No. 018 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

No. 18
Wednesday, March 21, 1711. Addison.

Equitis quoque jam migravit ab aure voluptas

Omnis ad incertos oculos et gaudia vana.


It is my Design in this Paper to deliver down to Posterity a faithful Account of the Italian Opera, and of the gradual Progress which it has made upon the English Stage: For there is no Question but our great Grand-children will be very curious to know the Reason why their Fore-fathers used to sit together like an Audience of Foreigners in their own Country, and to hear whole Plays acted before them in a Tongue which they did not understand.

‘Arsinoe’ [1] was the first Opera that gave us a Taste of Italian Musick. The great Success this Opera met with, produced some Attempts of forming Pieces upon Italian Plans, [which [2]] should give a more natural and reasonable Entertainment than what can be met with in the elaborate Trifles of that Nation. This alarm’d the Poetasters and Fidlers of the Town, who were used to deal in a more ordinary Kind of Ware; and therefore laid down an establish’d Rule, which is receiv’d as such to this [Day, [3]] ‘That nothing is capable of being well set to Musick, that is not Nonsense.’

This Maxim was no sooner receiv’d, but we immediately fell to translating the Italian Operas; and as there was no great Danger of hurting the Sense of those extraordinary Pieces, our Authors would often make Words of their own [which[ 4]] were entirely foreign to the Meaning of the Passages [they [5]] pretended to translate; their chief Care being to make the Numbers of the English Verse answer to those of the Italian, that both of them might go to the same Tune. Thus the famous Song in ‘Camilla’,

‘Barbara si t’ intendo, etc.’

Barbarous Woman, yes, I know your Meaning,

which expresses the Resentments of an angry Lover, was translated into that English lamentation:

‘Frail are a Lovers Hopes, etc.’

And it was pleasant enough to see the most refined Persons of the British Nation dying away and languishing to Notes that were filled with a Spirit of Rage and Indignation. It happen’d also very frequently, where the Sense was rightly translated, the necessary Transposition of Words [which [6]] were drawn out of the Phrase of one Tongue into that of another, made the Musick appear very absurd in one Tongue that was very natural in the other. I remember an Italian verse that ran thus Word for Word,

‘And turned my Rage, into Pity;’

which the English for Rhime sake translated,

‘And into Pity turn’d my Rage.’

By this Means the soft Notes that were adapted to Pity in the Italian, fell upon the word Rage in the English; and the angry Sounds that were turn’d to Rage in the Original, were made to express Pity in the Translation. It oftentimes happen’d likewise, that the finest Notes in the Air fell upon the most insignificant Words in the Sentence. I have known the Word ‘And’ pursu’d through the whole Gamut, have been entertained with many a melodious ‘The’, and have heard the most beautiful Graces Quavers and Divisions bestowed upon ‘Then, For,’ and ‘From;’ to the eternal Honour of our English Particles. [7]

The next Step to our Refinement, was the introducing of Italian Actors into our Opera; who sung their Parts in their own Language, at the same Time that our Countrymen perform’d theirs in our native Tongue. The King or Hero of the Play generally spoke in Italian, and his Slaves answered him in English: The Lover frequently made his Court, and gained the Heart of his Princess in a Language which she did not understand. One would have thought it very difficult to have carry’d on Dialogues after this Manner, without an Interpreter between the Persons that convers’d together; but this was the State of the English Stage for about three Years.

At length the Audience grew tir’d of understanding Half the Opera, and therefore to ease themselves Entirely of the Fatigue of Thinking, have so order’d it at Present that the whole Opera is performed in an unknown Tongue. We no longer understand the Language of our own Stage; insomuch that I have often been afraid, when I have seen our Italian Performers chattering in the Vehemence of Action, that they have been calling us Names, and abusing us among themselves; but I hope, since we do put such an entire Confidence in them, they will not talk against us before our Faces, though they may do it with the same Safety as if it [were [8]] behind our Backs. In the mean Time I cannot forbear thinking how naturally an Historian, who writes Two or Three hundred Years hence, and does not know the Taste of his wise Fore-fathers, will make the following Reflection, ‘In the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century, the Italian Tongue was so well understood in England, that Operas were acted on the publick Stage in that Language.’

