The Music Scene in 18th century London
Foreign composers and performers dominated the musical scene in London. After the time of Henry Purcell, a prolific British composer of the 17th century, no major British composers made a significant mark until the late 18th century. The main forms of performed music were concerts, operas, oratorios, and chamber music.
Italian operas were performed in London and became a popular form of entertainment when Georg Frideric Handel came into the London music scene. His was the greatest influence over the entire music world of the that time, and his operas and oratorios found their height of popularity in London.
England was the first country to develop the concert as a popular event. Over one hundred concert venues were in regular use in London in the middle of the century.24 The important large-scale venues were at Drury Lane, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and Covent Garden, which opened in 1732 and still remains one of the world's major performance venues. One could also hear concerts in livery halls, taverns, clubs, and private residences.
The three main kinds of music that would have been heard at these concerts were all Italian forms: sonatas, concertos, and operas.25 Music in the home (chamber music) was also influenced by foreign composers. Only in the songs and catches of the street could one find more indigenous music. Later, a few British composers made an effort to find their own voice, but their music was still influenced by the late-baroque, western scene.
The rise of the middle class contributed greatly to the expansion of the musical scene throughout the century. The growth of the mercantile class through trade meant that more people had social mobility. An improvement in life, both fiscally and economically, led to a more status-conscious society. Participating in the music scene was desirable as a symbol of upward mobility. Furthermore, the expansion in the field of publication led to a heightened propagation of music.26
The printing boom became the most important factor in the expansion of the musical world. Analogous to the rise in interest in literature as books become more readily available to the masses, so it was with music and the increase of publication of sheet music. More people had access to music and therefore more people performed and listened to music. Because of the social status attached to those who knew and performed music, more people sought to become a part of that classier scene.
The popularity of the Italian opera tradition was mixed in 18th-century England. Some Brits, particularly those who had traveled to Europe on their Grand Tours, liked the tradition, but others were tired of the foreign musical genre. Having a taste for opera was a symbol of cultural prestige and refinement.27 Opera was certainly an expensive hobby, though, and mostly appreciated by the upper class. Italian operas were frequently performed at the Queen's Theater in the Haymarket.28 The controversy surrounding Italian opera inspired writers like Henry Fielding and Henry Carey to publish articles opposing Italian opera; these writers contributed to lowering the public opinion of foreign opera.
The dominance of foreign composers and music permeated the music scene in 18th century England. Some of the most prominent foreign composers were Handel, Bononcini, Clayton, Scarlatti, Steffani, and Albinoni. There were also composers native to England who produced notable works; these composers include Arne, Eccles, Purcell, Boyce, and others.29 During the 18th century there was a constant conflict between the native and Italianate musical styles.
In addition to opera, there were popular songs being performed and published. There were folksongs and folk dances from the English, Scotch, Irish, and Welsh traditions. Many of these songs were passed through generations orally, and many were written down and published in songbooks.30 In addition to folksongs, there were ballads, carols, glees, canons, and catches. These types of songs were popular among all classes and were sung in taverns, coffee houses, homes, and concerts.31