Introduction Of Italian Opera Into England

Operatic Feuds.--Objections to Nose-pulling.--Arsinoe.--Camilla and

the Boar.--Steele on insanity.--Handel and Clayton.--Nicolini and

the lion.--Rinaldo and the sparrows.--Hamlet set to music.--Three

enraged musicians.--Three charming singers.

It was not until the close of the 17th century that England was visited

by any Italian singers of note, among the first of whom was the

well-known Margarita de l'Epine. This vocalist's name frequently occurs

in the current literature of the period, and Swift in his "Journal to

Stella" speaks in his own graceful way of having heard "Margarita and

her sister and another drab, and a parcel of fiddlers at Windsor." This

was in 1711, nineteen years after her arrival in England--a proof that

even then Italian singers, who had once obtained the favour of the

English public, were determined to profit by it as long as possible.

Margarita was an excellent musician, and a virtuous and amiable woman;

but she was ugly and was called Hecate by her husband, who had married

her for her money.


The history of the Opera in England is, more than in any other country,

the history of feuds and rivalries between theatres and singers. The

rival of Margarita de l'Epine was Mrs. Tofts, who in 1703 was singing

English and Italian songs at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Instead of enjoying the talent of both, the London public began to

dispute as to which was the best; and what was still more absurd, to

create disturbances at the very theatres where they sang, so that the

English party prevented Margarita de l'Epine from being heard, while the

Italians drowned the voice of Mrs. Tofts.[11] Once, when the amiable

Margarita was singing at Drury Lane, she was not only hissed and hooted,

but an orange was thrown at her by a woman who was recognised as being

or having been in the service of the English vocalist. Hence

considerable scandal and the following public statement which appeared

in the Daily Courant of February 8th, 1704.

"Ann Barwick having occasioned a disturbance at the Theatre Royal on

Saturday last, the 5th of February, and being thereupon taken into

custody, Mrs. Tofts, in vindication of her innocencey, sent a letter to

Mr. Rich, master of the said Theatre, which is as followeth:--'Sir, I

was very much surprised when I was informed that Ann Barwick, who was

lately my servant, had committed a rudeness last night at the playhouse

by throwing of oranges and hissing when Mrs. L'Epine, the Italian

gentlewoman, sang. I hope no one will think it was in the least with my

privity, as I assure you it was not. I abhor such practices, and I hope

you will cause her to be prosecuted that she may be punished as she

deserves. I am, sir, your humble servant, KATHARINE TOFTS.'"

[Sidenote: ARSINOE.]

At this period the unruly critics of the pit behaved with as little

ceremony to those who differed from them among the audience as to those

performers whom they disliked on the stage. In proof of this, we may

quote a portion of the very amusing letter written by a linen-draper

named Heywood (under the signature of James Easy), to the

Spectator,[12] on the subject of nose-pulling. "A friend of mine, the

other night, applauding what a graceful exit Mr. Wilkes made," says Mr.

Easy, "one of these nose-wringers overhearing him, pulled him by the

nose. I was in the pit the other night," he adds, "when it was very

crowded. A gentleman leaning upon me, and very heavily, I civilly

requested him to remove his hand; for which he pulled me by the nose. I

would not resent it in so public a place, because I was unwilling to

create a disturbance; but have since reflected upon it as a thing that

is unmanly and disingenuous, renders the nose-puller odious, and makes

the person pulled by the nose look little and contemptible. This

grievance I humbly request you will endeavour to redress."

Fifty years later, at the Grand Opera of Paris, a gentleman in the pit

applauded the dancing of Mademoiselle Asselin. "Il faut être bien bête

pour applaudir une telle sauteuse," said his neighbour, upon which a

challenge was given and received, the two amateurs went out and fought,

when the aggressor fell mortally wounded.

In the letters of Frenchmen and Englishmen from Italy, describing the

Italian theatres of the eighteenth century, we read neither of pelting

with oranges, nor of nose-pulling, nor of duelling. One of the most

remarkable things in the demeanour of the audience appears to have been

the unceremonious manner in which the aristocratic occupants of the

boxes behaved towards the people in the pit. The nobles, who were

somewhat given to expectoration, thought nothing of spitting down into

the parterre, and "what is still more extraordinary," says Baretti, who

notices this curious habit, "those who received it on their faces and

heads, did not seem to resent it much." We are told, however, that "they

made the most curious grimaces in the world."

But to return to the rival singers of London. In 1705, then, Mrs. Tofts

and Margarita were both engaged at Drury Lane; the former taking the

principal part in Arsinoe, which was performed in English, the latter

singing Italian songs before and after the Opera. Arsinoe ("the first

Opera," says the Spectator, "that gave us a taste for Italian music")

was the composition of Clayton, the maestro who afterwards wrote music

for Addison's unfortunate Rosamond, and who described the purpose and

character of his first work in the following words:--"The design of this

entertainment being to introduce the Italian manner of singing to the

English stage, which has not been before attempted, I was obliged to

have an Italian Opera translated, in which the words, however mean in

several places, suited much better with that manner of music than others

more poetical would do. The style of this music is to express the

passions, which is the soul of music, and though the voices are not

equal to the Italian, yet I have engaged the best that were to be found

in England; and I have not been wanting, to the utmost of my diligence,

in the instructing of them. The music, being recitative, may not at

first meet with that general acceptation, as is to be hoped for, from

the audience's being better acquainted with it; but if this attempt

shall be a means of bringing this manner of music to be used in my

native country, I shall think my study and pains very well employed."


