Thursday, March 5, 2015

Thomas Arne (RIP) and His Sister, Mrs. Cibber

For those who love irony (and who doesn't?) consider that Thomas Arne, composer of the ultimate John Bull, "sun doesn't set on the British empire", patriotic tune, "Rule, Britannia!" AND the British national anthem, "God Save the King/Queen" was a "Roman" Catholic in eighteenth century England. He was born on March 12, 1710 and died on March 5, 1778 (he is buried in St. Paul's Church at Covent Garden, the so-called "Actors' Church"where he was also baptized.) This baptism and burial reflects the restrictions on Catholics dating from the penal laws passed during the reign of James Ist. In 1778, George III signed the first Catholic Relief Act, which removed some restrictions and required a new oath of loyalty.

Because he was a Catholic, Arne could not obtain any royal posts or of course write for the Church of England. Arne was also a Freemason, when Pope Clement XII had forbidden Catholics to be Freemasons in 1738, so that's a conundrum. He became a great contributor to English stage music:

Arne went on to compose such operas as "Rosamund" (1733), "Tom Thumb" (1733), "Comus" (1738), "Judith" (1761), "Artaxerxes the Great" (1763), "The Fairy Queen" (1771), and "Caractacus" (1775), as well as the oratorio "The Death of Abel" (1744), and "Four Symphonies" (1767). Working for the Drury Lane Theatre in the 1740's, he also wrote incidental music for several Shakespeare plays, including "As You Like It", "Twelfth Night", "The Merchant of Venice", "The Tempest", "Love's Labour's Lost", and "Romeo and Juliet". "The Masque of Althred" (1740), featuring "Rule, Brittania!", was first performed at Frederick, the Prince of Wales's summer home, Cliveden. The lyrics for "Rule, Britannia!" are by James Thomson:

When Britain first, at Heaven's command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

It always closes the annual Proms with quite enthusiastic audience participation. In Music and Monarchy, David Starkey noted that Arne wrote both "Rule, Britannia" and "God Save the King" in the midst of conflict between George II and his estranged son, Frederick the Prince of Wales (who was the father of King George III). Arne wrote "Rule, Britannia" for Frederick as part of a masque honoring King Alfred the Great and supporting the expansion of the British Navy, and then wrote "God Save the King" to support George II.

While noting the anniversary of his death, it's also important to remember that his sister was a very popular singer and actress (and his son would also compose for the theater--seemed to run in the family). Susannah Maria (Arne) Cibber was also involved in some scandal with her husband and a gentleman boarder they had taken in to supplement their income. She continued to perform and was the contralto soloist for the 1742 premiere of Handel's Messiah. The legend is that when the chancellor of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin heard her sing "He was despised" he proclaimed, "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!" Here is Kathleen Ferrier singing the same aria:

When Susannah Cibber died in 1766, the Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres closed their doors for the day--just as Broadway in New York dims its lights when a great stage star dies. 

On a less exalted note, Thomas Arne also wrote the music for "A-Hunting we will go":

A-hunting we will go, a-hunting we will go
(Heigh-ho, the derry-o, a-hunting we will go
A-hunting we will go, a-hunting we will go)
We'll catch a fox and put him in a box
And then we'll let him go.

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