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Thomas Arne and his “Overtures”

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Thomas Augustine Arne (March 12, 1710 –March 5, 1778) was a British composer, best known for the patriotic song Rule, Britannia. Arne, who was baptized in the Roman Catholic faith, his mother’s religion, was born and died in London. His father and grandfather were both upholsterers and both became officials of the City Company of Upholsterers. His grandfather fell upon hard times and died in the Marshalsea Prison for debtors. Arne’s father earned enough money not only to rent a large house in Covent Garden but also to have Arne educated at Eton College. But later in life, he also managed to lose most of his wealth and had to earn extra cash by acting as a numberer of the boxes at Drury Lane Theatre.

Arne was so keen on music that he smuggled a spinet into his room and, damping the sounds with his handkerchief, would secretly practice during the night while the rest of the family slept. He also dressed up as a liveryman in order to gain access to the gallery of the Italian Opera. It was at the opera that Arne first met the musician and composer Michael Festing, who was a major influence on him. Festing not only taught him to play the violin, but also took him to various musical events, including going to hear Thomas Roseingrave compete for the post of organist at Hanover Square, and a visit to Oxford in 1733 to hear George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Athalia.

Upon leaving school, Arne was articled to a solicitor for three years. However, Arne’s father discovered his son leading a group of musicians at what was probably one of Festing’s musical gatherings. Following this disclosure of his son’s real interest and talent, he was persuaded, probably by Festing, to allow the young Arne to give up his legal career and to pursue music as a living. Arne’s sister, Susannah Maria Arne, was a famous contralto, who performed in some of his works at Drury Lane, including his first opera, Rosamund. Between 1733 and 1776, Arne wrote music for about 90 stage works, including plays, masques, pantomimes, and opera. Many of his dramatic scores are now lost, probably in the disastrous fire at Covent Garden in 1808.

On March 15, 1737, Arne married singer Cecilia Young. His operas and masques became very popular, and he received the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, at whose country home, Cliveden, the Masque of Alfred, featuring “Rule Britannia”, was debuted in 1740. In 1741, Arne filed a complaint in Chancery pertaining to a breach of musical copyright and claimed that some of his theatrical songs had been printed and sold by Henry Roberts and John Johnson, the London booksellers and music distributors. The matter was settled out of court. Arne was certainly one of the very first composers to have appealed to the law over copyright issues.

In 1750, after an argument with David Garrick, Susannah left Drury Lane for Covent Garden Theatre, and Arne followed. In 1755 he spent a period spent in Dublin. Charlotte Brent, a soprano and former child prodigy. performed in several of Arne’s works, including the role of Sally in his 1760 opera Thomas and Sally and Mandane in his 1762 opera Artaxerxes. During the 1760s Arne frequently collaborated with the Irish writer Isaac Bickerstaffe. Thomas and Sally was the first English comic opera to be sung throughout (it contained no dialogue). Artaxerxes was one of the most successful and influential English operas of the 18th century and is the only known attempt to write an Italianate, Metastasian opera seria, in the English language.

In 1769 Arne composed the song Soft Flowing Avon, with lyrics by David Garrick, for the Shakespeare Jubilee held by Garrick in Stratford-upon-Avon to commemorate the life of William Shakespeare. He also wrote a version of God Save the King, which was to become the British national anthem, and the song A-Hunting We Will Go. Arne and his wife had one son, Michael Arne, who was also a composer. Arne is buried at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, London. Arne was the leading British theatre composer of the 18th century, with his work at Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

I have the following works by Arne in my collection:
Overture No. 1 in em.
Overture No. 2 in AM.
Overture No. 3 in GM.
Overture No. 4 in FM.
Overture No. 5 in DM.
Overture No. 6 in BbM.
Overture No. 7 in DM.
Overture No. 8 in gm.

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