Arne, Thomas (The Bard Comes To Blackheath)


Thomas Arne, was a leading British theatre composer of the 18th century, working at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and popularly remembered for two works.  One of them has probably never missed a promenade concert season, his patriotic song Rule Britannia which was not a sea song at all but from the not very warlike masque, King Alfred, the one who burnt the cakes. He could well have baked those on sale at Gails of Blackheath. Arne is also deserving of royal gratitude, if not royalties, for our current Queen’s signature tune, which, as God Save the King, eventually became the British national anthem.  In point of fact, it is known that there were earlier versions of the tune and many of the words are found in sixteenth century prayers. Still it is down to Dr Arne who gathered these sources for what was to become the anthem of the country in the face of the invasion of 1745 led by the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie.  And what a world of difference there is between Arne’s aristocratic gentlemanly loyal toasts and that of Rouget de Lisle with the blood curdling Marseillaise a mere 47 years later. No better could this be described than by Constant Lambert in Music Ho, written in 1934, my constant bible.  I quote from the section, Nationalism and Democracy, in which he compares works of the aristocratic earlier eighteenth century with later works where national or political feeling is paramount.

“Although Rule Britannia is the best written of national songs, and the Marseillaise, which shares with the Toreador’s Song from Carmen the distinction of being the most clumsily constructed tune that ever became universally popular, it is not surprising to find that the latter has had far more far reaching effects. We can imagine Rule Britannia being played by a ship’s band or being hummed on the quarter deck by some dilletante admiral, but we can hardly hear it sung by sailors as they go into battle. Its classical construction and the operatic nature of its vocalization give to it an aristocratic quality which prevents it from being truly popular in the fullest meaning of the word”

Thomas Arne was born in King Street, Covent Garden on or about 12th March 1710 and baptised at St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, now a backdrop to tight rope walkers and microphone carrying jugglers for the tourists.  His mother was a Catholic and his father a Protestant, something he had in common with Elgar. Thus Arne did not write for the Church as would most composers but nor did he produce a Gerontius either. As a Roman Catholic he was debarred from many of the musical appointments open to others such as a cathedral organist or Master of the King’s Musick.

Arne’s grandfather and father had both been guild members of the Company of Upholsterers. His grandfather had fallen on hard times and died at the Marshalsea prison for debtors. Arne’s father on the other hand earned enough money not only to rent a large house in Covent Garden but also to have his son Thomas educated as a toff at Eton. In later life he would lose most of his wealth and had to earn extra cash acting as a numberer of the boxes at Drury Lane Theatre.

The young Arne was already keen on music and clearly had a natural gift. Like Handel, he had smuggled a spinet into his room, dampened its sounds with a handkerchief, and would secretly practise during the night while the rest of the family slept. Upon leaving school Arne first became articled to a solicitor for three years which would have cost his dad, like my dad, a pretty guinea or two. However he did not see it through. His enthusiasm for music led him to dressing up as a liveryman in order to be able to sneak access to the gallery of the Italian Opera. Here he would meet the composer Michael Festing who became a major influence. Arne’s father had discovered his son leading a group of musicians at what was probably some gig and, probably, persuaded by Festing, agreed to allow Arne to give up his legal career and pursue music as a living.

After his release from articles he was to teach his sister, Susanna, and his brother, Richard to sing. The three of them were amongst a group of musicians who gave a performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea at the Haymarket Theatre in 1732 and would appear with other prominent musicians. Arne’s first composition of importance was his setting of Addison’s ‘Rosamond’, of which little has survived, the story of his posterity. The first performance was a family affair which took place at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1733. It was very successful and was repeated ten times.

In 1736 Arne married Cecilia Young, the daughter of a church organist from Barking. Cecilia was a soprano who already had gained distinction in Handel’s oratorios. It was during the years following his marriage that Arne began to get known by composing three very successful masques in succession. The first of these was ‘Comus’, after John Milton, and was first performed at Drury Lane Theatre in 1738. It got performed many times during Arne’s lifetime and remained popular for a century after his death. It was said to have become a model for what was recognised as typical English music.

