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Influence of The Beggar’s Opera on Musical Theatre

Explore the ways in which The Beggar’s Opera influenced the development of musical theatre in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. What were the reasons for its continued popularity?Intro

The Beggar’s opera’ is an outstanding piece of writing, which has for centuries been an inspiration of talent to musical theatre everywhere. John gay’s piece has led to the creation of many different production’s, that shall be talked about in more depth throughout the essay. The 18th Century is the obvious place to start, with the first production being staged in 1728 on 28 January . This is also where John Gay’s marked his place in History as a great Ballad Opera writer. Ballad Opera was a new Style of musical theatre made huge by it’s humorous satire, which could be related to by all types and classes of people, because of it’s satire on Italian Opera’s and British prime minister Walpole at the time. The play in it’s new and unique group managed to relate to a mass amount of people who found the humorous play to be so true in it’s own exaggerated wayWhen given the question (Explore the ways in which ‘The Beggar’s opera’ influenced the development of musical theatre in the eighteen and twentieth centuries. What were the reasons for it’s continued popularity?) there were certain aspects of the ballad opera which I needed to understand before answering the question. The Production, adaptation’s of the play, the stylistic aspects, the construction, and it’s popularity within the two Centuries are some of the key aspects needed to answer the question.

‘The beggar’s opera’ and Its low-life settings were Taken and used in pieces like The Cobbler’s Opera, which is set in Billingsgate. Charles Johnson’s The Village Opera ( 1729 ) started a trend for more emotional and more rural subject, which contained little satire or wit. None of these two opera’s came close to the success of The Beggar’s Opera. This waspartly to do with the fact Gay had used most of the best songs in the public domain.(footnote)
The popularity of The ballad opera caused a lot of serious difficulties for The composers and Italian opera houses at the time including composers such as Handel. When the obsession had died, there were still shorter pieces of the same style which came onto the scene and became popular afterpieces of the Big shows.(footnote) These pieces were written In the early 1760s, they were unoriginal pieces of ballad opera. One called Thomas and sally(1760) by Arne, and one called Love in a village(1772) also by Arne. These were considered unoriginal because only 5 new songs were written for the opera and some were taken from his previous works. (footnote)

Bibliography and More Information about ballad opera

R. Fiske , English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1973, 2/1986)

Y. Noble (ed.), Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Beggar’s Opera (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1975)

Percy Scholes / Nicholas Temperley

Only The Beggars opera’ is the only one out of the pieces that kept it’s popularity. It was a huge milestone of the 20th century for musical theatre, was an adaptation (probably the most well known of all that have been done) of the ‘The beggar’s opera’, The Threepenny Opera. The piece was inspired by ‘The beggar’s Opera in its social message, using some of the same characters and even one of the songs. Composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht changed old-fashioned opera and operetta forms, an incorporateda political view and the sound of 1920s Berlin dance bands and cabaret into the play. Weill’s harmonies and Brecht’s writing created a completely new musical theatre that inspired some of the most well known hits such as Chicago and cabaret. “Mack the Knife,” is one of the most well know tunes of the century, this is the opening song to the play.(footnote)

The first night of ‘Three penny opera’ was August 31, 1928. No one knew what to expect from the night, but not long in and everyone began to shout and cheer. The show turned out to be a brilliant success and the popularity spread throughout Europe. This started something huge. After the Berlin premiere, 46 stage productions of the work was generated because of the popularity from audiences. 1931 brought a film version to it’s audience, the film was called Die 3-Groschenoper. This made a an international star out of weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya. The opera, by 1933 had already been produced 130 times all over the world.

The play really took off after the war when there was a New York production at Theatre de lys, this production was off Broadway. It ran from 1954 to 1961 and the show did a total of 2707 performance and was the longest running play in history a the time. The Threepenny Opera is still entertaining audiences all over the world. There are three cinematic versions of the work, made in 1931, 1963, and 1988. the music and story of The Threepenny Opera as stayed irresistible to audiences everywhere as they were in 1928.

This adaptation of ‘the beggar’s opera’ as you can see has had significant inspiration on musical theatre, and had a lot on early popular music of the 20th century.

In America, ballad opera began with the importation of an English work, Flora, or Hob in the Well, which was given at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1735. The first American performance of The Beggar’s Opera itself took place in New York in 1750.

Thereafter all the most popular English comic operas were quickly imported, and, indeed, for long they formed the sole operatic entertainment in the English colonies and successor states, since Italian and French opera did not reach that part of America until the 1790s, and no serious attempt to promote Italian opera was made until 1825 .

