The 39th Annual Conference on Music in 18th-Century Britain


Please find HERE the link for booking. 

Registration fee, including lunch, refreshments and admission to the Foundling Museum between 10am and 5pm, payable in advance, £18 (£22 on the day)



10.30  Registration / Coffee

11.00  Vanessa Rogers (Memphis, TN) — ‘The Men have dropt their Petticoats, and the Breeches are ours’: Cross-Dressing The Beggar’s Opera in the Eighteenth Century

The highlight of the 1781-82 season, according to memoirists and theatre chroniclers, was an unusual revival of the old 1728 repertory staple The Beggar’s Opera at the Haymarket Theatre. It was ‘the paramount whim, the captivating absurdity of the season’, recalled one, for ‘all of the characters [were] metamorphosed; men being substituted for women, and women for men’. The young Jack Bannister appeared at the beginning of the piece in a small role as prompter, apologising to the audience ‘for a delay in beginning the performance, as Polly was only half shaved.’ The result of this superlative travesty was a hit in London that lasted for a stunning eighteen performances and survived into the next season.

Despite one biographer’s assertion that this production was an ‘extreme whimsicality’, it was not an aberration of 1781 only: indeed, cross-dressed performances of The Beggar’s Opera had been common occurrences since the influential ballad opera had first appeared, with more than a hundred of them recorded in the eighteenth century in London alone. Surviving theatrical iconography also attests that it was common for ingénues and practiced actresses alike to don breeches in order to play the masculine antihero Macheath – and though it was less common for men to appear in petticoats to play the opera’s female characters, this practice occurred as well. 

The fact that we know so little about these popular performances is a gaping hole in our understanding of the performance history of English musical theater, The Beggar’s Opera (certainly the most-performed 18th-century play on the London stage), and of queer history in Britain. Drawing on primary sources, particularly the playbills and newspapers (as transcribed in The London Stage calendar) advertising cross-dressed performances, and the added scenes for cross-cast productions (in manuscript in the Huntington Library’s Larpent Collection), this paper seeks to enlarge our understanding of gender stereotypes and gender subversion on the eighteenth-century British musical stage.

11.40  Lizzy Buckle (Oxon) — ‘The Expense of the Music’: balancing the books at charity concerts

Infirmaries were a new phenomenon in the second half of the eighteenth century, so it is perhaps unsurprising that hospital governors encountered problems in raising sufficient funds to maintain the services provided. One popular method of fundraising was the organisation of charity concerts. This paper will present newly discovered accounts of concert planning found in the minute books of infirmaries in Cambridge, Oxford, and Leicester.

The financial records and commentaries on spending detailed in hospital minute books highlight the high level of expenditure and small profit margins of these festivities, suggesting that governors were inexperienced at arranging such events. The minute books also reveal valuable details concerning concert organisation in eighteenth-century England, as well as some of the logistical challenges involved with organising charity events. Finally, this paper will explore how hospital governors may have struggled to reconcile the financial constraints of hospital funds and the wider public profile of these charities with their own personal reputational gains.

12.20  Jennifer Thorp (Oxford) — Missing persons: the composers of music for Anthony L’Abbé’s annual ball-dances 1715-1733

Fifteen ball-dances are known to have been created by the royal dancing-master Anthony L’Abbé in London, although only the title survives for one of them and there were probably others of which no trace at all remains. The one solo and thirteen danced duets which still exist are in the usual published form, their steps and figures recorded in Beauchamp-Feuillet notation along with the dance tune. All the duets were named after members of the royal family and created to celebrate royal birthdays, a royal wedding, or a ‘dance for the year’, given at court and elsewhere. Yet for only six of the dances do we know who composed the music to which they were set. Consideration of the tunes of all fourteen extant dances, however, suggest three phases of L’Abbé’s career as the choreographer of these prestigious ball-dances: first, his continuation of the practice established by his predecessor at court, Francis Isaac, of using music by James Paisible; second, L’Abbé’s occasional use of popular music from operas by Lully and Handel; and, interspersed with all these, L’Abbé’s use of music which may have been created especially for each new dance or borrowed from other popular music of the time, but whose composers are not named. This paper looks at what is known about the nature of these dances created for use at court and at elite assemblies and ponders the question of who might have been among L’Abbé’s music collaborators.