Two years later came the second masque, The Judgement of Paris, its final chorus becoming unfortunately lost. It was first performed at a fete given by the Prince of Wales at Cliveden. For the same fete Arne wrote “The Masque of Althred” (sic) which concludes with Rule Britannia. From the end of 1740 through to 1747 Arne composed the music for a series of Shakespeare’s plays; ‘As you Like It’, ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’.

Arne and his wife, Cecilia, set out on what would turn out to be a two year stay in Dublin in 1742 to arrange a benefit concert for Cecilia at which Arne’s sister Susanna also sang, now more famously known on stage as Mrs. Cibber, (pronounced Sibber). Throughout that Dublin music ‘season’ Arne introduced music by Handel as well as his own – including, in 1744, his own oratorio The Death of Abel. This caused me to wonder if there was any linkage with the first performance of Messiah which took place in Dublin and I have come up with A History of Irish Music by William H. Grattan Flood (1905) from which I set out the following truncated quotes:


“Apropos of Handel’s Messiah, which was to have been performed at Fishamble-street on December 16th, an interesting announcement was published some days previously: “The Charitable Musical Society having obtained from the celebrated Mr. Handell a copy of the score of the Grand Musical Entertainment called The Messiah, they intended to have it rehearsed on the 12th, and performed on the 16th December for the benefit of prisoners confined for debt, but, to the surprise of the Society, several of the choir members thought fit to decline performing and returned their parts and the entertainment postponed till Friday, February 3rd.

On December 21st, Dr. and Mrs. Arne assisted at a benefit at Fishamble-street for Signor Barbatielli. This took the shape of a grand concert.

At a performance of Lampe’s Dragon of Wantley, Mrs. Arne took a comic part for the first time; and she had a benefit at the Theatre Royal, Aungier-street, on January 28th, when Mr. Arne appeared as an actor for the first—and last—time in his life, taking the part of Henry, Prince of Wales, in Henry IV. A fortnight previously, the Beggar’s Opera, at the same theatre, conducted by Mr. Arne, was a great success, and a repeat performance on January 23rd was equally well received.

At the Music Hall, Fishamble-street, on Tuesday, February 7th, the Charitable Musical Society “for the Relief of Poor Prisoners,” gave The Messiah, “postponed from the 3rd February.” On February 27th this performance was repeated by the same Society for the benefit of the Charitable Infirmary.

On Saturday, February 18th, Arne’s new oratorio, The Death of Abel, was given for the first time at the Theatre Royal, Smock-alley, the principal part being taken by Mrs. Arne.

Mr. Arne gave his Serenata of Alfred—being its first production—at the Theatre Royal, Smock-alley, on March 10th, 1744. This serenata concludes with a favourable Ode in honour of Great Britain, beginning, “When Britain first at Heaven’s command,” better known as “Rule Brittania.” Five days later Arne conducted the Beggar’s Opera.

Mr. and Mrs. Arne, after a two years stay, left Dublin in July, 1744, Arne having been appointed director of the music at Drury-lane Theatre, and subsequently composer at Vauxhall Gardens.”


Back in England there was worrying concern as to the possible outcome of the 1745 rebellion.  The army of Charles Edward Stuart had crossed the border and eventually made its way as far south as Derby. Arne introduced his own setting of God Save the King at the Drury Lane Theatre – sung by ‘the Gentlemen of the House’ every night, a fashion which caught on. This brought about patriotic fervour, something of the Blitz spirit, with similar responses in the theatres. It was not until Victoria, a hundred years later, that this became the national anthem.

In 1745 Arne was engaged as composer to Vauxhall Gardens, and wrote the pastoral dialogue ‘Colin and Phoebe,’ which proved so successful that it was performed throughout the entire season. He held that engagement for some twenty years, during which he composed not only for the Vauxhall Gardens but also for Ranelagh and Marylebone Gardens, an immense number of songs. I am therefore at this juncture taking a diversionary tour around these venues, so relevant to the background to Thomas Arne

Vauxhall Gardens was launched, or rather re-launched, in 1732 as the first and most significant of the pleasure gardens of Georgian London. Unlike the parks they were open in the evening not the working day; anybody who could afford the admission price and who was at least respectably dressed would be admitted. They only were closed when the last visitors left, which could be well into the following morning. The season lasted from early May until late August, depending on the weather. One of its great attractions was the artificial illumination, lit up after sunset. Before the lights, Vauxhall was a respectable wooded park where families with children could safely enjoy a rural promenade; after dark, the walks, became inhabited by courting couples, but sometimes by sexual predators and pickpockets, not that the newly formed Bow Street Runners would have had patrol duties there.   It was situated south of the river near the village of Kennington and then in the county of Surrey. There is still a remnant in the form of a small public park on South Lambeth Road. Westminster Bridge itself was the first to be constructed since London Bridge, but it wasn’t opened till 1750. So. access itself from London was by boat which would stoke up excitement for the evening.

