“Polly” or The Beggar’s Opera Revisit’d

by Michael Carter

In the first quarter of the 18th century, England was the least exploited of all European nations when it came to opera. It was also the most challenging for a first-rate opera composer. While Italian singers consistently drew favourable reactions from audiences and the musical press when they performed, English theatregoers had been accustomed to semi-operas, which were not much more than plays with interspersed songs and dances. The English viewed Italian opera, with its recitatives as opposed to spoken dialogue, as what musicologist Christopher Hogwood termed "nonsense well tun'd". London audiences were also predisposed to stage works presented in their own language. When Henry Purcell's Dido and Aneas, the most likely prospect for a genuine English opera, was revived in 1700 and 1704, it served as an interlude in a spoken drama. But both the critics and advocates of Italian opera met such inclusions with strong criticism and both camps issued calls for separate forms of expression. Eventually the reformers prevailed and by the end of the first decade of the 18th century, Italian opera had begun to gain a foothold in London. Over the next fifteen years, Handel and a number of other composers affiliated with the Royal Academy of Music -- which enjoyed the support the monarchy -- were at the vanguard of the movement. Handel in particular penned a number of stunning successes that resulted in him achieving a sort of superstar status.

But as Dr. Robert Hoskins, Senior Lecturer in Music at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand, and an expert on late 18th century English theatre music pointed out, "Fate can also be unkind to fashion, and such was the case on January 29th 1728 when a collaboration between librettist John Gay and composer Johann Christoph Pepusch was staged at John Rich's Lincoln's Inn Fields. It was known as The Beggar's Opera." The production left no stone unturned in skewering English society, attorneys, politicians and corruption, just to name a few. Instead of shepherds and shepherdesses, monarchs and deities, and the occasional deus ex machina gracing the stage, the audience was introduced to highwaymen, pimps, prostitutes, pickpockets and other elements and activities common to an entirely different social class: the underbelly of society.

"The music in The Beggar's Opera, like the action, was far removed from the consummate artistry of Handel, Bononcini and their colleagues at the Royal Academy," noted Dr. Hoskins. "It was void of the vocal pyrotechnics that had become the hallmarks of the company's Italian diva and castrati. In fact, Pepusch's score was less a composition and more of an adaptation. He wrote no overture, and provided only bass lines and harmonization for a series of settings of simple, popular ballads that -- in various guises -- were familiar to the great majority of the contemporary English public." The death knell for Italian opera had sounded and a new form, the English ballad opera, was born. The bottom line was that in contemporary terms, The Beggar's Opera made Gay rich and Rich gay!

Indeed, The Beggar's Opera proved so successful that a Gay/Pepusch sequel entitled Polly was planned for the following year. However, the satire inherent in The Beggar's Opera, especially with regard to Whig Party leader Sir Robert Walpole, was so evident and damning that the British government instituted a crackdown, effectively slaying the monster while it was still in the womb. It would be almost half a century before Polly would see the light of day at the Little Theatre, Haymarket, and then in a cut version by theatre owner George Colman the Elder with music by the house composer Samuel Arnold. Dr. Hoskins offered the following as to why Polly was called to service: "The impetus for the resurrection of Polly was the endless popularity of The Beggar's Opera and the inclusion of new musical arrangements (therein) by Abraham Fisher (Covent Garden, 1776) and Thomas Linley the Younger (Drury Lane, 1777)".

Polly played for eight nights that season and was revived for a three night run in June of 1782. Reviews of the opening night in 1777 were generally supportive of Colman's production and Arnold's music. Excerpts from two reviews are offered here: "We do not remember any overture being more enjoyed," (Morning Chronicle, June 20, 1777). However, soprano Hester Colles, making her debut in the title role was taken to task for singing "...horribly out of tune," (Morning Post, June 20, 1777) and the Morning Chronicle critic also suggested that Arnold cut the air 'Farewell, all hope of bliss!', presumably because the flexible melodic line and intervalic leaps exposed Miss Colles to error.

In addition to his acknowledged expertise with regard to late 18th century English theatre music, Dr. Hoskins is considered the world authority on Samuel Arnold (1740-1802), the English composer whose updated score of Polly was used in 1777. Dr. Hoskins has prepared a performing edition of Arnold's Six Overtures, Op. 8 for Artaria Editions, one of the few publishing houses in the world dedicated to the resurrection of forgotten masterpieces from the 18th and early 19th centuries, and is currently working on the first modern version of Polly as well as Arnold's The Hymn of Adam and Eve, a creation oratorio using a text by John Milton. "Arnold's creation piece," said Dr. Allan Badley of Artaria, "was contemporary with Haydn's Creation and in rehearsal when Arnold died. It was shelved and remains unedited and unperformed to this day." In addition to the publication of the score and parts to this rarity from Georgian England, a commercial recording will be released on Artaria's affiliated label, Naxos,

Who was Samuel Arnold? Even though his name is lost to all but a precious few like Drs. Hoskins and Badley, Arnold was a gifted musician, a highly respected theater composer, a conductor and an outstanding musical historian. He wrote no less than sixty works for the stage. His Maid of the Mill, composed in 1765, was the first English opera of the period to include action finales in the style of its European counterparts. Arnold received the degree of Doctor of Music from Oxford University in 1773 and was immersed in editing a comprehensive edition of the works of Handel when he died. Samuel Arnold is buried along other prominent English composers - Purcell and Handel among them -- in Westminster Abbey.