Mr. Hogarth, in his interesting "Memoirs of the Opera," remarks that

"though Arsinoe is utterly unworthy of criticism, yet there is

something amusing in the folly of the composer. The very first song may

be taken as a specimen. The words are--

Queen of Darkness, sable night,

Ease a wandering lover's pain;

Guide me, lead me

Where the nymph whom I adore,

Sleeping, dreaming,

Thinks of love and me no more.

The first two lines are spoken in a meagre sort of recitative. Then

there is a miserable air, the first part of which consists of the next

two lines, and concludes with a perfect close. The second part of the

air is on the last two lines; after which, there is, as usual, a da

capo, and the first part is repeated; the song finishing in the middle

of a sentence,--

"Guide me, lead me

Where the nymph whom I adore"--

which, I venture to say, has not been beaten by Bunn, or Fitzball, or

any of our worst librettists at their worst moments.

The music of Camilla, the second opera in the Italian style, performed

in England, was by Marco Antonio Buononcini, the brother of Handel's

future rival. The work was produced at the original Opera House, erected

by Sir John Vanburgh, on the site of the present building, in 1705.[13]

It was sung half in English and half in Italian. Mrs. Tofts played the

part of "Camilla," and kept to her mother tongue. Valentini played

that of the hero, and kept to his. Both the Buononcinis were composers

of high ability and the music of Camilla is said to have been very

beautiful. The melodies given to the two principal singers were

original, expressive, and well harmonized. Mrs. Tofts' impersonation of

the Amazonian lady was much admired by persons of taste, and there was a

part for a pig which threw the vulgar into ecstacies.

"Mr. Spectator," wrote a correspondent, "your having been so humble as

to take notice of the epistles of the animal, embolden me, who am the

wild boar that was killed by Mrs. Tofts, to represent to you that I

think I was hardly used in not having the part of the lion in Hydaspes

given to me. It would have been but a natural step for me to have

personated that noble creature, after having behaved myself to

satisfaction in the part above mentioned; but that of a lion is too

great a character for one that never trode the stage before but upon two

legs. As for the little resistance I made, I hope it may be excused when

it is considered that the dart was thrown at me by so fair a hand. I

must confess I had but just put on my brutality; and Camilla's charms

were such, that beholding her erect mien, hearing her charming voice,

and astonished with her graceful motion, I could not keep up to my

assumed fierceness, but died like a man."


Mrs. Tofts quitted the stage in 1709, in consequence of mental

derangement. We have seen Mademoiselle Desmâtins, half fancying in her

excessive, vanity that she was really the queen or princess she had been

representing the same night on the stage, and ordering the servants, on

her return home, to prepare her throne and serve her on their bended

knees. Poor Mrs. Tofts laboured under a similar delusion; only, in her

case, it was not a moral malady, but the hallucination of a diseased

intellect. "In the meridian of her beauty," says Hawkins, in his History

of Music, "and possessed of a large sum of money, which she had acquired

by singing, Mrs. Tofts quitted the stage, and was married to Mr. Joseph

Smith, a gentleman, who being appointed consul for the English nation,

at Venice, she went thither with him. Mr. Smith was a great collector of

books, and patron of the arts. He lived in great state and magnificence;

but the disorder of his wife returning, she dwelt sequestered from the

world, in a remote part of the house, and had a large garden to range

in, in which she would frequently walk, singing and giving way to that

innocent frenzy which had seized her in the early part of her life."

The terrible affliction, which had fallen upon the favourite operatic

vocalist, is touched upon by Steele, with singular want of feeling, of

taste, and even of common decency, in No. 20 of the Tatler. "The

theatre," he says, "is breaking, and there is a great desolation among

the gentlemen and ladies who were the ornaments of the town, and used to

shine in plumes and diadems, the heroes being most of them pressed, and

the queens beating hemp." Then with more brutality than humour he adds,

"The great revolutions of this nature bring to my mind the distress of

the unfortunate 'Camilla,' who has had the ill luck to break before her

voice, and to disappear at a time when her beauty was in the height of

its bloom. This lady entered so thoroughly into the great characters she

acted, that when she had finished her part she could not think of

retrenching her equipage, but would appear in her own lodgings with the

same magnificence as she did upon the stage. This greatness of soul has

reduced that unhappy princess to a voluntary retirement, where she now

passes her time among the woods and forests, thinking on the crowns and

sceptres she has lost, and often humming over in her solitude:--

'I was born of royal race,

Yet must wander in disgrace, &c.'

"But for fear of being overheard, and her quality known, she usually

sings it in Italian:--

'Nacqui al regno, nacqui al trono,

E pur sono,

Sventatura pastorella.'"


