Henry Carey (c. August 26, 1687 –October 5, 1743) was an English poet, dramatist, and song-writer, chiefly known for his ballads, especially “Sally in Our Alley,” which appeared in a collection of his best poems set to music, called The Musical Century (1737), who is remembered as an anti-Walpolean satirist and also as a patriot. Carey was born in England around August 26, 1687. Aside from rumor, it is impossible to be sure of Carey’s parents. It is possible that a Henry and a Mary Carey, both school teachers, were his parents. Indeed his first profession, according to Richard Hawkins, was as a music teacher in a boarding school for the middle gentry, a position he held while also working as an author, so these two Careys are the most likely candidates for his parents. It is now suggested that he was the illegitimate grandson son of George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax.
Carey went to London (perhaps from Yorkshire) sometime before 1713, when his first book of poems was published. Scholars have trouble identifying Carey’s first works, because he was probably writing anonymously. His first accredited work was a weekly publication of a set of serialized romance fictions entitled Records of Love in January through March 1710. This work was aimed at a female readership and was written with a clear expectation of an intelligent, educated, and populous set of readers. He also appears as a singer of Italian and English entre-acte songs at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane around 1710. His first poetry publication came in 1713, the year of the height of the Tory ministry under Queen Anne, with Poems on Several Occasions. Carey studied music and began to work for the theatre, often providing both words and music for a number of farces, burlesques, ballad operas, and interludes
In 1714, Carey had a job as a psalmist at Lincoln’s Inn church and also at Drury Lane. He performed there with his music students. Critically, the Tory ministry fell with the death of Anne, and Robert Walpole’s Whigs were on the rise. In 1715, Carey wrote his first play, an afterpiece entitled The Contrivances. On July 13, 1717, Carey lost both of his jobs, at Drury Lane and at Lincoln’s Inn, for a singular political statement. Even though Carey lost those two jobs, he was soon back at Drury Lane, and he married Elizabeth Pearks in September. He produced his second play, Hanging and Marriage, in 1722. The theatrical seasons of 1723 and 1724 were dominated by pantomime and spectacle plays in London, and Carey worked providing the music to some of these productions. In 1723, he wrote the music for Harlequin Dr. Faustus, with text, such as it was, by Barton Booth, at Drury Lane. From 1723 to 1733, Carey was the “unofficial composer in residence” for Drury Lane, and he wrote and performed much of the music between acts, preludes, and epilogue music, as well as the music called for by dances and other entertainments in the plays.
Carey’s poem, Namby Pamby (1725), satirized Ambrose Philips who was a frequent and famous target of Alexander Pope’s wrath. Carey was an admirer and subscriber to the operas of Handel, but he, like John Gay and Alexander Pope, thought that the operatic stars were absurd. Therefore, he began to satirize opera in 1726 and in that year he produced Faustina, or, the Roman Songstress, a satire of Faustina Bordoni. Faustina was at that time in a hissing fight with Francesca Cuzzoni and actually came to blows the next year during a performance of Handel. In the next year, he wrote Mocking is Catching to satirize Senesino, the Italian castrati opera star. In 1730, he added music and introduced ballads for his previous play, Hanging and Marriage, and put the play on as The Clown’s Stratagem. He used the basic text of the play again, with new music, for Betty, or, The Country Bumpkins in 1732. These two characteristics—a love of opera and frustration at its abuses and a love of patriotism and frustration at Walpole’s policies—would show up in all of Carey’s professional works. In the same year, Carey may have been the first to sing “God Save the King” at a Patriot Whig meeting, and there is some reason to attribute the song to him. The earliest published version of God Save the King (for two voices) seems to date from the early 1740s.
As a playwright, Carey was a significant figure in the re-emergence of satirical drama in the 1730s. After the success of Namby Pamby, Carey was favored by the older generation of Tory wits and the Scriblerus Club. After John Gay’s invention of the ballad opera with The Beggar’s Opera, Carey turned to writing musical burlesques. He wrote a great deal of music and some librettos for other playwrights during this period. In 1732, J. F. Lampe, Thomas Arne, J. C. Smith and Henry Carey began the English Opera project. Their goal was to revive serious opera in English. Together, they formed the English Opera Company, and Carey wrote two librettos, for Amelia (set by Lampe and acted at the Little Theatre at The Haymarket (an opposition playhouse favored by Henry Fielding)) and Teraminta (set by Smith and performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields). Amelia was a great popular success, but the opera company failed, and the project came to nought.
