The English 18th-century chamber cantata is a relatively unexplored music genre. More than four hundred of these works are to be found in the British Library and other institutions, and with the exception of Arne's 'Cymon and Iphigenia' few have appeared in modern editions. It is difficult to understand why these attractive works, many written by eminent composers of the day, have been so neglected by modern performers.
Composed for the amateur market there are examples to be discovered by the better known English composers of the period - Arne, Boyce and Stanley and many more by lesser known, but nonetheless gifted, musicians of the 'second rank'.
According to Sir John Hawkins' A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, published in 1776, 'That elegant species of vocal composition, the cantata, was invented by Carissimi, an Italian'. Charles Burney, however, claims that 'the term cantata (was first) used for a short narrative poem in the Musiche varie a voce sola of Signor Bendetto Farrari da Reggio, printed in Venice in 1638'. (A General History of Music, 1789).
Johann Christoph Pepusch, whose 'Six English Cantatas' were published by Walsh in 1710, claimed they were 'The first Essays of the Kind, written for the most part several Years ago as an Experiment of introducing a sort of composition which had never before been naturalised in our Language.'
Early English cantatas with their Italianate recitatives and da capo arias gave composers an opportunity to work in the Italian operatic style. Indeed each cantata is, in effect, a miniature opera. Fanciful plots are played out in the timeless dream world of Virgil's Arcadia, the home of pastoral poetry and song. Set for a small number of performers, the chamber cantata enabled a little of the drama, if not the spectacle of the opera house, to be enjoyed in the 18th-century drawing room.
There is a copy of Cymon and Iphigenia in Jane Austen's music collection and we can imagine her sitting at her square piano ('as good a one as can be got for 20 guineas') in the sitting room of the cottage in Chawton, Hampshire, which she shared with her mother and sister Cassandra, enacting the romantic tale.
Each cantata tells a brief but complete story. Short recitatives set the scene and move the action along followed by attractive, tuneful and approachable arias. Far removed from the stresses of modern life (and no doubt the lives of contemporary musicians) the imagined pastoral dream world is inhabited by nymphs, shepherds and the gods and goddesses of classical mythology.
Cupid, the Roman God of desire, that rather chubby, impish, winged boy with his mischievous bow and arrow, often has a significant contribution to make to the story lines. There is usually a moral to be drawn or a lesson to be learned, but plot lines, almost invariably involving love, unrequited or otherwise, are reassuringly ephemeral 'calculated rather to entertain the Fancy rather than to improve the Understanding' (Hawkins). Throughout history, however, an important role of popular music has been to portray a naïve, idealistic and escapist view of the world.
We can but speculate on the nature of contemporary performances. As a minimum, one singer and a continuo instrument are required, but occasionally there are obligato instrumental parts as in John Broderip's exposition of the power of music in 'On Voice and Beauty'. It's possible that grander, costumed performances took place for the country house entertainment and amusement of the well-to-do, perhaps with vocal parts shared among several performers. After all, here was an opportunity to recreate some of the gesture and the drama of the opera house in one's own home.
Above all this is music to enjoy, whether as performer or audience. The sentiments can be exaggerated and you can immerse yourself in the idyllic pastoral world of Belinda, Teraminta, Eurillo and all of the other idle frolickers in the charming and engaging world of the English chamber cantata.
- Peter Harrison
Peter Harrison's edition of SIX ENGLISH CANTATAS is published by GREEN MAN PRESS www.greenmanpress-music.co.uk