It is "the Christian soldier" who wrote this; who rejoiced in this

anti-christian and cowardly spirit at the dark calamity which had

befallen an amiable and charming vocalist, whose only fault was that

she had aided the fortunes of a theatre abhorred by Steele. And what

cause had Steele for detesting the Italian Opera with the unreasonable

and really stupid hatred which he displayed towards it? Addison, as it

seems to me, has been most unfairly attacked for his strictures on the

operatic performances of his day. They were often just, they were never

ill-natured, and they were always enveloped in such a delightful garb of

humour, that there is not a sentence, certainly not a whole paper, and

scarcely even a phrase,[14] in all he has published about the Opera,

that a musician, unless already "enraged," would wish unwritten. It is

unreasonable and unworthy to connect Addison's pleasantries on the

subject of Arsinoe, Camilla, Hydaspes, and Rinaldo, with the

failure of his Rosamond, which, as the reader is aware, was set to

music by the ignorant impostor called Clayton. Addison, it is true, did

not write any of his admirably humorous papers about the Italian Opera

until after the production of Rosamond, but it was not until some time

afterwards that the Spectator first appeared. St. Evrémond, who was a

great lover of the Opera, wrote much more against it than Addison. In

fact, the new entertainment was the subject of the day. It was full of

incongruities, and naturally recommended itself to the attention of

wits; and we all know that, as a rule, wits do not deal in praise. All

that Rosamond proves is, that Addison liked the Opera or he would

never have written it.

But about this Christian Soldier who endeavours to convince his readers

that music is a thing to be despised because it does not appeal to the

understanding, and who laughs at the misfortunes of a poor lunatic

because she is no longer able to attract the public by her singing from

the dramatic theatre in which he took so deep an interest, and of which

he afterwards became patentee?[15]


Of course, if music appealed only to the understanding, mad Saul would

have found no solace in the tones of David's harp, and it would be

hideously irreverent to imagine the angels of heaven singing hymns to

their Creator. Steele, of course, knew this, and also that the pleasure

given by music is not a mere physical sensation, to be enjoyed as an

Angora cat enjoys the smell of flowers, but he seems to have thought it

was his duty (as it afterwards became his interest) to write up the

drama and write down the Opera at all hazards. Powerful penmanship it

must have been, however, that would have put down Handel, or that would

have kept up Mr. Ambrose Phillips. It would have been easier, at least

it would have been more successful, to have gone upon the other tack. We

all know Handel, and (if the expression be permitted) he becomes more

immortal every day. Steele, it is true, did not hold his music in any

esteem, but Mozart, a competent judge in such matters, did, and

reckoned it an honour to write additional accompaniments to the elder

master's greatest work. And who was this Ambrose Phillips? some reader,

not necessarily ignorant of his country's literature, may ask. He was

Racine's thief. He stole Andromaque, and gave it to the English as his

own, calling it prosaically and stupidly "The Distrest Mother," which is

as if we should call "Abel" "The Uncivil Brother," or "Philoctetes" "The

Man with the Bad Foot," or "Prometheus," "The Gentleman with the Liver

Complaint." Steele wrote a paper[16] on the reading of this new tragedy,

in which he declares that "the style of the play is such as becomes

those of the first education, and the sentiments worthy of those of the

highest figure." He also says, "I congratulate the age that they are at

last to see truth and human life represented in the incidents which

concern heroes and heroines."

Translated Racine was very popular just then with writers who regarded

Shakespeare as a dealer in the false sublime. "Would one think it was

possible," asks Addison, "at a time when an author lived that was able

to write the Phedra and Hippolytus (translate Phèdre, that is to

say), for a people to be so stupidly fond of the Italian Opera as scarce

to give a third day's hearing to that admirable tragedy."

Sensible people! It seems quite possible to us in the present day that

they should have preferred Handel's music to Racine's rhymed prose,

rendered into English rhymes by a man who had nothing of the poetical

spirit which Racine, though writing in an unpoetical language, certainly


The triumphant success of Handel's Rinaldo was felt deeply by Steele

and by the Spectator's favourite composer Clayton, a bad musician, and

apart from the practice of his art, as base a scoundrel as ever libelled

a great man. But of course critics who besides expatiating on the

blemishes of Shakespeare dwelt on the beauties of Racine as improved by

Phillips, would be sure to enjoy the cacophony of Clayton;

"Qui Bavium non odit amet tua carmina Mævi."


However we must leave the chivalrous Steele and his faithful minstrel

for the present. We have done with the writer's triumphant gloating over

the insanity of the poor prima donna. We shall presently see the

musician publishing impudent falsehoods, under the auspices of his

literary patron, concerning Handel and his genius, and endeavouring,

always with the same protection, to form a cabal for the avowed purpose

of driving him from the country which he was so greatly benefiting.

Before Handel's arrival in England Steele had not only insulted operatic

singers, but in recording the success of Scarlatti's Pyrrhus and

Demetrius, had openly proclaimed his chagrin thereat. "This

intelligence," he says, "is not very agreeable to our friends of the


* * * * *

Pyrrhus and Demetrius, in which the celebrated Nicolini made his first

appearance, was the last opera performed partly in English and partly in


In 1710, Almahide, of which the music is attributed to Buononcini, was

played entirely in the Italian language, with Valentine, Nicolini,

Margarita de l'Epine, Cassani, and "Signora Isabella" (Isabella

Girardean), in the principal parts. The same year Hydaspes was

produced. This marvellous work, which is not likely to be forgotten by

readers of the Spectator, was brought out under the direction of

Nicolini, the sopranist, who performed the part of the hero. The other

singers were those included in the cast of Almahide, with the addition

of Lawrence, an English tenor, who was in the habit of singing in

Italian operas, and of whom it was humourously said by Addison, in his

proposition for an opera in Greek, that he "could learn to speak the

language as well as he does Italian in a fortnight's time." "Hydaspes"

is a sort of profane Daniel, who being thrown into an amphitheatre to be

devoured by a lion, is saved not by faith, but by love; the presence of

his mistress among the spectators inspiring him with such courage, that

after appealing to the monster in a minor key, and telling him that he

may tear his bosom but cannot touch his heart, he attacks him in the

relative major, and strangles him.


"There is nothing of late years," says Addison, in one of the most

amusing of his papers on the Opera, "that has afforded matter of greater

amusement to the town than Signior Nicolini's combat with a lion in the

Haymarket, which has been very often exhibited to the general

satisfaction of most of the nobility and gentry in the kingdom of Great

Britain." Upon the first rumour of this intended combat, it was

confidently affirmed, and is still believed by many in both galleries,

that there would be a tame lion sent from the tower every Opera night,

in order to be killed by Hydaspes; this report, though altogether so

universally prevalent in the upper regions of the play-house, that some

of the most refined politicians in those parts of the audience gave it

out in whisper, that the lion was a cousin-german of the tiger who made

his appearance in King William's days, and that the stage would be

supplied with lions at the public expense, during the whole session.

Many likewise were the conjectures of the treatment which this lion was

to meet with from the hands of Signior Nicolini; some supposed that he

was to subdue him in recitative, as Orpheus used to serve the wild

beasts in his time, and afterwards to knock him on the head; some

fancied that the lion would not pretend to lay his paws upon the hero,

by reason of the received opinion, that a lion will not hurt a virgin.

Several who pretended to have seen the Opera in Italy, had informed

their friends, that the lion was to act a part in high Dutch, and roar

twice or thrice to a thorough bass, before he fell at the feet of

Hydaspes. To clear up a matter that was so variously reported, I have

made it my business to examine whether this pretended lion is really the

savage he appears to be, or only a counterfeit.

"But before I communicate my discoveries, I must acquaint the reader

that upon my walking behind the scenes last winter, as I was thinking on

something else, I accidentally justled against a monstrous animal that

extremely startled me, and upon my nearer survey much surprised, told me

in a gentle voice that I might come by him if I pleased, 'for,' says he,

'I do not intend to hurt any body.' I thanked him very kindly, and

passed by him; and in a little time after saw him leap upon the stage,

and act his part with very great applause. It has been observed by

several, that the lion has changed his manner of acting twice or thrice

since his first appearance; which will not seem strange, when I acquaint

my reader that the lion has been changed upon the audience three several

times. The first lion was a candle-snuffer, who being a fellow of a

testy choleric temper, overdid his part, and would not suffer himself to

be killed so easily as he ought to have done; besides, it was observed

of him, that he grew more surly every time he came out of the lion; and

having dropped some words in ordinary conversation, as if he had not

fought his best, and that he suffered himself to be thrown upon his back

in the scuffle, and that he would wrestle with Mr. Nicolini for what he

pleased, out of his lion's skin, it was thought proper to discard him;

and it is verily believed to this day, that had he been brought upon the

stage another time, he would certainly have done mischief. Besides, it

was objected against the first lion, that he reared himself so high upon

his hinder paws, and walked in so erect a posture, that he looked more

like an old man than a lion.


"The second lion was a tailor by trade, who belonged to the play-house,

and had the character of a mild and peaceable man in his profession. If

the former was too furious, this was too sheepish for his part; insomuch

that after a short modest walk upon the stage, he would fall at the

first touch of Hydaspes, without grappling with him, and giving him an

opportunity of showing his variety of Italian trips. It is said, indeed,

that he once gave him a rip in his flesh colour doublet; but this was

only to make work for himself, in his private character of a tailor. I

must not omit that it was this second lion who treated me with so much

humanity behind the scenes. The acting lion at present is, as I am

informed, a country gentleman who does it for his diversion, but desires

his name may be concealed. He says, very handsomely, in his own excuse,

that he does not act for gain; that he indulges an innocent pleasure in

it; and that it is better to pass away an evening in this manner, than

in gaming and drinking; but at the same time says, with a very agreeable

raillery upon himself, and that if his name should be known, the

ill-natured world might call him 'the ass in the lion's skin.' This

gentleman's temper is made out of such a happy mixture of the mild and

the choleric, that he outdoes both his predecessors, and has drawn

together greater audiences than have been known in the memory of man.

"I must not conclude my narrative without taking notice of a groundless

report that has been raised to a gentleman's disadvantage, of whom I

must declare myself an admirer; namely, that Signior Nicolini and the

lion have been sitting peaceably by one another, and smoking a pipe

together, behind the scenes; by which their enemies would insinuate, it

is but a sham combat which they represent upon the stage; but upon

enquiry I find, that if any such correspondence has passed between them,

it was not till the combat was over, when the lion was to be looked upon

as dead, according to the received rules of the drama. Besides, this is

what is practised every day in Westminster Hall, where nothing is more

usual than to see a couple of lawyers, who have been tearing each other

to pieces in the court, embracing one another.

