Foreign frivolity

Robert Thicknesse on how the idea that foreign poetry was better than local soon became established dogma

On Opera

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

How did a nation as doughy and uncouth as the English ever produce the world’s greatest body of poetry? It winds foreigners up almost as much as our habit of conducting seminars in international trade with the help of a Maxim gun, and is especially galling for those neighbours who pique themselves on their creativity, notably an island slightly to the left of GB that has omitted ever to trouble the scorers with any sort of worthwhile visual or audial art despite being besotted by its own soulfulness.

At least less happier lands have always been able to laugh at our tin ear, though I suppose even that pastime lost its mojo around 1963. Nevertheless, everyone still gets off on quoting the forgotten German draft-dodger — who sadly died before he could become the outstanding Nazi he was clearly destined to be — Oscar Schmitz, with his “das Land ohne Musik” shtick.

Handel’s Italian variety was generally presumed to be a phalange of sodomitical papistry

And it’s true that, in much the same way as the shagged-out romantics in Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s symbolist play Axël (1890) find the business of living too exhausting, and get the servants do it for them, the English delegated the chore of writing tunes to foreigners. Evidently you needed some kind of background racket during supper for when the weather chat dried up, so we whistled up an endless stream of Euro-minstrels from Ferrabosco, Handel and Christian Bach to Mendelssohn and, um, Ivor Novello, to take on this drudgery.

And with the joint being run from the 18th century by a gentry of porcine philistinism, plus all those boxheads in the palace, the idea that foreign was better than local soon became established dogma (and naturally remains so at the Guardian).

This applied, times a zillion, to opera, an effete affair unsuitable for J. Bull. The first version of this outrage to sneak past Priti’s Channel patrols was the mincing business borrowed by Charles II’s big-haired Europhile hangers-on from the court of the Sun King, whose idea of a night out was to be surrounded by a bunch of people prancing around him with cocked wrists.

Handel’s marginally less fey Italian variety in eighteenth-century London was still generally presumed to be a phalange of sodomitical papistry, its bleating eunuchs almost certainly spouting subliminal-advertising doxologies. The audience for this guff, as well as being politically and sexually whiffy, happily semaphored its own idiocy — when Handel was (weirdly) perceived to be getting a bit populist — by the creation of a rival company with the only fairly appeal- ing name “Opera of the Nobility”.

As usual, the native way of dealing with all this was to take the piss — which itself had interesting consequences. The Beggar’s Opera (1728), a jukebox musical concocted by John Gay to lampoon everything operatic (and the assiduous self-enrichment of PM Robert Walpole) bust all box-office records and so ensnared Walpole’s goat that he got the Lord Chamberlain (the “totally illiterate” Earl of Grafton) to censor all stage plays henceforth — thereby accidentally catalysing the birth of the non-censored sentimental novel.

Beginning with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, this extraordinary new phenomenon plunged readers amid the turbid lives of others, brought the sudden realisation that other humans might actually have feelings just like yours, and thereby effectively created the brand new emotion known as imaginative sympathy — which led reasonably quickly to the abolition of slavery and much besides. So thanks for that, Bob Booty.

Handel’s own “favourite opera” was not some marble-crapping opera seria but The Dragon of Wantley of 1737, a pleasantly foolish pastiche written by his bassoonist Frederick Lampe detailing a parody opera monster and a thicko Yorkshire landowner equipped with deftly designed winklepickers to eliminate the beast with a kick up the arse. It had an even longer opening run than The Beggar’s Opera (69 performances) at a time when Handel would rarely even clock up a dozen. Henry Carey’s libretto adumbrated matters later treated in greater depth by the philosophy faculty of the University of Woolamaloo: “Zeno, Plato, Aristotle — All were lovers of the Bottle”.

Obviously I’m all for frivolity and its makers, though its idolization by foes of the intellect can get a bit grim

The great resurrector of forgotten English music, Peter Holman, used to take this lark on tour with Opera Restor’d, and now enterprising conductor John Andrews has picked it up. His company, Red Squirrel (freakishly fanfared as some sort of Brexit crusade in the Telegraph recently), is shortly to release a recording of the Dragon.

Andrews champions further English buffoonery at the Buxton Festival this year with a staging of Malcolm Arnold’s 1952 comedy The Dancing Master. Commissioned by the BBC but never recorded (the bunchy-mouthed Puritans found Arnold’s jovial Restoration jape altogether too bumptious and sexy for the grim new Britain) this fizzing delight fits right into the tradition of mucking about — Lampe, Charles Dibdin, G&S, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band — that is our great contribution to music. And Buxton is the most charming of summer festivals, safely distant from those horsey home-counties Henriettas.

Obviously I’m all for frivolity and its makers, though its idolization by foes of the intellect can get a bit grim; the bore of it is how, as a result, we belittle our genuine visionaries as cranks and freaks — exalting Betjeman over Shelley, say, Cruikshank over Samuel Palmer,  Wilde over Morris, Sullivan over basically everyone. Still, these days I guess we’d kill for a few actual examples of either kind.

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