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Archive for February 8th, 2009

“I have not made my opera unnatural throughout”: The Beggar Skewers Italian Opera

Reposted from a blog entry I wrote for an English course that I was TF’ing.

In the introduction to The Beggar’s Opera, a beggar steps forward to say “he has not made my opera throughout unnatural like those in vogue; for I have no recitative.” What does he mean by this?

He’s poking fun at the Italian opera convention of recitative, a form of declamation which is halfway between speaking and singing and is characterized by bare-bones accompaniment. Italian opera composers would use recitative when they wanted to advance the plot, usually by setting dialogue. They would use arias (airs in English) to freeze the action and expand on what the actors were feeling (love, heartbreak, joy, anger), very often through the Petrarchan “similes” mentioned by the beggar: “the swallow, the moth, the bee, the ship, the flower, etc.”

Below is an excerpt from one of the more extreme examples of accompanied recitative, which is half way between recitative and aria, and accompanied by orchestra. It’s taken from Gay’s earlier libretto for Handel, Acis and Galatea.

Download Handel/Gay: “I rage—I melt—I burn!” (0:25)

And here’s a straighter example of recitative used to set dialogue between two characters, also taken from Acis and Galatea:

Download Handel/Gay: “Whither fairest, art thou running” (0:20)

How does Handel convey each of the three verbs in the first example? What do you think English audiences might have found “unnatural” about recitative? Feel free to leave a comment.

February 8th, 2009

Music for Thieves: The Beggar’s Opera and its Sources

Reposted from a blog entry I wrote for an English course that I was TF’ing.

***for your listening pleasure***

What is the musical equivalent of thieving? Contrafactum, and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is a good example of it. Contrafactum is just a fancy word for taking a preexisting song on the public radar and supplying it with new lyrics (Weird Al does it too). By taking highbrow songs (or religious ones) and giving them lowbrow lyrics (and vice versa), librettists like Gay could create ironic relationships between the original and its echo.

Below are some excerpts from The Beggar’s Opera and the sources from which Gay and his arranger, Johann Christoph Pepusch, cribbed. What do you think people found so funny? Feel free to share your response in the comments below.

From Act I of the B.O.

Source: “What shall I do to show how much I love her?”, from Purcell’s opera, Dioclesian (0:30)


In fair Aurelia’s arms leave me expiring,
To be embalm’d by the sweets of her breath;
To the last moment I’ll still be desiring;
Never had hero so glorious a death.

B.O. (A1.S7, Air 6): “Virgins are like the fair flower in its luster” (0:30)


But, when once plucked, ’tis no longer alluring,
To Covent Garden, ’tis sent (as yet sweet),
There fades, and shrinks, and grows past all enduring,
Rots, stinks, and dies, and is trod under feet.


February 8th, 2009


February 2009


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