"I would not be thought, in any part of this relation, to reflect upon

Signior Nicolini, who, in acting this part, only complies with the

wretched taste of his audience; he knows very well that the lion has

many more admirers than himself; as they say of the famous equestrian

statue on the Pont Neuf at Paris, that more people go to see the horse

than the king who sits upon it. On the contrary, it gives me a just

indignation to see a person whose action gives new majesty to kings,

resolution to heroes, and softness to lovers, thus sinking from the

greatness of his behaviour, and degraded into the character of a London

'prentice. I have often wished that our tragedians would copy after this

great master in action. Could they make the same use of their arms and

legs, and inform their faces with as significant looks and passions, how

glorious would an English tragedy appear with that action which is

capable of giving dignity to the forced thoughts, cold conceits, and

unnatural expressions of an Italian Opera! In the meantime, I have

related this combat of the lion, to show what are at present the

reigning entertainments of the politer part of Great Britain."


But the operatic year of 1710 is remarkable for something more than the

production of Almahide and Hydaspes; for in 1710 Handel arrived in

England, and the year after brought out his Rinaldo, the first of the

thirty-five operas which he gave to the English stage. For Handel we are

indebted to Hanover. It was at Hanover that the English noblemen who

invited him to London first met the great composer; and it was the

Elector of Hanover, afterwards George I., who granted him permission to

come, and who when he in his turn arrived in England to assume the

crown, added considerably to the pension which Queen Anne had already

granted to the former chapel-master of the Hanoverian court. In 1710 the

director of the theatre in the Haymarket was Aaron Hill, who no sooner

heard of Handel's arrival in London than he went to him, and requested

him to compose an opera for his establishment. Handel consented, and

Hill furnished him with a plan, sketched out by himself, on the subject

of Rinaldo and Armida in Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, the writing of

the libretto being entrusted to an Italian poet of some note named

Rossi. In the advertisements of this opera Handel's name does not

appear; not at least in that which calls attention to its first

representation and which simply sets forth that "at the Queen's Theatre

in the Haymarket will be performed a new opera called Rinaldo."

It was in Rinaldo that the celebrated operatic sparrows made their

first appearance on the stage--with what success may be gathered from

the following notice of their performance, which I extract from No. 5 of

the Spectator.

"As I was walking in the streets about a fortnight ago," says Addison,

"I saw an ordinary fellow carrying a cage full of little birds upon his

shoulder; and as I was wondering with myself what use he would put them

to, he was met very luckily by an acquaintance, who had the same

curiosity. Upon his asking him what he had upon his shoulder, he told

him that he had been buying sparrows for the opera. 'Sparrows, for the

opera,' says his friend, licking his lips, 'What! are they to be

roasted?' 'No, no,' says the other, 'they are to enter towards the end

of the first act, and to fly about the stage.'


"This strange dialogue wakened my curiosity so far that I immediately

bought the opera, by which means I perceived the sparrows were to act

the part of singing birds in a delightful grove, though upon a nearer

inquiry I found the sparrows put the same trick upon the audience that

Sir Martin Mar-all practised upon his mistress; for though they flew in

sight, the music proceeded from a concert of flageolets and bird-calls,

which were planted behind the scenes. At the same time I made this

discovery, I found by the discourse of the actors, that there were great

designs on foot for the improvement of the Opera; that it had been

proposed to break down a part of the wall, and to surprise the audience

with a party of a hundred horse; and that there was actually a project

of bringing the New River into the house, to be employed in jetteaus and

waterworks. This project, as I have since heard, is postponed till the

summer season, when it is thought that the coolness which proceeds from

fountains and cascades will be more acceptable and refreshing to people

of quality. In the meantime, to find out a more agreeable entertainment

for the winter season, the opera of Rinaldo is filled with thunder and

lightning, illuminations, and fireworks; which the audience may look

upon without catching cold, and indeed without much danger of being

burnt; for there are several engines filled with water, and ready to

play at a minute's warning, in case any such accident should happen.

However, as I have a very great friendship for the owner of this

theatre, I hope that he has been wise enough to insure his house before

he would let this opera be acted in it.

"But to return to the sparrows. There have been so many flights of them

let loose in this opera, that it is feared the house will never get rid

of them; and that in other plays they may make their entrance in very

wrong and improper scenes, so as to be seen flying in a lady's

bedchamber, or perching upon a king's throne; besides the inconveniences

which the heads of the audience may sometimes suffer from them. I am

credibly informed, that there was once a design of casting into an opera

the story of 'Whittington and his Cat,' and that in order to it there

had been set together a great quantity of mice, but Mr. Rich, the

proprietor of the playhouse, very prudently considered that it would be

impossible for the cat to kill them all, and that consequently the

princes of the stage might be as much infested with mice as the prince

of the island was before the cat's arrival upon it, for which reason he

would not permit it to be acted in his house. And, indeed, I cannot

blame him; for as he said very well upon that occasion, 'I do not hear

that any of the performers in our opera pretend to equal the famous pied

piper who made all the mice of a great town in Germany follow his music,

and by that means cleared the place of those noxious little animals.'

"Before I dismiss this paper, I must inform my reader that I hear that

there is a treaty on foot between London and Wise,[17] (who will be

appointed gardeners of the playhouse) to furnish the opera of Rinaldo

and Armida with an orange grove; and that the next time it is acted the

singing birds will be impersonated by tom tits: the undertakers being

resolved to spare neither pains nor money for the gratification of their



Steele, in No. 14 of the Spectator, tells us that--"The sparrows and

chaffinches at the Haymarket fly, as yet, very irregularly over the

stage; and instead of perching on the trees and performing their parts,

these young actors either get into the galleries or put out the

candles," for which and other reasons equally good, he decides that Mr.

