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The Theatre Career of Thomas Arne by Todd Gilman (review)
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Make no mistake, a full-length monograph dedicated to Thomas Augustine Arne is long overdue. His popular reputation may rest in large part on Rule Britannia (David Cameron is perhaps the egregious exception that proves the rule), but Arne was in fact the finest and most significant English composer of theatre music in eighteenth-century London. A Catholic, the usual channels of official patronage were closed to him; by necessity and (one suspects predominantly) by inclination, Arne was essentially a theatre composer for his entire career, which lasted over half a century to his death in 1778. Moreover, Arne was a prolific, if uneven, composer. Many of his works are, however, lost (including the late setting of Mason’s Caractacus, which according to Samuel Arnold contained ‘some of the brightest and most vigorous emanations of Dr Arne’s genius’). Thus, the title of Gilman’s book is more ambitious than it might first seem.

In the preface, Gilman sets out his threefold purpose: to provide ‘a comprehensive biography and account of the performance and publication of Arne’s works during his lifetime’ (p. 1); to consider ‘Arne’s social context’ (p. 2); and to offer ‘description and analysis of numerous representative musical illustrations drawn from vocal works for the theatre spanning Arne’s career’ (p. 3). After a ‘Polemical Introduction’, the book is arranged chronologically in fourteen chapters, the first of which is a substantial biographical account. Also included are two useful appendices: transcriptions of correspondence between Arne and David Garrick, and a transcription of Arne’s will. The bibliography could have benefitted from division into primary and secondary sources; it is substantial, although there are some surprising omissions: most glaring is Irena Cholij’s 1995 Ph.D. thesis ‘Music in Eighteenth-Century London Shakespeare Productions’, which offers a tremendous wealth of information concerning Arne’s Shakespearean settings.

The ‘Polemical Introduction’ is a reprint of a 2009 article published in Eighteenth-Century Studies, ‘Arne, Handel, the Beautiful, and the Sublime’. Here Gilman rightly points out that theatre music needs to be understood in its original context, something that is often not possible in commercial sound recordings and detrimental to composers such as Arne (p. 3). I feel he is on less sure ground, however, when proposing that the neglect of Arne’s music in the nineteenth century was largely to do with contemporary ‘critical aesthetics of the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime’ (p. 4); in short, Arne’s music was regarded as ‘the musically beautiful’ while Handel’s was ‘sublime’, and this perceived superficiality of Arne’s music led to his neglect. But regardless of the distance at which they are viewed, not every star shines with equal luminosity. Arne was capable of writing some truly excellent music, but he had a remarkable capacity at the other end of the quality scale too. One also has to contend with the incomplete state of many of the works (i.e. surviving only in vocal scores, lacking recitatives and choruses, etc.), not to mention those lost to theatre fires as well as Michael Arne’s feckless handling of his father’s manuscripts post mortem. The result is a frustratingly incomplete picture that has surely been most detrimental to Arne’s later reception. But regardless of whether one is swayed by Gilman’s arguments, it is striking to find absolutely no attempt made to pursue this line of enquiry. There is certainly ample material for a monograph without this introduction; indeed, the space could easily have been put to better use (e.g. works list, discography, list of sources). Its inclusion is representative of the somewhat ‘kitchen sink’ approach taken throughout the book, which is perhaps best exemplified by the music examples.

Gilman makes the point that much of Arne’s music is not available in recordings: either works haven’t been recorded or they are hard to come by. While it is true that there is a lamentable lack of recordings (particularly of complete works), a good number are widely available and a discography would have been useful. (One may access a comprehensive discography online, at <http://www.allmusic.com/artist/thomas-arne-mn0001161497/compositions>: this site gives details of...

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