Audiences will have the opportunity to hear music that hasnt been performed since the 18th century in a concert Monday, March 14 at the School of Music. “Handel and Fielding: Italian Opera and English Song” will be presented by Collegium Musicum at 7:30 p.m. in Brechemin Auditorium.
The concert comes out of a collaboration between Collegium Musicum Director JoAnn Taricani and English Department Chair Tom Lockwood, an expert on English writer Henry Fielding. Fielding is best known for his novels, especially Tom Jones, but early in his career he was a playwright. And some of his plays were what is known as ballad opera.
“Italian opera was a fashionable craze in London for about 15 years starting in 1710; it was all the rage among posh people,” Lockwood said. “The craze was so pronounced that there was a backlash, beginning with John Gays Beggars Opera in 1728. It was full of political humor, but it was also making fun of the craze for Italian opera.”
Ballad operas tended to deal with less exalted characters than those of classic opera, and their authors often lifted music from songs of the day and wrote their own lyrics, since there were no copyright restrictions to stop them. Some of the music was from folk songs such as Greensleeves, and some of it was from classic opera. Fielding wrote 10 ballad operas, and one of his favorite composers to borrow from was George Frideric Handel. So it is that the performance fits into the American Handel Festival going on in Seattle right now — 17 days of concerts and events for Handel lovers.
The UW concert will present Handels original arias along with parodies and adaptations by Fielding and other playwrights, heard for the first time in almost 300 years. The music will be sung and played by UW graduates and graduate students who have specialized in early music: Sopranos Cecile Farmer and Megan Huckabay, contralto AnnMarie Baines, and harpsichordist Jonathan Bezdegian, directed by Taricani.
Lockwood, who got interested in Fielding through his novels, became immersed in the plays when he was asked by Oxford University Press to edit a three-volume edition of them. Realizing that some of the plays included music, Lockwood quickly recruited Taricani to help with that aspect of the task. In the editions of Fieldings day, Lockwood explained, the music would have appeared as a crude woodblock print, because there was no way to print music except for engraving, which was expensive. Frequently, no music was supplied at all, only the name of a familiar tune. Publishers of the time had standard woodblocks for popular pieces of music which they would insert into the text. That, together with the fact that there are differences between 18th century musical notation and todays, meant that some music editing was necessary to make the music accessible to modern musicians. Taricani performed that task for the Oxford Press editions, which have been printed between 2004 and 2011 (the third volume and final volume comes out in July).
“Before I worked on the book, I knew generally about ballad opera,” Taricani said, “but I was not at all familiar with the Fielding songs and ballad operas — because most of them were not available in modern editions — which this new Fielding edition provides for the first time.
“As I was working, I became more and more interested in seeing how Fielding had adapted particular tunes with political meaning, and wanted to hear the original tunes and the adaptations side by side,” she continued. “It is very illuminating to hear the resonance of meaning in Fielding’s choices.”
Fieldings plays were popular throughout the 18th century, Lockwood said. Although many of his nonmusical plays were highly political — he was finally run out of the theater business after writing satirical plays too obnoxious for the government of the day — his musical offerings are light and frothy and usually served as star vehicles for leading singers of that time. By the close of the 18th century they were no longer performed and have lain dormant since then.
Are they worthy of revival as plays? Lockwood doesnt think so. “For historical interest theres a value in revival. People could get a sense of what they sound like and look like,” he said. “But longer term Id say probably not. The references are so obscure youd likely need footnotes. Youd have to alter and adapt them quite a bit for a modern audience.”
The music from the plays is another story, however. “The plays and characters had an immediate topicality that was specific to 1730s London,” Taricani said. “But the music does not need that level of understanding to be appreciated. The singers understand what they are singing, and therefore can communicate it without the need for interpretation. Where there are musical jokes, they are quite apparent and easy to comprehend. Ultimately, hearing the original Handel arias alongside the Fielding songs is entertaining without any need to understand the plays.”
Tickets for the concert are $5 and are available at the door.