Introduction to the 1711 edition of Pepusch’s ‘Six English Cantatas’
Contributor: John Hughes
TO THE LOVERS of MUSICK
Mr Pepusch having desir’d that some Account shou’d be prefix’d to these Cantata’s, relating to the Words, it may be proper to acquaint the Publick, that they are the first Essays of this kind, written for the most part several Years ago, as an Experiment of introducing a sort of Composition which had never been naturaliz’d in our Language. Those who are affectedly partial to the ItalianTongue, will scarce allow Musick to speak any other; but if Reason may be admitted to have any Share in these Entertainments, nothing is more necessary than that the Words shou’d be understood, without which the End of Vocal Musick is lost. The Want of this occasions a common Complaint, and is the chief, if not the only Reason, that the best works of Scarlatti and other Italians, except those perform’d in Opera’s, are generally but little known or regarded here. Besides, it may be observ’d, wihout any Dishonour to a Language which has been adorn’d by some Writers of excellent Genius, and was the first among the Moderns in which the Art of Poetry was reviv’d and brought to any Perfection, that in the great number of their Opera’s, Serenata’s and cantata’s, the Words are often much inferior to the Composition; and tho’, by their abounding with Vowels, they have an inimitable Aptness and Facility for Notes, the Writers for Musick have not always made the best use of this Advantage, or seem to have rely’d on it so much as to have regarded little else; so that Mr Waller’s Remark on another Occasion, may be frequently apply’d to them.
Soft Words, with nothing in them, make a Song.
Yet so great is the Force of Sounds well chosen and skilfully executed, that as they can hide indifferent Sense, and a kind of associated Pleasure arises from the Words tho’ they are but mean, so the Impression cannot fail of being in proportion much greater, when the Thoughts are natural and proper, and the Expressions unaffected and agreeable.
Since therefore the English Language, tho’ inferior in Smoothness, has been found not incapable of Harmony, nothing wou’d perhaps be wanting towards introducing the most elegant Stile of Musick, in a Nation which has given such generous Encouragements to it, if our best Poets wou’d sometimes assist this Design, and make it their Diversion to improve a sort of Verse, in regular Measures, purposely fitted for Musick, and which, of all the Modern kinds, seems to be the only one that can now be properly called Lyrick.
It cannot but be observ’d on this Occasion, that since Poetry and Musick are no nearly ally’d, it is a Misfortune that those who excel in one, are often perfect Strangers to the other. If therefore a better Correspondence were settled between the two Sister Arts, they wou’d probably continue to each other’s Improvement.. The expressions of Harmony, Cadence, and a good Ear, which are said to be so necessary in Poetry, being all borrow’d from Musick, shew at least, if they signifie any thing, that it would no improper Help for a Poet to understand more than the Metaphorical Sense of them. And on the other hand, a Composer can never judge where to lay the Accent of his Musick, who does not know, or is not made sensible, where the Words have the greatest Beauty and Force.
There is one thing in Compositions of this sort which seems a little to want explaining, and that is the Recitative Musick, which many People hear without Pleasure, the Reason of which is, perhaps, that they have a mistaken Notion of it. They are accustom’d to think that all Musick should be Air, and being disappointed of what they expect, they lose the Beauty that is in it of a different kind. It may be proper to observe therefore, that the Recitative Stile in Composition is founded on that Variety of Accent which pleases in the Pronunciation of a good Orator, with a little Deviation from it a possible. The different Tones of the Voice in Astonishment, Joy, Sorrow, Rage, Tnderness in Affirmations, Apostrophes, Interrogations, and all the other Varieties of Speech, make a sort of natural Musick which is very agreeable; and this is what is intended to be imitated, which some Helps, by the Composer, but without approaching to what we call a Tune or Air; so that it is but a kind of improv’d Elocution, or Pronouncing of the Words in Musical Cadences, and is indeed wholly at the Mercy of the Performer to make it agreeable or not, according to his Skill or Ignorance, like the reading of the Verse, which is not every ones talent. This short Account may possibly suffice to shew how properly the Recitative has a Place in Compositions of any Length, to relieve the Ear with a Variety, and to introduce the Airs with greater Advantage.
As to Mr. Pepusch’s success in these Compositions, I am not at liberty to say any more than he has, I think, very naturally express’d the Sense of the Words. He is desirous the Publick shou’d be inform’d that they are not only the first he has attempted in English, but the first of any of his Works publish’d by himself; and as he wholly submits them to the Judgment of the Lovers of his Art, it will be a Pleasure to him to find that his Endeavours to promote the Composing of Musick in the English Language, after a new Model, are favourably accepted.
John Hughes – Author of the Poetry