Carey worked as a “subaltern” to James Worsdale later in his life, in 1734, when he was best paid and most famous. Having satirized the foreignness of opera, in 1734 Carey turned his attention to the poorly written, mass-produced tragedy. Chrononhotonthologos, his best known theatre work, was a parody of bombastic tragedy and, particularly, the very hack-written spectacle plays he had collaborated on at Drury Lane. The play was daring, for it was a satire of Caroline of Ansbach and George II of the United Kingdom. He followed up with perhaps his best work, the ballad farce The Honest Yorkshire-Man of 1735.
Interestingly, although Carey’s attempt to revive serious, patriotic English opera did not work, his attempts at parody and satire in opera did. He had previously satirized the exoticism and emptiness of the English public’s love of prima donna singers and castrati, but in 1737, he adapted The Dragon of Wantley from a Lincolnshire folk ballad into a full mock-opera with music by John Frederick Lampe. From 1737 to 1740, he wrote The Musical Century in one Hundred English Ballads in two volumes. Also in 1738, he helped found the Fund for Decayed Musicians, and he produced Margery, or, a Worse Plague than the Dragon, a sequel to The Dragon of Wantley. He had another popular success in 1739 with Nancy, or, The Parting Lovers, a patriotic play about a sailor leaving his beloved to fight against the Spanish.
Despite the popularity of his work, Carey suffered great poverty, largely because his plays and poems were widely pirated by unscrupulous printers. His commissions fell off after 1740. Some speculate that Carey suffered from paranoia, while others have suspected that he had depression or other maladies. Carey’s son, Charles, died in 1743. Heavily in debt and despondent over financial difficulties, Carey himself died at his home in London later that year, on October 5, 1743. He left a pregnant second wife (Sarah, whom he married between 1729 and 1733) and three dependent children. His son later claimed that his father was the author and composer of “God Save the Queen,” but while generally accepted, this claim is unproved.
Henry Carey never ceased to be a composer nor to work as a singer and musician. Even as he began to have greater success as a poet and playwright, he continued to work in music. Several of his melodies continue to be sung today, and he was widely praised in the generation after his death. Because he worked in anonymity, selling his own compositions to others to pass off as their own, contemporary scholarship can only be certain of some of his poetry, and a great deal of the music he composed was written for theatrical incidental music. However, under his own name and hand, he was a prolific song writer and balladeer, and he wrote the lyrics for almost all of these songs. Further, he wrote numerous operas and plays. His life is illustrative of the professional author in the early 18th century. Without inheritance or title or governmental position, he wrote for all of the remunerative venues, and yet he also kept his own political point of view and was able to score significant points against the ministry of the day. Further, he was one of the leading lights of the new “Patriotic” movement in drama.
Henry Carey’s work has been tarred with allegations of triviality since his own day. He had an extraordinary gift with melody and wordplay, and later authors, such as Edward Lear, would cite Carey as a predecessor for his tongue twisters and nonsense verse. At the same time, Carey’s productions were noted in his own day for their political acuity and bravery, even foolhardiness. He was willing to offend and suffer the consequences of his convictions, but he made his political statements in a diverting and apparently frivolous manner, thereby allowing his friends to respond to his politics and his enemies to dismiss his levity. In the Macaulay-dominated view of literary history of the early 20th-century, Carey was represented as a balladeer whose plays, now devoid of topicality, were set as broad entertainments. Musicologists have recognized, however, the subtle gifts necessary for Carey’s music, and theater historians are beginning to recognize the context of his plays. He was the most prolific English song composer of 1715–1740, and he wrote his own lyrics to all but twelve of his two hundred and fifty songs. He was responsible for linking the vocal style of Henry Purcell to the later style of Arne by combining popular English folk song and tavern song with Italian flourishes.
My collection includes the following work by Henry Carey:
God Save the Queen (attributed).