No. 029 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

No. 29
Tuesday, April 3, 1711. Addison.

… Sermo lingua concinnus utraque

Suavior: ut Chio nota si commista Falerni est.


There is nothing that [has] more startled our English Audience, than the Italian Recitativo at its first Entrance upon the Stage. People were wonderfully surprized to hear Generals singing the Word of Command, and Ladies delivering Messages in Musick. Our Country-men could not forbear laughing when they heard a Lover chanting out a Billet-doux, and even the Superscription of a Letter set to a Tune. The Famous Blunder in an old Play of Enter a King and two Fidlers Solus, was now no longer an Absurdity, when it was impossible for a Hero in a Desart, or a Princess in her Closet, to speak anything unaccompanied with Musical Instruments.

But however this Italian method of acting in Recitativo might appear at first hearing, I cannot but think it much more just than that which prevailed in our English Opera before this Innovation: The Transition from an Air to Recitative Musick being more natural than the passing from a Song to plain and ordinary Speaking, which was the common Method in Purcell’s Operas.

The only Fault I find in our present Practice, is the making use of Italian Recitative with English Words.

To go to the Bottom of this Matter, I must observe, that the Tone, or (as the French call it) the Accent of every Nation in their ordinary Speech is altogether different from that of every other People, as we may see even in the Welsh and Scotch, [who [1]] border so near upon us. By the Tone or Accent, I do not mean the Pronunciation of each particular Word, but the Sound of the whole Sentence. Thus it is very common for an English Gentleman, when he hears a French Tragedy, to complain that the Actors all of them speak in a Tone; and therefore he very wisely prefers his own Country-men, not considering that a Foreigner complains of the same Tone in an English Actor.

For this Reason, the Recitative Musick in every Language, should be as different as the Tone or Accent of each Language; for otherwise, what may properly express a Passion in one Language, will not do it in another. Every one who has been long in Italy knows very well, that the Cadences in the Recitativo bear a remote Affinity to the Tone of their Voices in ordinary Conversation, or to speak more properly, are only the Accents of their Language made more Musical and Tuneful.

Thus the Notes of Interrogation, or Admiration, in the Italian Musick (if one may so call them) which resemble their Accents in Discourse on such Occasions, are not unlike the ordinary Tones of an English Voice when we are angry; insomuch that I have often seen our Audiences extreamly mistaken as to what has been doing upon the Stage, and expecting to see the Hero knock down his Messenger, when he has been [asking [2]] him a Question, or fancying that he quarrels with his Friend, when he only bids him Good-morrow.

For this Reason the Italian Artists cannot agree with our English Musicians in admiring Purcell’s Compositions, [3] and thinking his Tunes so wonderfully adapted to his Words, because both Nations do not always express the same Passions by the same Sounds.

I am therefore humbly of Opinion, that an English Composer should not follow the Italian Recitative too servilely, but make use of many gentle Deviations from it, in Compliance with his own Native Language. He may Copy out of it all the lulling Softness and Dying Falls (as Shakespear calls them), but should still remember that he ought to accommodate himself to an English Audience, and by humouring the Tone of our Voices in ordinary Conversation, have the same Regard to the Accent of his own Language, as those Persons had to theirs whom he professes to imitate. It is observed, that several of the singing Birds of our own Country learn to sweeten their Voices, and mellow the Harshness of their natural Notes, by practising under those that come from warmer Climates. In the same manner, I would allow the Italian Opera to lend our English Musick as much as may grace and soften it, but never entirely to annihilate and destroy it. Let the Infusion be as strong as you please, but still let the Subject Matter of it be English.

A Composer should fit his Musick to the Genius of the People, and consider that the Delicacy of Hearing, and Taste of Harmony, has been formed upon those Sounds which every Country abounds with: In short, that Musick is of a Relative Nature, and what is Harmony to one Ear, may be Dissonance to another.

The same Observations which I have made upon the Recitative part of Musick may be applied to all our Songs and Airs in general.

