[This post adapted from Dr. Kathryn Lowerre’s Reader’s Choice exhibition in the Houghton Library]
Music was an integral part of the lively London theater world of the beginning of the eighteenth century. In late 1700, noble subscribers underwrote a competition offering cash prizes for the composer whose setting of poet and playwright William Congreve’s The Judgement of Paris was considered the best. The musical settings were heard separately and then together in a final magnificent concert on June 3, 1701 at the Dorset Garden theater. Not all of the settings survive, but those by John Eccles and Daniel Purcell, who took second and third place, respectively, were published by John Walsh. The setting by the surprise winner, a younger composer named John Weldon, survives in a manuscript copy at the Folger Shakespeare Library and has recently been issued in a modern edition.
Composers also contributed a great number of songs, choruses, dances, and other pieces of instrumental music to plays and other theatrical offerings. Many of these, particularly the songs, appeared in print in popular series like John Walsh’s The Monthly Mask of Vocal Music. Since this work was issued month by month, many collections are very incomplete, as the original owners chose to order or to preserve only selected issues. The Houghton copy of the Monthly Masks includes all the months from its initial year (1702-03) through the next five years bound in a single volume. It is virtually complete for these five years, unlike copies owned by the British Library and Royal College of Music, making it a wonderful resource for scholars interested in the songs popular during the first decade of the eighteenth century.
Many of the songs as printed in the Monthly Masks include information about the composer and original performer, however they do not always include the play title, so some detective work can be required. In the example at right, the singer addresses the keyboard instrument belonging to his beloved Celia, bidding it speak for him and respond to her touch in some suggestive ways, punning on musical terms (A “shake” is a trill, the rapid alternation between two pitches, an ornament often added near the end of a musical phrase).