The Beggar’s Opera

Today on Radio Riel we present a pro­gramme of tra­di­tion­al dance music from Play­ford and oth­er sources (includ­ing mod­ern inter­pre­ta­tions from ECD and Mor­ris per­form­ers), plus two pre­sen­ta­tions of John Gay’s The Beg­gar’s Opera (1728), which fea­tures tunes pop­u­lar in the 18th cen­tu­ry (with revised lyrics) arranged by Johann Pepusch.

The Beg­gar’s Opera is a ‘bal­lad opera’ in three acts and is the only exam­ple of the once thriv­ing genre of satir­i­cal bal­lad opera to remain pop­u­lar today. Bal­lad operas were satir­ic musi­cal plays that used some of the con­ven­tions of opera, but with­out recita­tive. The lyrics of the airs in the piece are set to pop­u­lar broad­sheet bal­lads, opera arias, church hymns and folk tunes of the time. Some are the most pop­u­lar tunes by well-known com­posers like Han­del and Pur­cell, but many are folk and folk-dance melodies from around Britain.

The Beg­gar’s Opera pre­miered at the Lin­col­n’s Inn Fields The­atre on 29 Jan­u­ary 1728 and ran for 62 con­sec­u­tive per­for­mances, the longest run in the­atre his­to­ry up to that time. The work satirised Ital­ian opera, which had become pop­u­lar in Lon­don, and stems from a sug­ges­tion by Jonathan Swift to cre­ate a work that fea­tured the ordi­nary peo­ple of Lon­don instead of the kings and princes of Ital­ian opera. The work also satiris­es Wal­pole and his cor­rupt British gov­ern­ment of the time (Gay’s sequel, Pol­ly, was banned by Wal­pole).

The bal­lad opera genre forms an obvi­ous antecedent to the 19th cen­tu­ry work of Gilbert & Sul­li­van, whose satir­i­cal operettas remain pop­u­lar today. The genre can also be cred­it­ed with set­ting the stage for the mod­ern musi­cal. And in 1928, Bertold Brecht wrote an adap­ta­tion of The Beg­gar’s Opera called The Three­pen­ny Opera, includ­ing almost entire­ly new music by Kurt Weill. Its social­ist cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety echoed rever­ber­a­tions that ring on today.

Read more about The Beg­gar’s Opera in Wikipedia.

We will be play­ing the com­plete restored 1962 record­ing con­duct­ed by Max Gob­er­man, at 11am and 7pm Pacif­ic Time (19:00 and 03:00 in the UK).

The pic­ture shows the paint­ing based on The Beg­gar’s Opera, scene 5, by William Hog­a­rth, in the Tate Britain.

Today’s pro­gramme is pre­sent­ed by Elrik Mer­lin. If you are tun­ing in from Cana­da or the Unit­ed States, please click here to hear the pro­gramme. Oth­er­wise, click here to start your play­er, if your brows­er is con­fig­ured to do so.


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