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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 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 10 wisely prefers his own countrymen, not considering that a foreigner complains of the same tone in an English actor.
For this reason, the recitative music 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 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 music, (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 extremely 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 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 30 English musicians in admiring Purcell's compositions, and think
ing 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 40 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 music 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 10 subject-matter of it be English.
A composer should fit his music 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 music 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 music, may be applied to all our songs and airs in general.
Signior Baptist Lully acted like a man of sense in this particular. He found the French music extremely defective, and 20 very often barbarous: however, knowing the genius of the
people, the humour of their language, and the prejudiced ears he had to deal with, he did not pretend to extirpate the French music, and plant the Italian in its stead; but only to cultivate and civilize it with innumerable graces and modulations which he borrowed from the Italian 1. By this means the French music 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 a Frenchman who would not wonder to hear
you give the Italian such a preference. The music of the 30 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 n 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 drowned in the music of the
congregation. Every actor that comes on the stage is a beau. 40 The queens and heroines are so painted, that they appear as
ruddy and cherry-cheeked as milk-maids. The shepherds are all embroidered, 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 bullrushes, making love in a fair full-bottomed periwig 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 music.
I remember the last opera I saw in that merry nation was the ro 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 offered, than that music, 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 them
selves; or, in other words, the taste is not to conform to the 20 art, but the art to the taste. Music is not designed to please
only chromatic ears, but all that are capable of distinguishing harsh from disagreeable notes. A man of an ordinary ear is a judge whether a passion is expressed in proper sounds, and whether the melody of those sounds be more or less pleasing.-C.
No. 40. English tragedians ; rules of tragic art; absurdity of
Ac ne forte putes, me, quæ facere ipse recusem,
HOR. Epist, ii, 1. 208.
Enrage, compose, with more than magic art,
The English writers of tragedy are possessed with a notion, that when they represent a virtuous or innocent person in distress, they ought not to leave him till they have delivered him out of his troubles, or made him triumph over his enemies. This error they have been led into by a ridiculous doctrine in modern criticism, that they are obliged to an equal distribution of rewards and punishments, and an impartial execution of poetical justice. Who were the first that established this rule, I know not; but
I am sure it has no foundation in nature, in reason, or in the 10 practice of the ancients. We find that good and evil happen
alike to all men on this side the grave; and as the principal design of tragedy is to raise commiseration and terror in the minds of the audience, we shall defeat this great end, if we always make virtue and innocence happy and successful. Whatever crosses and disappointments a good man suffers in the body of the tragedy, they will make but small impression on our minds, when we know that in the last act he is to arrive at the end of his wishes and desires. When we see him engaged in the depth
of his afflictions, we are apt to comfort ourselves, because we are 20 sure he will find his way out of them, and that his grief, how great
soever it may be at present, will soon terminate in gladness. For this reason the ancient writers of tragedy treated men in their plays, as they are dealt with in the world, by making virtue sometimes happy and sometimes miserable, as they found it in the fable which they made choice of, or as it might affect their audience in the most agreeable manner. Aristotle considers the tragedies that were written in either of these kinds, and observes, that those which ended unhappily had always pleased the people, and carried
away the prize in the public disputes of the stage from those that 30 ended happily). Terror and commiseration leave a pleasing
anguish in the mind; and fix the audience in such a serious composure of thought, as is much more lasting and delightful than any little transient starts of joy and satisfaction. Accordingly, we find that more of our English tragedies have succeeded, in which the favourites of the audience sink under their calamities, than those
in which they recover themselves out of them. The best plays of this kind are, The Orphan, Venice Preserved, Alexander the Great, Theodosius, All for Love, Oedipus, Oroonoko », Othello, &c. King Lear is an admirable tragedy of the same kind, as Shakespear wrote it; but as it is reformed according to the chimerical notion of poetical justice, in my humble opinion it has lost half its beauty. At the same time I must allow, that there are very noble tragedies, which have been framed upon the other plan, and have ended
happily; as indeed most of the good tragedies which have been 10 written since the starting of the above mentioned criticism have
taken this turn : as the Mourning Bride, Tamerlane, Ulysses, Phædra and Hippolitus , with most of Mr. Dryden's. I must also allow, that many of Shakespeare's, and several of the celebrated tragedies of antiquity, are cast in the same form. I do not therefore dispute against this way of writing tragedies, but against the criticism that would establish this as the only method, and by that means would very much cramp the English tragedy, and perhaps give a wrong bent to the genius of our writers.
The tragi-comedy, which is the product of the English 20 theatre », is one of the most monstrous inventions that ever en
tered into a poet's thoughts. An author might as well think of weaving the adventures of Æneas and Hudibras into one poem, as of writing such a motley piece of mirth and sorrow. But the absurdity of these performances is so very visible, that I shall not insist upon it.
The same objections which are made to tragi-comedy may in some measure be applied to all tragedies that have a double plot in them; which are likewise more frequent upon the English
stage than upon any other; for though the grief of the audience, 30 in such performances, be not changed into another passion, as in
tragi-comedies, it is diverted upon another object, which weakens their concern for the principal action, and breaks the tide of sorrow by throwing it into different channels. This inconvenience however may in a great measure be cured, if not wholly removed, by the skilful choice of an under plot, which may bear such a near relation to the principal design, as to contribute towards the completion of it, and be concluded by the same catastrophe.
There is also another particular which may be reckoned among 40 the blemishes, or rather the false beauties, of our English tragedy: