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  • King Arthur and the Critics
  • Brian Corman

King Arthur has had a continuous, if not entirely regular, performance history since its premier in 1691. Bursts of activity, such as those in the 1730s and 1770s and those in recent anniversary years such as 1995 and 2009 have been accompanied by much leaner years over its 300-year history. Moreover, both the texts and the performances of what have been presented under the name of King Arthur have varied greatly over time. Michael Burden has argued quite persuasively that 1842 was a particularly significant date in King Arthur’s performance history, marking a change from what can only be called bad to worse. Earlier productions had taken liberties with the text and music, adapting it for later audiences, making cuts, changing instrumentation—all part of the usual life cycle of an operatic work. What was different about Macready’s Drury Lane production of 1842 was its outright rejection of the original as viable in favor of a version that worked with only those elements that were deemed salvageable from a work considered fundamentally beyond redemption. Burden dubbed this and subsequent like-minded productions “Purcell Debauch’d.” My argument in this paper is that King Arthur’s sad performance history has been accompanied by an equally sad critical history, and that this critical history paved the way for and then supported the debauchery that followed. Like Burden, I believe that King Arthur deserves more frequent and better productions than it has seen. I also believe that a more well-informed criticism can play a vital role in achieving this goal. This paper rehearses King Arthur’s critical history. It should also provide some context for the current scholarship in this collection.

I begin with a confession. I have what by now can only be called an addiction to old literary histories and critical studies, especially those written before the Second World War. I suspect that I’ve read more of them than most, and I [End Page 5] continue to enjoy reading them at a time when literary scholarship is far more specialized and technical than it was when these works were the mainstay of literary studies. What started as light reading became far more self-conscious and, progressively, far more part of my own scholarship with the rise of studies of literary canons and the beginnings of a return to respectability of evaluative criticism, that long out-of-favor mainstay of the earlier, more belle-lettristic critics. King Arthur brings a new dimension to this interest. Restoration dramatic opera is a model hybrid form, bringing together, as it does, unsung with sung text. And King Arthur is unique in offering a work expressly written in this form (rather than an older play adapted to it like The Tempest or The Fairy Queen). It also offers an opportunity to look at a collaborative effort between England’s greatest poet and greatest composer of the late seventeenth century. So King Arthur offered me a chance not only to look at old histories of music and opera, but also to compare the critical responses of music historians to Purcell’s work with those of literary historians to Dryden’s.

Earlier experience led me to bring certain expectations to this study. Cultural historians are a conservative lot and often quite lazy. I knew this first hand about literary historians, and was not surprised to find it also true of music historians. Once formed, canons, be they of plays, operas, or music, do change, but they do so slowly and cautiously. And judgments once offered are more likely to be repeated than rethought or challenged. The changes and the challenges are there, but they are far less frequent than the endorsements, often unacknowledged, of received opinion.

Literary history and music history as we know them are largely inventions of the mid-to-late eighteenth century. The first important comprehensive English literary history was Thomas Warton’s The History of English Poetry (1774–81). The first important comprehensive music histories in English were Sir John Hawkins’s A General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776) and Charles Burney’s A General History of Music...


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