"I first became aware of Samuel Arnold," Dr. Hoskins reminisced, "when I grew curious about who the native composers were that feted Haydn during his sojourns to London. Once I had their names, Arnold interested me because of the variety of his compositional and other activities. The Old Grove listing got me going, but it's much longer now!"

Samuel Arnold's style was rooted in the English tradition of Purcell, Handel, Thomas Arne, Johann Christian Bach and the various Italian composers who were working at the King's Theatre. "As with the operas of J.C. Bach, the expressive flexibility of Arnold's melodic writing owes a lot to Italian models." But Dr. Hoskins also discerned a tad of Viennese influence: "While some compositions display Arnold's affinity for Handel, a Haydenesque trumpet call and a roll of kettledrums opens Arnold's overture to The Mountaineers. Folksong and national song of course, play their influential part."

As to the quality of Arnold's music, Dr. Hoskins admitted that Arnold - like any late 18th century English composer -- had his good and bad days, but, "His work seems fairly on an even keel and up to date with the contemporary trends in the other European musical centres. Arnold was highly professional and had a keen sense of knowing how to respond to audience demands," Dr. Hoskins underscored this point: "His music compares quite well with that of many of his European contemporaries on an imaginative as well as a technical level. Of course, it also helps to understand the various relevant contexts in which Arnold was working."

The forthcoming performing version of Polly prepared by Dr. Hoskins for Artaria is predicated upon a number of sources from the 18th century. They are as follows:

  • An amanuensis copy of Colman's libretto (Larpent Collection, Huntington Library, San Marino, California),
  • John Gay's 1729 libretto, annotated as an acting copy in 1777 (Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University),
  • Colman's 1777 libretto with his last minute revisions for the 1777 production; also annotated as a prompter's copy for the 1782 revival (Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University), and
  • Arnold's set of orchestral parts (oboes/flutes, horns, bassoons, strings and harpsichord continuo) bound in seven volumes (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

But even with this wealth of material at his disposal, the path to fruition for Dr. Hoskins was still rock-strewn. "My effort was complicated by the numerous cuts and changes dictated by Colman, who continuously revised scenes, even once they had been set by Arnold. These are generally indicated by pasted blank slips, sometimes by ink cancellation or modification, or sew-overs." Placing the confusion of 'which witch is which' aside, Dr. Hoskins is secure in the feeling that his undertaking represents the 1777 performance. The last minute cuts of Arnold's newly composed items are preserved in an appendix.

The orchestra for Polly was small: perhaps half a dozen strings, bolstered by the paired winds -- oboists doubling flutes, as was then the common practice -- listed above. Arnold led the band, presiding at the harpsichord.

Arnold supplied an overture, based on themes from The Beggar's Opera and some of the other music was lifted from the original 1729 Pepusch score to Polly. "But in some instances," Dr. Hoskins added, "(Arnold) decided to provide new choices, chiefly gathered from the Scottish folksong sources that had been so usefully employed in The Beggar's Opera." There are other instances of "borrowings" as well: they include music of Handel, Ariosti, Arne and Jeremiah Clarke's popular The Prince of Denmark's March. Arnold's ability to orchestrate the material he borrowed from these sources is one of the most attractive features in Polly. In Act 1 when Ducat begins to woo the title character, the braying horns are indicative of the man's lust, and at the end of the act, a hunting call from the horns melting into the timbre of flutes signifies not only the fleeing deer mentioned in the text, but it also marks the moment on stage when Polly escapes from slavery.

According to Dr. Hoskins, the music composed by Arnold is equally effective and descriptive. "In 'Farewell, all hope of bliss!', Polly's arching vocal line is broken with rests, as if to indicate a lump in her throat, and in Act 3, Morano's defiant air, 'The soldiers, who, by trade must dare' alternates between a military march for the full orchestra and a looping eighth note motif calculated to evoke an image of the hangman's noose. Near the end, the vocal line gasps as if the singer is choking."

Polly is set in the West Indies where the title character has gone in search of her convict husband, Macheath, now masquerading as an Afro-Caribbean pirate by the name of Morano. "The menacing atmosphere present in Polly," noted Dr. Hoskins, "reinforced by the theme of concealment and disguise, marks the boundary of The Beggar's Opera where a reprieve at the outcome is guaranteed, and moves toward a new realism. There is a sense of imprisonment all over again with Polly's island landfall, and she is marooned (in the emotional sense as well), suffering acute loneliness, and is sold into slavery to become the mistress of the plantation owner Ducat. But Polly escapes dressed as a male, only to join Morano's forces." When the pirates capture the Indian prince Cawwawkee, Polly is adept enough to seize the appropriate moment and save the prince's life. According to Dr. Hoskins, "The spiritualised image of Cawwawkee lubricates the plot and becomes the agency of Polly's turning her back on the present and stepping back in time, into the wilderness and a paradisal marriage." If the drama begins with a central situation of plantation fiction and loss of property, it ends in a ritual of purification. As Dr. Hoskins pointed out, "Polly's virtue reaps its reward as she emerges cleansed of the parasitic nature of white freedom."

In the spoken introduction to Polly, the Poet informs the audience that, "A sequel to a play is like more last words. 'Tis a kind of absurdity..." But posterity may choose to differ with the opinion expressed in that line penned by John Gay and pitch its tent with Dr. Hoskins after hearing the many felicities that lurk in Samuel Arnold's score.