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

February 8th, 2009

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.

From Act 2 of the B.O.

Source: March from Handel’s Rinaldo (0:10)

Christian crusaders march before the battle for Jerusalem.

B.O. (A2.S2, Air 20): “Let us take the road” (0:22)

[The gang, ranged in the front of the stage, load their pistols, and stick them under their girdles; then go off singing the first part of the chorus.]

Let us take the road.
Hark! I hear the sound of coaches!
The hour of attack approaches,
To your arms, brave boys, and load.
See the ball I hold!
Let the chemists toil like asses,
Our fire their fire surpasses,
And turns all our lead to gold.

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February 2009


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