We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored
Richard Taruskin

The fortunes of music in England, and of theatrical music in particular, took a decisive turn with the Stuart Restoration, the reestablishment of the British monarchy less than a dozen years after its abolition. Charles II, the 30-year-old son of the deposed king, was summoned back from France, where he had been exiled (with interludes in Germany and the Netherlands) since 1646, and crowned in 1660. A shrewd diplomat and skillful politician, Charles II reigned relatively peacefully until 1685, the last three years actually as an absolute monarch without a parliament, but—in marked contrast with this father—a very popular despot. One of the sources of his popularity was the cosmopolitan, libertine character of his court, a most welcome contrast with the times that had gone before. It was a court where (in the waggish words of Keith Walker, a literary historian), “anything went, where actresses were regularly rogered, where whores were ennobled to duchesses, where the arts flourished, where if greed wasn’t yet good, hypocrisy certainly was.”20

In its very cynicism, this sentence neatly encapsulates the contemporary attitude toward the arts and their place in the Restoration scheme of things. No matter how heroic or serious their content, they were viewed and cultivated as an aspect of luxurious living on a par with other sensual and gustatory delights. That hedonism, tinged as it was with licentiousness, may seem to us attractive enough; but in the context of seventeenth-century England it meant a resurgence of aristocratic tastes, values, mores, and privileges. We have another choice example of the beneficial effect of absolutist politics—an ugly politics, most would agree today—on the growth of the fine arts; and again the question starts nagging, whether the élite arts that we treasure can truly flourish in a political climate that we would approve.


fig. 3-8 Eleanor (Nell) Gwynn, seventeenth-century English comic actress, as Cupid. She was the mistress of Charles II.

Having spent his late adolescence and early adulthood in France, Charles naturally modeled his idea of kingship not on his tragically aborted father but on his near contemporary (and distant cousin) Louis XIV, for whom song, dance, and theater were both a political symbol and a personal passion. Where the first Charles “had insisted on the divine rights of a king, and the sanctity of his office,” and paid for his insistence with his very life, Charles II, the little sun-king, “lent his coronation robes to the players in the recently re-established playhouse,” as Walker reminds us, and counted many of them among his friends and intimates. He famously fathered two sons by the actress Nell Gwynn, the leading lady of the London stage and the most celebrated of his many mistresses. Leaving behind no legitimate offspring, he was succeeded by his brother, James II, a confessed Catholic whose short and troubled reign was cut short by the Glorious Revolution that finally put an end to absolutist politics in England.

This was the atmosphere that conditioned the “Restoration period,” the brilliant rebirth of English art and literature—and music, too, but on a new footing. The theater that Charles II reestablished and revived was, to an extent previously unimaginable in England, a musical (or better, a musicalized) theater. While opera as such remained with a few equivocal exceptions beyond the pale, virtually all plays featured specially composed musical scores (what is now called “incidental music”), often the work of teams or committees of composers. They consisted typically of a French-style overture, dances and jigs (the latter being not a specific dance but a song-and-dance medley), songs (chiefly for minor or allegorical characters), and instrumental curtain-music (“act tunes”) for the end of each act. No more sad pavans would be composed in England—in fact no more pavans or galliards of any kind. The Restoration at last brought English music up-to-date vis-à-vis the continent.

In addition, most Restoration plays included masques of a much more elaborate type than their Elizabethan or Jacobean predecessors. Restoration masques were extended song-and-dance interludes—sometimes with spoken dialogue, sometimes with recitatives, often only tenuously related or even unrelated to the main plot but with well-defined dramatic plots of their own. At their most elaborate they could amount to virtual one-act operas or opera-ballets. An especially resonant example of the type was the masque interpolated into the fourth act of The Empress of Morocco, a heroic drama by Elkanah Settle, the Lord Poet of London, first performed at the royally patronized Duke’s Theater in Lincoln’s Inn (later called the Dorset Garden) in 1673. It took the form of a miniature Venetian-style opera on the time-honored subject of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Its composer was Matthew Locke (ca. 1622–77), who seems already to have been in Charles’s employ during his Netherlands exile, and who became the leading stage musician of the early Restoration period. Equally adept at dance compositions in the French manner and recitatives in the Italian, Locke was the virtual inventor of a peculiarly English mixed genre called the “dramatick opera” (or “semi-opera,” as it is now usually called) in collaboration with the playwright Thomas Shadwell and Thomas Betterton, the manager of Dorset Garden, who had seen Lully’s works in Paris and wanted to create something comparable for the suddenly ready English market.

Semi-operas, in effect, were comedies-ballets or tragédies lyriques adapted to the tastes, and above all to the longstanding prejudices, of the English theatergoing public. To the decorative songs and dances and instrumental tunes of the masque, now present in greater profusion than ever, was added the spectacular stage machinery for which the French court opera was particularly renowned. The major compromise was the insistence that major characters never sing, following the old pre-Lullian prejudice (quoted earlier in this chapter from Pierre Corneille) that sung words are poorly understood, and that therefore a sung drama could not really be a drama but only a concert in costume. The result was a peculiar split between protagonists who never sang and incidental characters who only sang, making the new genre quite literally a semi-sung play.

Some of the most celebrated semi-operas were adaptations of Shakespeare—or, rather, readaptations of the lightweight Shakespeare adaptations, often by poet laureate John Dryden, that were standard on the Restoration stage. The first major success was The Tempest (1674), in which Ariel was the main singing character. The music was supplied by a committee of five, headed by Locke. Perhaps the greatest and most ambitious “dramatick opera”—certainly the most lavish and expensive according to Curtis Price, the leading historian of the early English musical stage—was The Fairy Queen, based on an anonymous adaptation (probably Betterton’s) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.21 It was produced at Dorset Garden in 1692, with music by a former pupil of Locke named Henry Purcell.


(20) Keith Walker, “In the Merry Monarchy,” Times Literary Supplement, 1 September 1995, p. 26.

(21) Curtis Price, Henry Purcell and the London Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 320.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03010.xml