Many writer’s of the time were sticking to Italian Opera, which were very serious
1953 brought forward a new light on the ballad opera turning it into a film. The film priemered in London on the 5th of June 1953,

Musical theatre before ‘The beggar’s opera’ was very different. During the 17th Century there was a period called interregnum, unfortunately this had an effect on musical theatre and During this time theatrical performances were forbidden under the Puritan government. After this period and when the restoration was finally over, there was a lot of changes to society. There was a lot of positive effects on the country’s performing arts, and because of the financial developments the balance of social classes came together. Londoners started to appreciate newer forms of artistic expression. They welcomed teachers of Italian and French to the city, as well as the many Continental musicians who arrived and settled there. An era began where Italian style was put above all other types of entertainment. The Italian castrato was a male singer who was trained to sing with soprano or alto voice. The Italian Castrato became very popular(footnote)

John gay took a lot of his inspiration for the ‘The beggar’s opera’
Production’s an adaptations of The beggar’s opera since 1728 have been everywhere. I have taken a look at some of these since it’s first performance to show how much of a success it was even 250 years on, the influence on musical theatre has shown in many different types of opera.

When John Gay took his new ballad opera to the manager of the famous Drury lane theatre, Colley Cibber, gay was unfortunately turned away. The main reason for Colley Cibber’s choice was not ignorance, it was a perception of it’s political satire that made him refuse. If maybe ‘The beggar’s opera’ was a bit more obtuse there would have been a bigger chance of Cibber accepting. The fact that Cibber had a Personal friendship with British Prime minister Walpole would probably have also played a big part in Cibber’s decision, as he could not of found Gay’s Humour remotely comical.[i]Not long after Gay’s disappointment with Colley Cibber’s Decision, Gay approached John Rich, the manager of another successful theatre called Lincoln’s Inn Fields. John Rich decided to take a chance on Gay’s work, However John Rich had his doubts and probably would have dropped it after it’s rehearsal’s if it wasn’t for Gay’s friends who pressured him into continuing with the balled opera.[ii] John rich was so right in taking on the piece and the widespread popularity of Gay’s Ballad opera led Rich to build Covent Garden, which today is the most famous Opera house in London.[iii]

Gay’s main source of inspiration for the 69 Songs (in the original score there were 68 songs, one was added later by third edition) in his ballad opera were taken from a collection of songs and ballads written by Thomas D’Urfey. The verses he wrote were mostly written to folksongs and favourite melodies. The book was published in 1700 in a songbook entitled, ‘Wit and Mirth or pills to purge melancholy.’ John Gay selected many songs from this collection of popular music and wrote his own lyrics, so that the lyrics fitted in with his opera. Gay also had other sources which he borrowed from such as his contemporary composers Eccles, Barrett, Purcell, Clarke, and Handel, as well as using tunes from English, Scotch, and Irish folksongs. The music in the ballad was collected and the arranged to fit. The chosen songs included a range of popular styles at the time, from jigs to hymn-like tunes. German composer and music Director of Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre Dr. Pepusch

Also participated in the creation of the score, providing the overture and assisting in the orchestration of the opera.[iv]

The first Performance of John Gay’s Ballet Opera The Beggar’s Opera was on stage in 1728, This performance attracted the acclaim and attention of the Popular audience in England. The first season of performances lasted for a total of 62 nights. The play received just as much applause in the next season of performances. It soon spread into a lot of the main towns in England, and also made it’s way to Wales Scotland and Ireland where it was made more popular. The woman who played Polly( Lavinia Fenton) became a favourite of many different people. The ballad opera became that successful it drove Italian opera out of England for the whole season. Italian opera had carried Musical theatre for 10 year prior to this completely new style, I see as Experimenting at the time, as it was completely out of the norm. The 62 consecutive nights seems like a huge amount to be doing nowadays, but back in the 18th Century however this was quite normal for the actor’s to be doing. Years later the Opera was performed internationally in Dublin, Jamaica, Glasgow, New York. In America The beggar’s Opera was one of the earliest musical comedies Produced.[v]

The Opera popularised this new form of stage entertainment which was known as balled opera. Balled opera changed Operas standard Upper-class audience and had attracted and combined the likes of lower-class, middleclass and Upper-class followings. Londoners really loved the realism and satire in the ballet opera, I think it was something that everyone at the time could relate to, which maybe why it attracted such a wide range of different minded and different classed people. Audiences would leave the theatre talking about the opera and singing the familiar tunes. There is a lot of evidence to show it’s popularity in the 18th Century, one being the book trade. This was highly increased because of It’s controversial subject matter and satire. Other evidence showing it’s popularity was that every year after 1728 The beggar’s opera was performed every single year of the 18th Century.[vi]

The Beggar’s Opera was premiered on January 29, 1728 at John Rich’s theatre at Lincoln-Inn-Fields and had an overwhelming amount of success. A newspaper at the time, The Craftsman(London weekly) ran this short piece:

February 3, 1728

“This Week a Dramatick Entertainment has been exhibited at the Theatre in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, entitled The Beggar’s Opera, which has met with a general Applause, insomuch that the Waggs say it has made Rich very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich.”

