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No. 029 [from The Spectator]
by [?]

No. 29
Tuesday, April 3, 1711. Addison.

… Sermo lingua concinnus utraque

Suavior: ut Chio nota si commista Falerni est.


There is nothing that [has] more startled our English Audience, than the Italian Recitativo at its first Entrance upon the Stage. People were wonderfully surprized to hear Generals singing the Word of Command, and Ladies delivering Messages in Musick. Our Country-men could not forbear laughing when they heard a Lover chanting out a Billet-doux, and even the Superscription of a Letter set to a Tune. The Famous Blunder in an old Play of Enter a King and two Fidlers Solus, was now no longer an Absurdity, when it was impossible for a Hero in a Desart, or a Princess in her Closet, to speak anything unaccompanied with Musical Instruments.

But however this Italian method of acting in Recitativo might appear at first hearing, I cannot but think it much more just than that which prevailed in our English Opera before this Innovation: The Transition from an Air to Recitative Musick being more natural than the passing from a Song to plain and ordinary Speaking, which was the common Method in Purcell’s Operas.

The only Fault I find in our present Practice, is the making use of Italian Recitative with English Words.

To go to the Bottom of this Matter, I must observe, that the Tone, or (as the French call it) the Accent of every Nation in their ordinary Speech is altogether different from that of every other People, as we may see even in the Welsh and Scotch, [who [1]] border so near upon us. By the Tone or Accent, I do not mean the Pronunciation of each particular Word, but the Sound of the whole Sentence. Thus it is very common for an English Gentleman, when he hears a French Tragedy, to complain that the Actors all of them speak in a Tone; and therefore he very wisely prefers his own Country-men, not considering that a Foreigner complains of the same Tone in an English Actor.

For this Reason, the Recitative Musick in every Language, should be as different as the Tone or Accent of each Language; for otherwise, what may properly express a Passion in one Language, will not do it in another. Every one who has been long in Italy knows very well, that the Cadences in the Recitativo bear a remote Affinity to the Tone of their Voices in ordinary Conversation, or to speak more properly, are only the Accents of their Language made more Musical and Tuneful.

Thus the Notes of Interrogation, or Admiration, in the Italian Musick (if one may so call them) which resemble their Accents in Discourse on such Occasions, are not unlike the ordinary Tones of an English Voice when we are angry; insomuch that I have often seen our Audiences extreamly mistaken as to what has been doing upon the Stage, and expecting to see the Hero knock down his Messenger, when he has been [asking [2]] him a Question, or fancying that he quarrels with his Friend, when he only bids him Good-morrow.

For this Reason the Italian Artists cannot agree with our English Musicians in admiring Purcell’s Compositions, [3] and thinking his Tunes so wonderfully adapted to his Words, because both Nations do not always express the same Passions by the same Sounds.

I am therefore humbly of Opinion, that an English Composer should not follow the Italian Recitative too servilely, but make use of many gentle Deviations from it, in Compliance with his own Native Language. He may Copy out of it all the lulling Softness and Dying Falls (as Shakespear calls them), but should still remember that he ought to accommodate himself to an English Audience, and by humouring the Tone of our Voices in ordinary Conversation, have the same Regard to the Accent of his own Language, as those Persons had to theirs whom he professes to imitate. It is observed, that several of the singing Birds of our own Country learn to sweeten their Voices, and mellow the Harshness of their natural Notes, by practising under those that come from warmer Climates. In the same manner, I would allow the Italian Opera to lend our English Musick as much as may grace and soften it, but never entirely to annihilate and destroy it. Let the Infusion be as strong as you please, but still let the Subject Matter of it be English.