Opera and nationalism in mid-eighteenth-century Britain
Italian opera gained an odd resonance in eighteenth-century British sensibility. By turns loved and hated, it acted on the British imagination as a catalyst both for some of the age's most brilliant satire, and for some of the century's most unusual musical extravagances. This dissertation argues that, despite (or in some ways because of) the eventual failure of Italian serious opera and its English hybrid forms to attain status within the musical canon, the progress of opera played a vital role in shaping and reflecting the formation of British national identity, and that, reciprocally, attempts to find a national identity played a large part in opera's fate in Britain. For the competing forces and factions of Italian and English opera in 1730s London, the bid for supremacy was inevitably linked with an appeal to authority (whether that of royalty, the nobility, the populace, or ideologies of the nation) that involved stressing their link with the national interest. The first chapter examines the relationship between the consistently politicised language used to discuss opera and the mode of civic action and public spiritedness still requisite amongst the Nobility, charting ways in which aristocratic support of this foreign genre might be reconciled to British concerns. The second chapter looks to a particularly problematic instance of opera's apparent politicisation in the 1730s Lord Hervey's analysis of the division between Handel and the 'Opera of the Nobility' to propose a possible 'solution' through the two Ariannas of 1734. In so doing, it shows opera's role within a culture of emulation, emphasising the flexibility and social contingency of operatic interpretation. Coterminous with Italian opera, but of a lower status, were ballad and burlesque opera, their critique of national cultural identity all the sharper for their role as cultural and formal boundary markers. Chapter three demonstrates though exploration of the curious and much-criticised English 'opera', Hurlothrumbo (1729), that British dislike of opera was bound up with the deep-seated fear of luxury. While 'Hurlothrumbo' was used as a derogatory epithet until the end of the century, this operatic work also provides a fascinating example of how opera producers might try to negotiate British unease. Chapter four examines the concerted attempt in the 1730s to associate English opera and musical theatre with topics of national interest through composers' and playwrights' appropriation of the stories of historical British ballads as the local equivalents of the venerable texts of Italian opera. The fact that many of the works discussed are 'problem pieces', considered generically, authorially or hermeneutically unstable, points not only to the reason for indigenous opera's failure to achieve canonical status, but also to a more fundamental problem with the role of opera (and, indeed, music in general) in the still-forming British identity. In the final chapter I turn from the problems of opera to the undoubted success of Handel, who himself made the transition from opera to oratorio; I evaluate the composer's apotheosis as a national hero through examining manifestations of his image in the 1730s and at the time of his death.