At the beginning of the seventeenth century, after the accession of James I to the English throne, the masque , a court pastime combining an allegorical story, dialogue, and vocal and dance music with scenic and costume spectacle, became dominant as royal entertainment. Although none of the great Elizabethan composers contributed music, masques incorporated lyrics, accompanied recitative, and involved scenic and costume design that later would appear in the first acknowledged English operas. The mighty forces behind the masque were the scenarios and words of British playwright Ben Jonson and the scenery and costumes of designer-architect Inigo Jones, whose knowledge of Italian practices introduced the British to the stage picture and craft of Italian scene painters and machinists.
In 1617, Nicholas Lanier composed for Jonson’s masque, Lovers Made Men (pr. 1617), what was most likely the first English recitative, a type of vocal composition patterned on the natural rhythms of speech, in the Italian style of Claudio Monteverdi. Although the music is lost, it is doubtful that it would have exerted much influence on an English public that had come to prefer the traditional structure of the masque, with its fast-moving dialogue separating the songs known as “ayres.”
Even before the execution of Charles I, the Commonwealth government suppressed theater, but the ruling Puritans did not as vigorously oppose secular music. This situation led to the curious attempt by practitioners of theater to circumvent the harsh laws by presenting stage spectacles under the guise of musical concerts. It was in this context that, at Rutland House in 1656, William Davenant ’s The Siege of Rhodes (pr. 1656-1659) was given a private performance. Davenant’s work was subtitled A Representation by the Art of Prospective in Scenes and the Story Sung in Recitative Musick in Five Acts; the music (now lost) was contributed by a number of composers, including Matthew Locke and Henry Lawes. The changeable scenery in the Italian style was designed by John Webb, a student of then recently deceased Inigo Jones.
The first irony in the development of English opera came with the restoration of Charles II four years later, when the ban on spoken drama was lifted. The English, including Davenant, who was given one of the two monopolies to present plays in London, returned to their love of words and virtually abandoned their earlier attempts at opera. Incidental music for the theater and interpolated songs persisted, as did remnants of masques, now heavily influenced by the court of Louis XIV of France, where the new English king and much of his court had found refuge during the interregnum of the Puritan Parliament. Chief among these influences was Jean-Baptiste Lully, the Italian-born composer who had become the titan of French music.
Indeed, that a native English music survived to the end of the seventeenth century was somewhat miraculous, considering the English tendency to look to the Continent for what they thought was true genius. The slim promise of an English school of opera in the closing years of the seventeenth century rested with three composers: the previously mentioned Locke, with his setting of Thomas Shadwell’s adaptation of Lully’s tragédie lyrique titled Psyche (pr. 1675); John Blow, with his one complete work for the musical stage, Venus and Adonis (pr. c. 1684); and, most important, Henry Purcell . Purcell’s one complete work for the stage, Dido and Aeneas (pr. c. 1689) with a superb libretto by Nahum Tate, is the earliest English opera to achieve a place in the international standard repertory. Despite his short lifetime, with Dido and Aeneas and his incidental music for spoken drama, Purcell seemed to light the way for future generations of theater composers.
Such, however, was not to be the course followed by theatrical history. Between the time of Purcell’s death and the arrival of George Frederick Handel and his Rinaldo in 1711, operatic as well as theatrical tastes changed radically in London. In the theater, the forty-year reign of the rather prurient comedy of manners came under successful attack and was replaced by a more sentimental comedy meant to inspire a higher moral tone. Even the continued revivals of William Shakespeare’s plays were marked by adaptations to the prevailing sentimental tone found in the new comedy. Purcell’s prototype of what might have been a truly national form of opera virtually disappeared, overwhelmed by the change in popular taste that saw French and French-inspired English music fall out of...