Powell's Puppet-show is preferable as a place of entertainment to the

Opera, and that Handel's Rinaldo is inferior as a production of art to

a puppet-show drama. Indeed, though Steele, in the Tatler, and Addison

in the Spectator, have said very civil things about Nicolini, neither

of them appears to have been impressed in the slightest degree by

Handel's music, nor does it even seem to have occurred to them that the

composer's share in producing an opera was by any means considerable.

Steele, thought the Opera a decidedly "unintellectual" entertainment

(how much purely intellectual enjoyment is there, we wonder, in the

pleasure derived from the contemplation of a virgin, by Raphael, and

what is the meaning in criticising art of looking at it merely in its

intellectual aspect?); but he at the same time bears testimony to the

high (æsthetic) gratification he derived from the performance of

Nicolini, who "by the grace and propriety of his action and gesture,

does honour to the human figure," and who "sets off the character he

bears in an opera by his action as much as he does the words of it by

his voice."[18]

In 1711, in addition to Handel's Rinaldo, Antiochus, an opera, by

Apostolo Zeno and Gasparini, was performed, and about the same time, or

soon afterwards, Ambleto, by the same author and composer, was brought

out. If we smile at Signor Verdi for attempting to turn Macbeth into

an opera, what are we to say to Zeno's and Gasparini's experiment with

the far more unsuitable tragedy of Hamlet? In Macbeth, the songs and

choruses of witches, the banquet with the apparition of the murdered

Banquo, and above all, the sleep-walking scene might well inspire a

composer of genius; but a "Hamlet" without philosophy, or, worse still,

a "Hamlet" who searches his own soul to orchestral accompaniments--this

must indeed be absurd. I learn from Dr. Burney, that Ambleto was

written for Venice, that it was represented at the Queen's Theatre, in

London, and that "the overture had four movements ending with a jig!" An

overture to Hamlet "ending with a jig!" To think that this was

tolerated, and that we are shocked in the present day by burlesques put

forth as such! The Spectator, while apparently keeping a sharp look

out for all that is ridiculous, or that can be represented as ridiculous

in the operatic performances of the day, has not a word to say against

Ambleto. But it must be remembered that since Milton's time, "Nature's

sweetest child" had ceased to be appreciated in England even by the most

esteemed writers--who, however, for the most part, if they were not good

critics, could claim no literary merit beyond that of style. In a paper

on Milton, one of whose noblest sonnets is in praise of Shakespeare,

Addison, after showing how, by certain verbal expedients, bathos may be

avoided and sublimity attained, calmly points to the works of Lee and

Shakespeare as affording instances of the false sublime[19], adding

coolly that, "in these authors the affectation of greatness often

hurts the perspicuity of the style."


I have spoken of Steele's and Clayton's consternation, at the success of

Rinaldo. Some months after the production of that work, the despicable

Clayton, supported by two musicians named Nicolino Haym, and Charles

Dieupart, (who were becomingly indignant at a foreigner like Handel

presuming to entertain a British audience), wrote a letter to the

Spectator, which Steele published in No. 258 of that journal,

introducing it by a preface, full of wisdom, in which it is set forth

that "pleasure and recreation of one kind or other are absolutely

necessary to relieve our minds and bodies from too constant attention

and labour," and that, "where public diversions are tolerated, it

behoves persons of distinction, with their power and example, to preside

over them in such a manner as to check anything that tends to the

corruption of manners, or which is too mean or trivial for the

entertainment of reasonable creatures." The letter from the "enraged

musicians" is described as coming "from three persons who, as soon as

named, will be thought capable of advancing the present state of

music"--that is to say, of superseding Handel. But the same perverse

public, which in spite of the Spectator's remonstrances, preferred

Rinaldo to translated Racine, persisted in admiring Handel's music,

and in paying no heed whatever to the cacophony of Clayton. Here is the

letter from the three miserable musicasters to their patron and


"We, whose names are subscribed, think you the properest person to

signify what we have to offer the town in behalf of ourselves, and the

art which we profess,--music. We conceive hopes of your favour from the

speculations on the mistakes which the town run into with regard to

their pleasure of this kind; and believing your method of judging is,

that you consider music only valuable, as it is agreeable to and

heightens the purpose of poetry, we consent that it is not only the true

way of relishing that pleasure, but also that without it a composure of

music is the same thing as a poem, where all the rules of poetical

numbers are observed, though the words have no sense or meaning; to say

it shorter, mere musical sounds in our art are no other than

nonsense-verses are in poetry." [A beautiful melody then, apart from

words, said no more to these musicians, and to the patron whose idiotic

theory they are so proud to have adopted than a set of nonsense-verses!]

"Music, therefore, is to aggravate what is intended by poetry; it must

always have some passion or sentiment to express, or else violins,

voices, or any other organs of sound, afford an entertainment very

little above the rattles of children. It was from this opinion of the

matter, that when Mr. Clayton had finished his studies in Italy, and

brought over the Opera of Arsinoe, that Mr. Haym and Mr. Dieupart, who

had the honour to be well-known and received among the nobility and

gentry, were zealously inclined to assist, by their solicitations, in

introducing so elegant an entertainment, as the Italian music grafted

upon English poetry." [Such poetry, for instance, as


"Guide me, lead me,

Where the nymph whom I adore

which occurred in Clayton's Arsinoe--Haym, it may be remembered, was

the ingenious musician who arranged Pyrrhus and Demetrius for the

Anglo-Italian stage, when half of the music was sung in one language,

and half in the other.] "For this end," continue the precious trio, "Mr.