The reference to Rich above refers to John Rich, the manager of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatre.

February 17, 1728

“We hear that the British Opera, commonly called The Beggar’s Opera, continues to be acted, at the Theatre in Lincoln’s-Inn Fields with general Applause, to the great Mortification of the Performers and Admirers of the Outlandish Opera in the Haymarket.”[vii]

The piece written shows how the play was a hit, and happened in such a small amount of time. People from everywhere wanted to see the play because It was the talk of the town.

The huge success of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ has retained its popularity for over 200 hundred years, which forms a record in dramatic productions. Every generation brings new applause and the causes for it’s popularity change each generation, John gay probably didn’t expect such a major interest in his work and maybe didn’t think it would become as popular as it has. I’m sure it would have shocked him that the piece was performed 62 nights in a row at one of the most well known theatres at the time. Gay at the time most definitely would have been expecting some abuse over the satire contained in the opera but he would not of been expecting the creation of the characters Macheath, his gang, and women followers would be criticized, and made into something more serious.[viii]

The ballad opera has become so influential that critics by now tend to assume that complicated irony is “Pervasive” and “thoroughgoing” in the language of the play. Ironic double-meaning is understood to provide a key to correct reading of Gay’s satire, which in it’s ambiguity and uncertainty is modernistic.[ix]

The first imitation of ‘The beggar’s opera’ was by Tomas Cooke and johnJohn Mottley’s ballad opera ‘Penelope-the odyssey story set in England, this was also in 1728. The opera only ran for 3 night which had nothing on Gay’s piece.[x]

Another production of the beggar’s opera was the 1985 Performances at

1985 brought forward lots of production of the ballad opera, and it marked Johngay’s

In 1985 this Catchy News paper article, shows how popular ‘The beggar’s opera’ was and how popular is was still in 1985.

Beggars’ Banquet

“…Dramatic and musical flexibility and vitality make John Gay’s 1728 ‘Musical comedy’ an indestructible theatrical creation…”

During the 18th Century Musical theatre

‘Except in Air 34, where Pepusch used P.G. Sandoni’s original bass for the latter’s setting of Gay’s own song-text ‘Sweet William’s Farewell to Black-ey’d Susan’. Also, in Air 20 (Handel’s march from Rinaldo) and Air 41 (Purcell’s song ‘If love’s a sweet passion’), Pepusch’s bass line is similar to the composer’s own. For further details, see my edition, p.108. )

Arrangements’ of the

The rearranging of the songs in ‘The beggar’s be traced back to the first performance in 1728. The existing tunes John gay had chosen for his play, were taken by arranger John Christopher Pepusch and instead of him taking earlier harmonized version of the songs, he added his own basses.(footnote) In 1729 the basses were published, this was the third edition of the work. The first two edition only include the tunes.( The songs were unlike John Pepusch’sfully-scored overture written for two oboes and string, and there printed on two staves. The staves lack any instrumental introductions or codas.(footnote)
Other sources show evidence that there was a standard method for arranging the songs. Scoring was for unison violins and continuo, and instrumental introduction and codas copied the opening and closing bars of the song itself.(footnote)
When the third edition was introduced it was used as a basis for arrangements until late into the 19th century. However, in the second half of the 18th century, many London revivals began to try out new arrangements for the musical, the most significant version is Thomas Linley’s of 1776. All of the arrangements have not been published. In 1769 there was an edition of the ballad opera published with a misleading title page:
‘THE BEGGARS OPERA…with the Additional Alterations byDr Arne…The Basses entirely New.(footnote) The publisher hoped the audience would think that the ‘basses entirely new’ were part Dr Arne’s ‘additional alterations’, The truth is the pieces were far to poor to be his work, as it contained too much harmonic for the speed of the tunes. This gave a different spin on the musical but didn’t contain the right ingredients, that made gay’s version what it is. Compared to Pepusch’s simple but very effective bass the ‘Arne’ version omitted some of the songs from the piece, some were transposed and part of the writing is introduced into ensemble numbers. (footnote)
Arrangements of ballad operas


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