13.00-14.00  Lunch and Handel’s Will: Love and Legacy exhibition viewing

14.00  Peter Holman (Colchester) — English Operas or Music Meetings?: The Judgment of Paris Competition Revisited

The competition to set William Congreve’s masque The Judgment of Paris, set in March 1700 with the four entries performed between March and June 1701, has attracted a fair amount of scholarly attention in recent times, though there is still much unclear to us concerning the nature of the competition, its political and cultural significance, the rights and wrongs of the outcome, and the way the settings were performed. In this paper I will outline what is known of the competition, arguing that it was the first organised act of patronage of the Whig Kit-Cat Club, to which Congreve, the publisher Jacob Tonson (evidently the organiser) and the aristocratic subscribers mostly belonged, and that they planned it with subsequent performances of the settings in the commercial theatres in mind, as the main item in subscription concerts or as afterpieces – establishing the spoken play-sung masque pairing common later in the century. I will also discuss the circumstances the original performances in the Dorset Garden Theatre, arguing that the casts of soloists and the way the composers might have directed their settings had as an important bearing on the outcome as the merits of their music. With about 90 musicians on the stage, each setting must have been performed in a manner akin to Handel’s oratorios 40 years later: more ‘musick meeting’ (as the future Duke of Chandos described the first performance of Eccles’s setting) than a fully staged opera.

14.40  Michael Talbot (Liverpool) — The Italian Canzonets of Henry Holcombe (1690-1756)

Born in 1690 to a silk weaver, Henry Holcombe, who has attracted little notice until recently, started out as a chorister in Chester and after moving to London in late 1704 became, in turn, a treble singer at the Drury Lane theatre very popular with the public, a freelance tenor and a sought-after teacher of singing and harpsichord who amassed enough wealth to consider himself a gentleman and give up public performance. His career as a composer started modestly during the period c.1720 –1743 with a series of well-received short songs, but between 1745 and his death in 1756 he produced four substantial published collections, each containing attractive music: one of sonatas variously for violin, flute and solo harpsichord (1745), two of English songs (1748, 1755) and one of Italian canzonets for voice and harpsichord plus violin and/or cello ad libitum (1753).

Already as an adolescent, Holcombe was a pioneer in the singing of Italian cantatas in London and known for his enthusiasm for Italian opera. His twelve canzonets, the earliest examples in their genre from an English composer, depart radically from convention in being set not to polystrophic, purpose-written Italian texts such as those by Paolo Rolli published in London in 1727, but instead to monostrophic aria texts plucked from librettos of Italian operas performed in London during the previous four decades. The paper will elaborate on Holcombe’s very interesting life and describe the background and characteristics of his canzonets, very recently published in a modern edition.

15.20-15.40  Refreshment break / Reports (from 15.30)

15.40 Penelope Cave (Southampton) — Sir Joseph Lock’s Organ Room: a fleeting glimpse of a domestic collection

Paintings of interiors can offer intriguing, supplementary information on the locus of family music-making. This article will explore a watercolour, by the composer (and first principal of the Royal Academy of Music), William Crotch (1775-1847). It depicts an early nineteenth-century interior, offering a glimpse through the door into a music-room in one of Sir Joseph Lock’s residences.

This painting, by a musician and prolific amateur artist, depicts instruments as objects for use in situ and, therefore, has a different authority from the set-pieces that are sometimes represented. Crotch supplied the owner and the name of the organ-maker, making it possible to uncover much organological and biographical information, but also placing it in a social context of upward mobility. The paper also uncovers further knowledge of his other musical instruments. Research into Sir Joseph Lock’s affluence, his interests, members of his family, and a network of friends is aided by letters and diaries highlighting the social milieu and drawing on the scientific and musical interests of artist and collector. The close-reading of this small painting of the Organ Room’s content and lay-out, in a domestic setting, arguably evokes an authentic, musical encounter, redolent of the passions of its owner.

16.20  Jack Comerford (Southampton) — Handel in the Home: Songs from the Oratorio

By the end of the eighteenth century Handel’s music appeared not only on every concert stage but also in churches and homes throughout England. Oratorios, in particular, dominated the English musical landscape and were essential to the dissemination of Handel’s music in London and further afield. This research focuses on the domestic arrangements of Handel’s oratorio repertoire and the various anthologies, miscellanies and compilation volumes pioneered by Walsh (both coeval and posthumous) that became a staple of the household.

Oratorio arrangements were built on successful precedents in Handel’s opera that paved the way for domestic versions of oratorio. Walsh, for example, went to great lengths to ensure the timely delivery of ‘Songs from the Oratorio’ within weeks of a work’s first performance, in order to keep up with the insatiable appetite for new music. Publications of songs from individual oratorios led to later anthologies that drew repertoire from various works and packaged them in ways that indicate their intended use. In November 1749 the General Advertiser announced the publication of ‘Eighty Songs selected from Mr. Handel’s latest Oratorios for the Harpsichord or Voice. Intended for the improvement of Young Ladies and Gentlemen in Singing and the Harpsichord’. This was the first of five volumes released over a period of ten years, and the progenitor of what culminated in ‘Handel’s 400 Selected Songs, from all His Oratorios, for the Harpsichord and Voice’ (1759).

This paper will explore how Walsh’s publications tracked a trajectory from large-scale performance to domestic arrangements, showing how the British home both reflected and shaped the reception of Handel’s oratorios in the eighteenth century and beyond.

17.00  Conference ends