This documentary, the first in a three-part series, examined the idea that music played an important role in the development of British national feeling in the 18th century. It suggested that there were three main strands to this. The first was the need to form a “British” identity following the Act of Union (hmm, I’m not quite sure where Wales and Ireland featured there!). The second was the need to unite the country behind the Hanoverians and against the Jacobites. The third was a growing sense of resentment about the upper-classes’ love, promoted by the Grand Tour of Italian culture, and in particular opera. People felt that Italian opera was a) too foreign, b) too Catholic and c) un-British by virtue of being effeminate and prima-donna-ish. Apparently there was a lot of moaning about the number of overpaid foreign prima donnas in London. Hmm, that’s a familiar sounding complaint … will everyone be watching Chelsea v Paris St Germain (St Germain, incidentally, being the area of Paris where the exiled Jacobites set up their court) tonight :-).
So, along came The Beggar’s Opera, based in London and using tunes familiar from street ballads, various compositions by Handel and, of course, Rule Britannia and God Save The King . Music united Britain and formed a crucial part of British culture and identity.
Well, it’s an interesting idea, and there’s certainly something to it. However, I’m not 100% convinced. My main problem with the argument is that it’s all so London-centric. I don’t think there were ever too many Italian castrati wandering around the rest of the country. Nor do I think that the people of the 18th century Highlands would have been too chuffed about the “rebellious Scots to crush” verse of God Save The King!
Also, The Beggar’s Opera may well have used tunes from street songs but the lower-classes would not have been heading to opera houses to see it. I don’t think that the era of truly popular, in the sense of “of all the people” songs really came about until the days of the music hall. And music hall songs never made it to opera house culture. We all know Goodbye, Dolly Gray and It’s A Long Way to Tipperary and so on, but we wouldn’t expect to find songs like that, or even songs like We’ll Meet Again, featuring at The Last Night of the Proms. Nor would we expect to find the songs associated with the folk revival of the early 20th century there.
Still, the programme was well worth watching, partly for the music and partly because the 18th century gets so badly neglected by the media. It’ll be interesting to see what the next two episodes come up with.