From 1729, Vauxhall Gardens had come under the management of Jonathan Tyers, a property developer from Bermondsey, impresario, patron of the arts when the gardens grew into an extraordinary business of modern painting (Hogarth) and architecture, and a music venue vital to the careers of both Arne and Handel. The Music for the Royal Fireworks by Handel was first rehearsed there with up to 12,000 paying customers before its official first performance in Green Park.

Arne was taken on by Tyers in 1745, as his in-house composer, and effectively director of music. It was Arne who persuaded Tyers to introduce songs into his programmes, alongside instrumental music and organ concertos as popular in their day as the Tower Ballroom was in Blackpool between the two wars. From that time, the Vauxhall song, usually pastoral ballads, love songs or patriotic airs, became the mainstay of the entertainment there. The songs were not only written by English composers and lyricists, but they were also sung in English by British singers, so were much easier to understand than the Italian opera which was fashionable among the gentry. Published song-sheets were marketed to spread the fame of Vauxhall to drawing-rooms all over the country. With over a 1,000 visitors every evening during the hundred or so days of summer, Vauxhall, created the first true mass audience for high-quality music and popular songs.

Ranelagh Gardens in contrast was opened in April 1742 in direct competition to Vauxhall. The site with direct river access was part of the Royal Hospital located in the village of Chelsea, nowadays host to the Chelsea Flower Show. The centrepiece, from the beginning, was a vast rotunda modelled on the Pantheon in Rome and a painting of which was made by Canaletto. It was obvious to Tyers at Vauxhall that this was going to be major competition and he responded by buying up the neighbouring field so as to stop the Ranelagh proprietors from being able to expand the site.

It was touch and go to start with, with the lessee going bankrupt and then bailed out by a new share issue. It didn’t quite make it like Vauxhall. Ranelagh was just not naughty enough. It attracted royalty and aristocracy and kept out the hoi polloi. Horace Walpole, son of the prime minister was initially enthusiastic when, after it opened, he wrote “It has totally beat Vauxhall… You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince, or Duke of Cumberland.” Yet it had its problems with the centre of the rotunda proving to have dreadful acoustics and its circular walk being as no way magical as Vauxhall. It was expensive, half a crown to enter, no strong drink, no gambling, somewhat staid and cramped. It soldiered on however until 1805.

Marylebone Gardens is the least known of the three. It was situated in the area which is now between Marylebone Road, Marylebone High Street, Harley Street and part of Devonshire Street. Originally it consisted of two bowling greens surrounded by a high brick wall with fruit trees. It was reorganized as a venue for concerts and other entertainments. In 1738 an organ was installed. To give shelter, halls were added in 1739, and the entrance fee was sixpence to keep out the riff-raff. Later in the mid 1750’s it was extended to public dinners and breakfasts and the popular Marylebone tarts and cakes were sold from 3 o’clock.

Marylebone Gardens is mentioned by John Gay in The Beggar’s Opera (1728) as a haunt for its character, the highwayman Macheath. The real life highwayman Dick Turpin had visited in the 1720s. Little surprise then that the gardens were used by cardsharps for, amongst other entertainments, gambling, cock-fighting, bull-baiting and boxing matches with both male and female contestants, the me-toos of modern Olympics.

As a concert venue, many of London’s musicians and composers, including Arne and Handel were having their works performed here. Under James Hook the Gardens in 1769 held an annual festival every summer and were also famous for their regular firework displays.

The whole area northward from Cavendish Square was just beginning to be developed by the Portland, Harley and the Howard de Walden Estates (all sprouts from the same aristocrat family) and the pleasure gardens were eventually built over in 1778. They became swallowed up between the London Clinic and the King Edward VII Hospital alongside Harley Street and its  myriad of medics.  Just as Ranelagh Gardens had once been a mecca for entertainment for royals of its day, so the Marylebone Estate is now the magnet for today’s royals and state presidents to tend to their health woes.