Dieupart and Mr. Haym, according to their several opportunities,

promoted the introduction of Arsinoe, and did it to the best advantage

so great a novelty would allow. It is not proper to trouble you with

particulars of the just complaints we all of us have to make; but so it

is that without regard to our obliging pains, we are all equally set

aside in the present opera. Our application, therefore, to you is only

to insert this letter in your paper, that the town may know we have all

three joined together to make entertainments of music for the future at

Mr. Clayton's house, in York Buildings. What we promise ourselves is, to

make a subscription of two guineas, for eight times, and that the

entertainment, with the names of the authors of the poetry, may be

printed, to be sold in the house, with an account of the several authors

of the vocal as well as the instrumental music for each night; the money

to be paid at the receipt of the tickets, at Mr. Charles Lulli's. It

will, we hope, sir, be easily allowed that we are capable of undertaking

to exhibit, by our joint force and different qualifications, all that

can be done in music" [how charmingly modest!] "but lest you should

think so dry a thing as an account of our proposal should be a matter

unworthy of your paper, which generally contains something of public

use, give us leave to say, that favouring our design is no less than

reviving an art, which runs to ruin by the utmost barbarism under an

affectation of knowledge. We aim at establishing some settled notion of

what is music, at recovering from neglect and want very many families

who depend upon it, at making all foreigners who pretend to succeed in

England to learn the language of it as we ourselves have done, and not

be so insolent as to expect a whole nation, a refined and learned

nation, should submit to learn theirs. In a word, Mr. Spectator, with

all deference and humility, we hope to behave ourselves in this

undertaking in such a manner, that all Englishmen who have any skill in

music may be furthered in it for their profit or diversion by what new

things we shall produce; never pretending to surpass others, or

asserting that anything which is a science is not attainable by all men

of all nations who have proper genius for it. We say, sir, what we hope

for, it is not expected will arrive to us by contemning others, but

through the utmost diligence recommending ourselves."

Poor Clayton seems, here and there, to have really fancied that it was

his mission to put down Handel, and stuck to him for some time in most

pertinacious style. One is reminded of the writer who endeavoured to

turn Wilhelm Meister into ridicule, and of the epigram which that

attempt suggested to Goethe, ending:--

"Hat doch die Wallfisch seine Laus."


But Clayton was really a creator, and proposed nothing less than "to

revive an art which was running to ruin by the utmost barbarism under an

affectation of knowledge." One would have thought that this was going a

little too far. Handel affecting knowledge--Handel a barbarian? Surely

Steele in giving the sanction of his name to such assertions as these,

puts himself in a lower position even than Voltaire uttering his

celebrated dictum about the genius of Shakespeare; for after all,

Voltaire was the first Frenchman to discover any beauties in Shakespeare

at all, and it was in defending him against the stupid prejudices of

Laharpe that he made use of the unfortunate expression with which he has

so often been reproached, and which he put forward in the form of a

concession to his adversary.

Clayton and his second fiddles returned to the attack a few weeks

afterwards (January 18th, 1712). "It is industriously insinuated," they

complained, "that our intention is to destroy operas in general, but we

beg of you (that is to say, the Spectator, as represented by Steele,

who signs the number with his T) to insert this explanation of ourselves

in your paper. Our purpose is only to improve our circumstances by

improving the art which we profess" [the knaves are getting candid]. "We

see it utterly destroyed at present, and as we were the persons who

introduced operas, we think it a groundless imputation that we should

set up against the Opera itself," &c., &c.

What became of Clayton, Haym, and Dieupart, and their speculation, I do

not know, nor do I think that any one can care. At all events, even with

the assistance of Steele and the Spectator they did not extinguish


The most celebrated vocalist at the theatre in the Haymarket, from the

arrival of Handel in England until after the formation of the Royal

Academy of Music, in 1720, was Anastasia Robinson, a contralto, who

was remarkable as much for her graceful acting as for her expressive

singing. She made her first appearance in a pasticcio called Creso,

in 1714, and continued singing in the operas of Handel and other

composers until 1724, when she contracted a private marriage with the

Earl of Peterborough and retired from the stage. Lady Delany, an

intimate friend of Lady Peterborough, communicated the following account

of her marriage and the circumstances under which it was made, to Dr.

Burney, who publishes it in his "History of Music."


"Mrs. Anastasia Robinson was of middling stature, not handsome, but of a

pleasing, modest countenance, with large blue eyes. Her deportment was

easy, unaffected, and graceful. Her manner and address very engaging,

and her behaviour on all occasions that of a gentlewoman, with perfect

propriety. She was not only liked by all her acquaintance, but loved and

caressed by persons of the highest rank, with whom she appeared always

equal, without assuming. Her father's house, in Golden Square was

frequented by all the men of genius and refined taste of the times.

Among the number of persons of distinction who frequented Mr. Robinson's

house, and seemed to distinguish his daughter in a particular manner,

were the Earl of Peterborough and General H--. The latter had shown a

long attachment to her, and his attentions were so remarkable that they

seemed more than the effects of common politeness; and as he was a very

agreeable man, and in good circumstances, he was favourably received,

not doubting but that his intentions were honourable. A declaration of a

very contrary nature was treated with the contempt it deserved, though

Mrs. Robinson was very much prepossessed in his favour.