Signior Baptist Lully [4] acted like a Man of Sense in this Particular. He found the French Musick extreamly defective, and very often barbarous: However, knowing the Genius of the People, the Humour of their Language, and the prejudiced Ears [he [5]] had to deal with he did not pretend to extirpate the French Musick, and plant the Italian in its stead; but only to Cultivate and Civilize it with innumerable Graces and Modulations which he borrow’d from the Italian. By this means the French Musick is now perfect in its kind; and when you say it is not so good as the Italian, you only mean that it does not please you so well; for there is [scarce [6]] a Frenchman who would not wonder to hear you give the Italian such a Preference. The Musick of the French is indeed very properly adapted to their Pronunciation and Accent, as their whole Opera wonderfully favours the Genius of such a gay airy People. The Chorus in which that Opera abounds, gives the Parterre frequent Opportunities of joining in Consort with the Stage. This Inclination of the Audience to Sing along with the Actors, so prevails with them, that I have sometimes known the Performer on the Stage do no more in a Celebrated Song, than the Clerk of a Parish Church, who serves only to raise the Psalm, and is afterwards drown’d in the Musick of the Congregation. Every Actor that comes on the Stage is a Beau. The Queens and Heroines are so Painted, that they appear as Ruddy and Cherry-cheek’d as Milk-maids. The Shepherds are all Embroider’d, and acquit themselves in a Ball better than our English Dancing Masters. I have seen a couple of Rivers appear in red Stockings; and Alpheus, instead of having his Head covered with Sedge and Bull-Rushes, making Love in a fair full-bottomed Perriwig, and a Plume of Feathers; but with a Voice so full of Shakes and Quavers that I should have thought the Murmurs of a Country Brook the much more agreeable Musick.

I remember the last Opera I saw in that merry Nation was the Rape of Proserpine, where Pluto, to make the more tempting Figure, puts himself in a French Equipage, and brings Ascalaphus along with him as his Valet de Chambre. This is what we call Folly and Impertinence; but what the French look upon as Gay and Polite.

I shall add no more to what I have here offer’d, than that Musick, Architecture, and Painting, as well as Poetry, and Oratory, are to deduce their Laws and Rules from the general Sense and Taste of Mankind, and not from the Principles of those Arts themselves; or, in other Words, the Taste is not to conform to the Art, but the Art to the Taste. Music is not design’d to please only Chromatick Ears, but all that are capable ef distinguishing harsh from disagreeable Notes. A Man of an ordinary Ear is a Judge whether a Passion is express’d in proper Sounds, and whether the Melody of those Sounds be more or less pleasing. [7]


[Footnote 1: that]

[Footnote 2: only asking]

[Footnote 3: Henry Purcell died of consumption in 1695, aged 37.

‘He was,’ says Mr. Hullah, in his Lectures on the History of Modern Music, ‘the first Englishman to demonstrate the possibility of a national opera. No Englishman of the last century succeeded in following Purcell’s lead into this domain of art; none, indeed, would seem to have understood in what his excellence consisted, or how his success was attained. His dramatic music exhibits the same qualities which had already made the success of Lulli. … For some years after Purcell’s death his compositions, of whatever kind, were the chief, if not the only, music heard in England. His reign might have lasted longer, but for the advent of a musician who, though not perhaps more highly gifted, had enjoyed immeasurably greater opportunities of cultivating his gifts,’

Handel, who had also the advantage of being born thirty years later.]

[Footnote 4: John Baptist Lulli, a Florentine, died in 1687, aged 53. In his youth he was an under-scullion in the kitchen of Madame de Montpensier, niece to Louis XIV. The discovery of his musical genius led to his becoming the King’s Superintendent of Music, and one of the most influential composers that has ever lived. He composed the occasional music for Moliere’s comedies, besides about twenty lyric tragedies; which succeeded beyond all others in France, not only because of his dramatic genius, which enabled him to give to the persons of these operas a musical language fitted to their characters and expressive of the situations in which they were placed; but also, says Mr. Hullah, because

‘Lulli being the first modern composer who caught the French ear, was the means, to a great extent, of forming the modern French taste.’

His operas kept the stage for more than a century.]

[Footnote 5: that he]

[Footnote 6: not]

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