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No. 018 [from The Spectator]
by [?]

No. 18
Wednesday, March 21, 1711. Addison.

Equitis quoque jam migravit ab aure voluptas

Omnis ad incertos oculos et gaudia vana.


It is my Design in this Paper to deliver down to Posterity a faithful Account of the Italian Opera, and of the gradual Progress which it has made upon the English Stage: For there is no Question but our great Grand-children will be very curious to know the Reason why their Fore-fathers used to sit together like an Audience of Foreigners in their own Country, and to hear whole Plays acted before them in a Tongue which they did not understand.

‘Arsinoe’ [1] was the first Opera that gave us a Taste of Italian Musick. The great Success this Opera met with, produced some Attempts of forming Pieces upon Italian Plans, [which [2]] should give a more natural and reasonable Entertainment than what can be met with in the elaborate Trifles of that Nation. This alarm’d the Poetasters and Fidlers of the Town, who were used to deal in a more ordinary Kind of Ware; and therefore laid down an establish’d Rule, which is receiv’d as such to this [Day, [3]] ‘That nothing is capable of being well set to Musick, that is not Nonsense.’

This Maxim was no sooner receiv’d, but we immediately fell to translating the Italian Operas; and as there was no great Danger of hurting the Sense of those extraordinary Pieces, our Authors would often make Words of their own [which[ 4]] were entirely foreign to the Meaning of the Passages [they [5]] pretended to translate; their chief Care being to make the Numbers of the English Verse answer to those of the Italian, that both of them might go to the same Tune. Thus the famous Song in ‘Camilla’,

‘Barbara si t’ intendo, etc.’

Barbarous Woman, yes, I know your Meaning,

which expresses the Resentments of an angry Lover, was translated into that English lamentation:

‘Frail are a Lovers Hopes, etc.’

And it was pleasant enough to see the most refined Persons of the British Nation dying away and languishing to Notes that were filled with a Spirit of Rage and Indignation. It happen’d also very frequently, where the Sense was rightly translated, the necessary Transposition of Words [which [6]] were drawn out of the Phrase of one Tongue into that of another, made the Musick appear very absurd in one Tongue that was very natural in the other. I remember an Italian verse that ran thus Word for Word,

‘And turned my Rage, into Pity;’

which the English for Rhime sake translated,

‘And into Pity turn’d my Rage.’

By this Means the soft Notes that were adapted to Pity in the Italian, fell upon the word Rage in the English; and the angry Sounds that were turn’d to Rage in the Original, were made to express Pity in the Translation. It oftentimes happen’d likewise, that the finest Notes in the Air fell upon the most insignificant Words in the Sentence. I have known the Word ‘And’ pursu’d through the whole Gamut, have been entertained with many a melodious ‘The’, and have heard the most beautiful Graces Quavers and Divisions bestowed upon ‘Then, For,’ and ‘From;’ to the eternal Honour of our English Particles. [7]

The next Step to our Refinement, was the introducing of Italian Actors into our Opera; who sung their Parts in their own Language, at the same Time that our Countrymen perform’d theirs in our native Tongue. The King or Hero of the Play generally spoke in Italian, and his Slaves answered him in English: The Lover frequently made his Court, and gained the Heart of his Princess in a Language which she did not understand. One would have thought it very difficult to have carry’d on Dialogues after this Manner, without an Interpreter between the Persons that convers’d together; but this was the State of the English Stage for about three Years.