One scarce knows how to be serious in the Confutation of an Absurdity that shews itself at the first Sight. It does not want any great Measure of Sense to see the Ridicule of this monstrous Practice; but what makes it the more astonishing, it is not the Taste of the Rabble, but of Persons of the greatest Politeness, which has establish’d it.

If the Italians have a Genius for Musick above the English, the English have a Genius for other Performances of a much higher Nature, and capable of giving the Mind a much nobler Entertainment. Would one think it was possible (at a Time when an Author lived that was able to write the ‘Phaedra’ and ‘Hippolitus’) [9] for a People to be so stupidly fond of the Italian Opera, as scarce to give a Third Days Hearing to that admirable Tragedy? Musick is certainly a very agreeable Entertainment, but if it would take the entire Possession of our Ears, if it would make us incapable of hearing Sense, if it would exclude Arts that have a much greater Tendency to the Refinement of humane Nature: I must confess I would allow it no better Quarter than ‘Plato’ has done, who banishes it out of his Common-wealth.

At present, our Notions of Musick are so very uncertain, that we do not know what it is we like, only, in general, we are transported with any thing that is not English: so if it be of a foreign Growth, let it be Italian, French, or High-Dutch, it is the same thing. In short, our English Musick is quite rooted out, and nothing yet planted in its stead.

When a Royal Palace is burnt to the Ground, every Man is at Liberty to present his Plan for a new one; and tho’ it be but indifferently put together, it may furnish several Hints that may be of Use to a good Architect. I shall take the same Liberty in a following Paper, of giving my Opinion upon the Subject of Musick, which I shall lay down only in a problematical Manner to be considered by those who are Masters in the Art.


[Footnote 1: ‘Arsinoe’ was produced at Drury Lane in 1705, with Mrs. Tofts in the chief character, and her Italian rival, Margarita de l’Epine, singing Italian songs before and after the Opera. The drama was an Italian opera translated into English, and set to new music by Thomas Clayton, formerly band master to William III. No. 20 of the Spectator and other numbers from time to time advertised ‘The Passion of Sappho, and Feast of Alexander: Set to Musick by Mr. Thomas Clayton, as it is performed at his house in ‘York Buildings.’ It was the same Clayton who set to music Addison’s unsuccessful opera of ‘Rosamond’, written as an experiment in substituting homegrown literature for the fashionable nonsense illustrated by Italian music. Thomas Clayton’s music to ‘Rosamond’ was described as ‘a jargon of sounds.’ ‘Camilla’, composed by Marco Antonio Buononcini, and said to contain beautiful music, was produced at Sir John Vanbrugh’s Haymarket opera in 1705, and sung half in English, half in Italian; Mrs. Tofts singing the part of the Amazonian heroine in English, and Valentini that of the hero in Italian.]

[Footnote 2: that]

[Footnote 3: very day]

[Footnote 4: that]

[Footnote 5: which they]

[Footnote 6: that]

[Footnote 7: It was fifty years after this that Churchill wrote of Mossop in the ‘Rosciad,’

‘In monosyllables his thunders roll,
He, she, it, and, we, ye, they, fright the soul.’]

[Footnote 8: was]

[Footnote 9: The Tragedy of ‘Phaedra and Hippolitus’, acted without success in 1707, was the one play written by Mr. Edmund Smith, a merchant’s son who had been educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, and who had ended a dissolute life at the age of 42 (in 1710), very shortly before this paper was written. Addison’s regard for the play is warmed by friendship for the unhappy writer. He had, indeed, written the Prologue to it, and struck therein also his note of war against the follies of Italian Opera.

‘Had Valentini, musically coy,
Shunned Phaedra’s Arms, and scorn’d the puffer’d Joy,
It had not momed your Wonder to have seen
An Eunich fly from an enamour’d Queen;
How would it please, should she in English speak,
And could Hippolitus reply in Greek!’

The Epilogue to this play was by Prior. Edmund Smith’s relation to Addison is shown by the fact that, in dedicating the printed edition of his Phaedra and Hippolitus to Lord Halifax, he speaks of Addison’s lines on the Peace of Ryswick as ‘the best Latin Poem since the AEneid.’]

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