"Soon after this, Lord Peterborough endeavoured to convince her of his

partial regard for her; but, agreeable and artful as he was, she

remained very much upon her guard, which rather increased than

diminished his admiration and passion for her. Yet still his pride

struggled with his inclination, for all this time she was engaged to

sing in public, a circumstance very grievous to her; but, urged by the

best of motives, she submitted to it, in order to assist her parents,

whose fortune was much reduced by Mr. Robinson's loss of sight, which

deprived him of the benefit of his profession as a painter.

"At length Lord Peterborough made his declaration to her on honourable

terms. He found it would be in vain to make proposals on any other, and

as he omitted no circumstance that could engage her esteem and

gratitude, she accepted them. He earnestly requested her keeping it a

secret till a more convenient time for him to make it known, to which

she readily consented, having a perfect confidence in his honour.

"Mrs. A. Robinson had a sister, a very pretty accomplished woman, who

married D'Arbuthnot's brother. After the death of Mr. Robinson, Lord

Peterborough took a house near Fulham, in the neighbourhood of his own

villa at Parson's-green, where he settled Mrs. Robinson and her mother.

They never lived under the same roof, till the earl, being seized with a

violent fit of illness, solicited her to attend him at Mount Bevis, near

Southampton, which she refused with firmness, but upon condition that,

though still denied to take his name, she might be permitted to wear her

wedding-ring; to which, finding her inexorable, he at length consented.


"His haughty spirit was still reluctant to the making a declaration that

would have done justice to so worthy a character as the person to whom

he was now united; and indeed his uncontrollable temper and high opinion

of his own actions made him a very awful husband, ill suited to Lady

Peterborough's good sense, amiable temper, and delicate sentiments. She

was a Roman Catholic, but never gave offence to those of a contrary

opinion, though very strict in what she thought her duty. Her excellent

principles and fortitude of mind supported her through many severe

trials in her conjugal state. But at last he prevailed on himself to do

her justice, instigated, it is supposed by his bad state of health,

which obliged him to seek another climate, and she absolutely refused to

go with him unless he declared his marriage. Her attendance on him in

this illness nearly cost her her life.

"He appointed a day for all his nearest relations to meet him at the

apartment over the gateway of St. James's palace, belonging to Mr.

Poyntz, who was married to Lord Peterborough's niece, and at that time

preceptor of Prince William, afterwards Duke of Cumberland. He also

appointed Lady Peterborough to be there at the same time. When they were

all assembled, he began a most eloquent oration, enumerating all the

virtues and perfections of Mrs. A. Robinson, and the rectitude of her

conduct during his long acquaintance with her, for which he acknowledged

his great obligation and sincere attachment, declaring he was determined

to do her that justice which he ought to have done long ago, which was

presenting her to all his family as his wife. He spoke this harangue

with so much energy, and in parts so pathetically, that Lady

Peterborough, not being apprised of his intentions, was so affected that

she fainted away in the midst of the company.

"After Lord Peterborough's death, she lived a very retired life, chiefly

at Mount Bevis, and was seldom prevailed on to leave that habitation but

by the Duchess of Portland, who was always happy to have her company at

Bulstrode, when she could obtain it, and often visited her at her own


"Among Lord Peterborough's papers, she found his memoirs, written by

himself, in which he declared he had been guilty of such actions as

would have reflected very much upon his character, for which reason she

burnt them. This, however, contributed to complete the excellency of her

principles, though it did not fail giving offence to the curious

inquirers after anecdotes of so remarkable a character as that of the

Earl of Peterborough."


The deserved good fortune of Anastasia Robinson reminds me of the

careers of two other vocalists of this period, one of them owed her

elevation to a fortunate accident; while the third, though she entered

upon the same possible road to the peerage as the second, yet never

attained it. "The Duke of Bolton," says Swift, in one of his letters,

"has run away with Polly Peachum, having settled four hundred a year on

her during pleasure, and upon disagreement, two hundred more." This was

the charming Lavinia Fenton, the original Polly of the Beggars' Opera,

between whom and the Duke the disagreement anticipated by the amiable

Swift never took place. Twenty-three years after the elopement, the

Duke's wife died, and Lavinia then became the Duchess of Bolton. She

was, according to the account given of her by Dr. Joseph Warton, "a very

accomplished and most agreeable companion; had much wit, good strong

sense, and a just taste in polite literature.

Her person was agreeable and well made," continues Dr. Warton, "though I

think she never could be called a beauty. I have had the pleasure of

being at table with her, when her conversation was much admired by the

first character of the age, particularly by old Lord Bathurst and Lord


The beautiful Miss Campion, who was singing about the same time as Mrs.

Tofts, and who died in 1706, when she was only eighteen, did not

become the Duchess of Devonshire; but the heart-broken old Duke, who

appears to have been most fervently attached to her, buried her in his

family vault in the church of Latimers, Buckinghamshire, and placed a

Latin inscription on her monument, testifying that she was wise beyond

her years, and bountiful to the poor even beyond her abilities; and at

the theatre, where she had some times acted, modest and pure; but being

seized with a hectic fever, she had submitted to her fate with a firm

confidence and Christian piety; and that William, Duke of Devonshire,

had, upon her beloved remains, erected this tomb as sacred to her