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Explorations of a century | Going Georgian on the BBC

The BBC is going all-out to examine the unheralded developments of British culture in the 1700s, as we approach the 300th anniversary of the coronation of George I

Once Handel’s been mentioned (and he was German anyway so he doesn’t really count), most people are fairly stumped trying to think of English composers of the 18th century. And even if the names of people like Arne, or Boyce, or the Earl of Kelly were to spring to mind, when, apart from Rule, Britannia!, did you last hear any of their music performed?

King George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1716

King George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1716

Of course, people will inevitably say, this ignorance comes from the fact that there simply were not the composers of quality around to rival Mozart, Haydn or Handel. That, the BBC is setting out to demonstrate, is not true; and they intend to prove it with a blockbuster three-week series that examines the succession to the British throne of the house of Hanover and the impact it had upon life in Britain.

‘Why a series now?’ asks Edwina Wolstencroft, in charge of Radio 3’s contribution to the season. ‘Because this year is the 300th anniversary of the first German king coming to London (George I) and it just seemed a very interesting time to look at it. We’ve done a lot about the Victorians, particularly on television, but very little is known about the Georgian period.’ And it was, as the series will attempt to prove, a very important time for British culture.

Eighteenth Century Britain: Majesty, Music and Mischief begins on 9 April with a documentary on BBC Four, the first of three in which presenter Suzy Klein examines ‘Patriotism, Pleasure and Perfection’ in the 18th century. She begins by looking at how and why the mass consumption of music began, the importance of music to everyday life, and how music played a vital role in the fight for British identity. This was, after all, the age of Rule, Britannia! and God Save the King, and wars with France.

The following day Radio 3 joins in with a special In Tune from Kedleston Hall, a beautiful 18th-century National Trust building in Derbyshire. BBC Two will then contribute a documentary in which the popular tenor Rolando Villazon reveals how Mozart came to write Don Giovanni and the social setting in which the opera was created. This will be followed on BBC Four by a screening of the current Covent Garden production of Don Giovanni directed by Kasper Holten.

The close collaboration between channels that has produced this series is an important aspect of the way much arts programming is now being set up at the BBC. ‘It’s all about offering more to our audiences,’ explains Wolstencroft. ‘By working together we can offer them a much richer experience; we can explore different aspects of the main theme. For example, on television there may be music in programmes but television has its own narrative, its own sense of location; they use only fragments of music. Radio 3 can offer the whole piece.’

And it’s not only the collaboration within the BBC that is important to what we eventually see on our screens or hear on the radio. For this series the BBC has been working closely with the National Trust, for the In Tune from Kedleston Hall, and with the Royal Collections Trust ‒ a collaboration that has allowed the series to include pieces played on the refurbished Buckingham Palace organ and to examine Georgian artefacts in the palace.

Every day on In Tune Sean Rafferty will be selecting an object from the Royal Collection that is typically 18th century, among them a bust of Handel, a painting called The Musical Tea Party by Marcellus Laroon the Younger and a two-manual Burkat Shudi harpsichord dating from 1740 which is being used for a recital given by Carole Cerasi in the Queen’s Gallery in the Early Music Show on 13 April. In the following edition of the Early Music Show, Lucy Skeaping celebrates the genius of William Hogarth and later profiles German composer Carl Friedrich Abel, who settled in London and, together with Johann Christian Bach, helped found England’s first series of subscription concerts (27 April).

Handel is, as you would expect, featured prominently throughout the season. Most prominent will be an hour-long BBC Two documentary which looks at the way a performance of Messiah given at the Foundling Hospital in London in May 1750 became Britain’s first charity fundraising concert. The first performance at the hospital, recreated in the chapel in which it was originally held, threads its way in and out of the film as presenters Amanda Vickery and Tom Service look at the differences between the haves and the have-nots in the mid-18th century and at Handel’s determination to do all within his power to help those less fortunate than himself. His performance of Messiah at the hospital became a regular annual fundraising event, and he bequeathed a set of parts to the hospital to enable the tradition to continue after his death, which can still be seen today at the Foundling Museum. In the film Paul McCreesh plays Handel, conducting the Gabrieli Consort and Players with Trinity Boys’ Choir.

Lithograph portrait of Thomas Arne (1710-1778) by Johann Zoffany

Lithograph portrait of Thomas Arne (1710-1778) by Johann Zoffany

The period was one of immense change. The building of pleasure gardens such as Ranelagh and Vauxhall helped music, which had really only been performed at court before, become a public entertainment. ‘The 18th century saw a melding of how music went out into more public spaces, with the way Handel and others put on public performances. It saw a democratisation of music.’

Regular Radio 3 programmes such as Essential Classics and Composer of the Week will be slanted towards 18th-century music and musicians, while listeners to the Breakfast programme will be invited to suggest favourite works they would like to hear. In the Sunday feature Liquid Assets ‒ Handel’s Finances, on 13 April, BBC business correspondent Peter Day charts Handel’s amazing success in the London stock market, getting out just before the ‘South Sea Bubble’ burst in 1716.

It’s unlikely anyone will come away from Majesty, Music and Mischief thinking not much happened during this period. It is a time still ripe for exploration. And has Wolstencroft made many discoveries for herself? ‘Oh yes, tons. Obviously people already know all about Handel, Thomas Arne, William Boyce, but there are other composers worth getting to know such as Charles Avison, Daniel Purcell, John Stanley, Joseph Gibbs, Maurice Greene, Richard Jones, all English composers who wrote charming, attractive music. They were major pieces at the time and yet we hardly hear them now. I think that will change.

‘But Thomas Arne is my real discovery. I knew bits of his work before but I think he is actually a really clever composer who wrote very joyful music. I would definitely recommend people to listen to Composer of the Week on Arne.’

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