A mangled chime: the accidental death of the opera libretto in Civil War England

Pinnock, Andrew and Wood, Bruce (2008) A mangled chime: the accidental death of the opera libretto in Civil War England Early Music, 36, (2), pp. 265-284. (doi:10.1093/em/can046).


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Early 17th-century English lute song represents a perfect fusion of words and music, simultaneously conceived by poets and composers with a deep instinctive understanding of each other’s business. This is a critical commonplace with heavy implications for performers. To avoid distracting attention away from the words, musical settings were kept as simple as possible. To facilitate simple strophic setting the poets made sure that each stanza of a multi-stanza poem followed the same metrical scheme, and they naturally assumed that composers would follow it too. The Golden Age achievement relied on collective self-restraint (not too much self-expression or ‘interpretation’ therefore); and when Henry Lawes and other cavalier composers of masque songs and masque-inspired opera abandoned that restraint the Golden Age was over. Henry Purcell had to start again from scratch. Little of this turns out to be true. ‘A mangled chime’ looks again at the relationship between words and music in 17th-century England, suggesting a more complicated system of interplay between the two. Compositional technique was a mystery to most lyricists even at the height of the Golden Age, and as the century unfolded they found words matching the formal ambitions of contemporary theatre composers harder and harder to write. By 1680–90 (the decade of Venus and Adonis and Dido and Aeneas) the result was a peculiarly English approach to word-setting in which musical sound, though it echoed poetical sense, frequently obliterated poetic structure; a theory of English opera thoroughly confused in its aesthetic aims; and (in consequence) an uncoordinated response to opera seria when the Italian invasion began soon afterwards. Because Golden Age reserve inhibited frank negotiation between composers and poets it masked the composers’ textual needs in dramatic rather than lyrical situations and it led—via hugely resourceful but non-confrontational Lawes—to the overthrow of native English opera a century later

Item Type: Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI): doi:10.1093/em/can046
ISSNs: 1741-7260 (print)
Related URLs:
Keywords: opera, libretto, civil war, england, pinnock, wood, early music
ePrint ID: 67268
Date :
Date Event
May 2008Published
Date Deposited: 19 Aug 2009
Last Modified: 18 Apr 2017 21:27
Further Information:Google Scholar
URI: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/67268

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