Samuel Johnson lived in London during a struggle between English and foreign composers—epitomized by the rivalry between Händel and Thomas Arne—and witnessed its climax, which was to have a devastating impact on English musical morale through the 19th century.
During Johnson’s first decade in London this rivalry was characterized by Händel concentrating on his own affairs and ignoring Arne, while Arne was highly conscious and jealous of Händel. Their fortunes fluctuated, the one prevailing in public taste and then the other, but the spectacular performance of Händel’s 1749 Music for the royal fireworks, HWV 351, and the triumphant revival of his Messiah the next year finally established him as London’s pre-eminent composer. When he retired from the music scene in 1759 neither Arne nor any other English composer managed to achieve comparable public acclaim.
The 1784 commemoration of Händel at Westminster Abbey featured some 275 singers and an orchestra of about 250. Johnson chose to go to Oxford that week, but Boswell, having accompanied Johnson there, returned to London after three days to attend the event. Although Johnson died that year, he had lived to see the victory of a composer whose work would prove as enduring as his own.
This according to “Music in Johnson’s London” by Bruce Simonds, an essay included in The age ofJohnson: Essays presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949, pp. 411–420).
Below, Händel’s 1749 work with appropriate visuals.
What was the interplay between plumbing and the routines of audience behavior at London’s 18th-century opera house? A simple question, perhaps, but it proves to be a subject with scarce evidence, and even scarcer commentary.
“Pots, privies and WCs: Crapping at the opera in London before 1830” by Michael Burden (Cambridge opera journal XXIII/1–2 [March–July 2011] pp. 27–50) sets out to document as far as possible the developments in plumbing in the London theaters, moving from the chamber pot to the privy to the installation of the first water-closets, addressing questions of the audience’s general behavior, the beginnings in London of a listening audience, and the performance of music between the acts.
Burden concludes that the bills were performed without intervals, and that, in an evening that frequently ran to four hours in length, audience members moved around the auditorium and came and went much as they pleased (to the pot, privy, or WC), demonstrating that singers would have had to contend throughout their performances with a large quantity of low-level noise.
When Elton John returned to London in 1991 after six weeks in an addiction recovery center it was essential to establish a new home that was free of associations with his former compulsive behavior. He rented Queensdale Place, fell in love with it, and bought and completely redecorated it with Biedermeier furniture and Regency and Neoclassical artwork.
Over the years Sir Elton’s passion turned to collecting photography and contemporary art, and in 2003 he decided that Queensdale would be the perfect context for exhibiting and enjoying his new collection. The auction of his former collection is documented in Elton John and his London lifestyle: London, Tuesday, 30 September 2003 (London: Sotheby’s, 2003).
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