Thomas Clayton and the Introduction of Italian Opera to England

By Mcgeary, Thomas | Philological Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Thomas Clayton and the Introduction of Italian Opera to England


Mcgeary, Thomas, Philological Quarterly


An overlooked source that helps document the introduction of all-sung Italian-style opera into England is the composer `Thomas Clayton's Preface to the word book to The Passion of Sappho and Feast of Alexander, prepared for a set of concerts of English music in spring 1711.(1) In the Preface (reprinted below), Clayton describes his role introducing Italian opera and reiterates the rationale and aesthetics of dramatic or vocal music in English.

Clayton (b. 1673) was the son of William Clayton, a violinist in the King's Music and shareholder in the United Company at Drury Lane. Young Clayton received a position in the King's Musick in 1689, probably as a violinist; he served until 1702, resigning in 1706. His father died in 1697, and Clayton came into his full inheritance in 1700. As he explains in his Preface, believing himself deficient in understanding the new Italian-style music that was dominating English musical life, Clayton traveled to Italy in 1702 to master the Italian style by learning from past and living masters. He was confident he had mastered Italian music (at least to his own satisfaction), so that in 1.704 he returned intent upon introducing all-sung Italian-style opera to London.

While Clayton was in Italy, the playwright and architect John Vanbrugh had undertaken to build a new theatre in the Haymarket, financed in part by subscriptions from prominent Whig aristocrats and the Kit-Cat Club. He had hoped to start construction in July 1703 and begin productions at Christmas, but the theatre was not under construction until June of the following year.(2) On October 28, 1704, we learn from the Diverting Post that

The Play-House in the Hay-Market (the Architect being John Vanbrugh Esq;) ... is almost finish'd, in the mean time two Opera's translated from the Italian by good Hands, are setting to Musick, one by Mr. Daniel Purcell, which is called Orlando Furioso, and the other by Mr. Clayton, both Opera's are to be perform'd by the best Artists eminent both for Vocal and Instrumental Musick at the Opening of the House.(3)

In the fall of 1704 then, Vanbrugh was apparently planning to open his theatre with two operas sung in English. By late November 1704, the theatre was still unfinished, but Vanbrugh did present a concert before Queen Anne.(4) On February 21, 1705, Vanbrugh's partner, William Congreve, pessimistically wrote a friend, "I know not when the house will open, nor what we shall begin withal; but I believe with no opera. There is nothing settled yet"(5) In the meantime, one of the operas Vanbrugh was planning to present, Clayton's Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus, had premitred earlier on January 16, 1705, at the rival Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, managed by John Rich. Daniel Purcell's ,Orlando Furioso was never produced.(6) In the event, Vanbrugh did finally open his theatre on April 9, 1705, with an opera--not one of the English operas, but a hastily mounted production of an Italian opera Gli Amori d'Ergasto, performed in Italian by a company imported from Italy.(7) The Haymarket Theater would not be completed until the fall of that year.

In the first part of the Preface, Clayton recalls his role in introducing Italian-style opera and Arsinoe to London, defends his authorship of the opera, and reviews the course of opera in England after Arsinoe.

THE PREFACE.

MUSICK being the Art in which I was bred from my Childhood, I humbly beg leave to explain my self to the Town with relation to my Endeavours to excel in that Kind, and my Pretensions to their favourable Acceptance of what I here present to them, as well as to their future Favour in general. When I had gone through the usual Methods taken in England to attain a general Knowledge in this Art, I found it very little Satisfactory, and that it rather created Perplexity than Pleasure in my Thoughts, as it is usual when we have only Hints of what we desire to understand with Clearness as a Science. …

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