Now, reverting to Drury Lane, back in 1750, there was a falling out by Mrs Cibber with David Garrick over her salary and she jumped ship by crossing to Covent Garden Theatre. Arne followed her there where ensued a battle between the two theatres ending five years later when Mrs. Cibber decided to return to Drury Lane.

Relations between Arne and his wife had not been exactly perfect for some years and they got worse during their 1755 trip to Ireland. A number of concerts were postponed on account of Mrs. Arne’s ‘illness’ which Arne himself described as ‘raving madness’. Their marriage was at breaking point. There was no legal procedure of divorce and, in any event, they were Catholics. They parted and terms were agreed for legal separation with him paying permanent alimony of £40 per year.  She stayed on in Dublin. He returned to London with his pupil Miss Brent.

Back in London Arne published his Eight Sets of Lessons for the Harpsichord, the Seven Sonatas for two Violins as well as collections of songs sung at the public gardens in 1759, the year when Handel died. Arne was able to step into his shoes and was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Music by Oxford University. He was proud of it and made sure he was addressed as such.  Haydn received his doctorate in 1791 and he was chuffed as it made him feel equal amongst his superiors.   

Arne also managed to obtain a singing part for his pupil Miss Brent in a successful revival of The Beggar’s Opera at Covent Garden. Was there something going on there?   In 1762 Arne put on a performance of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast. John Stanley and John Christopher Smith who had taken on the performing of Handel’s oratorios since his death caused a ruckus. In retaliation they put on performances of various Handel oratorios on the same nights as Arne. Arne was the one who climbed down. That year saw Arne’s greatest ever success, the performance of his opera Artaxerxes at Covent Garden. It remained a favourite with the public and was performed regularly until well into the 19th Century. Haydn was so impressed when he saw it that he said he, “had no idea we had such an opera in the English Language”.

In 1766 Mrs. Cibber died and Miss Brent married the young virtuoso violinist, Pinto, who had taken over management at Marylebone Gardens. Arne continued on and his music took a new direction. By the following year his set of Four Symphonies were published, a move towards the increasingly popular classical style of J.C. Bach (who had lived in London for five years) and that also of Haydn.

There followed further revivals of Artaxerxes in the theatre, one with Miss Brent, (now Mrs. Pinto) proving very successful. Earlier productions had resulted in riots following a decision to abolish half-price admission fees after the interval.

With the disappointment of his own production, Arne did less work for the Theatre but became a member of the Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Catch Club and the Madrigal Society – very English. He gave yearly concerts, which he claimed were ‘the first entertainment of the kind exhibited in this, or any other kingdom”, at Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens, comprising songs, catches and glees. Unfortunately, the lack of theatre work reduced his income considerably and in 1770 his wife threatened legal action after he fell behind in his regular payments to her by £10.

All good stories have a happy or a sad end. Here we have both. In October 1777, after a separation of more than 20 years, Thomas and Cecilia Arne became reunited. Unfortunately, their happiness at being back together only lasted a mere five months when Thomas Arne, Doctor of Music and member of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, fell seriously ill and died on 5th March 1778. He was buried where he was baptised, at St Pauls in Covent Garden.

Why is it we do not know more about the man who wrote God Save the King and Rule Britannia? Apart from his patriotic tunes and songs, Arne’s music went into almost  total eclipse, much of it burned in the Drury Lane fire of 1809. His stage works, numbered over a hundred. Only 14 survive. Greenwich Park, which might have been of local interest was one lost. He developed a unique English style. He left extant some odes, operas, the oratorio Judith, sacred music, four symphonies, several overtures, six keyboard concerti, chamber music, and many fine pop songs for the pleasure gardens and particularly settings of Shakespeare.

He seems to have been a man of many talents and of great fun, a composer (like Matthew Taylor) who lived the greater part of his life to the full in and around Covent Garden, its theatres, its market and its church. Had he gone on and completed his articles he would no doubt have ended up as a successful solicitor in the Bow Street Court but who would there be now to seek to remember him, except possibly some other retired solicitor somewhere or another?