for each concert and a word book for one of them. The star singer was the exciting new soprano Catherine Tofts, who was to be the leading performer in Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus, the first all-sung English opera in the Italian style. Arsinoe was staged at Drury Lane Theatre in January 1705, but only after a subscription had been raised.3 Mrs Tofts was then to sing important roles in six more operas in the Italian style, all except one supported by subscriptions.4

The first concert of the Subscription Musick, like all the subsequent ones, was advertised in the Daily Courant on the day of its performance:

At the Theatre Royal in Drury-Lane, this present Tuesdaybe'mg the 30th of November, will be presented an Extraordinary Consort of Vocal and Instrumental Musick by Subscription; In which Mrs. Tofts performs several Songs in Italian and English, accompany 'd by the best Masters in England. With Danceing by Monsieur Labbe and others. None to be admitted into the Pit or Boxes but by the Subscribers Tickets, which are deliver'd out at White's Chocolate House in St. James 's-street. The Boxes on the Stage and the Galleries are for the Benefit of the Actors. Beginning exactly at Five a clock.5

Singing by Mrs Tofts in Italian and English and dancing by Monsieur L'Abbé were to feature prominently in the advertisements for all ten of the subscription concerts, and the presence of these two performers almost certainly explains why the subscribers exerted themselves to mount the series. The concerts marked the first public appearances of Catherine Tofts, who had previously been heard only in private musical evenings organised by influential Whigs.6 They clearly wished to promote her as an English rival to Margherita de l'Epine, who was being supported by leading Tories. In late May 1703 Narcissus Luttrell had reported: 'Several lords and gendemen are carrying on a subscription, which 'tis thought will amount to 20,000 guineas, for Mrs. Seigniora, the Italian songstresse at the playhouses here'.7 The key figure in this enterprise was the Tory Earl of Nottingham, for on 4 November 1703 Charles Bertie wrote to Lord Hatton: 'my Lord Nottingham has gott mee to bee a Contributor to La Signora Francesca Margarita's charming voice & many of your house are Subscribers to the Same '.8 A month later, on 6 December, Lord Hugh Cholmondeley wrote to Nottingham that he was 'not able to come to the price of Margaritas Voice with out doeing Pennance whole Months in the Country first, to raise a Fund sufficient to defray the Expence'. …