The A-Z of Classical #1: Thomas Arne's Judgment of Paris

The first ever full recording of Thomas Arne's Judgment of Paris is spectacular. A twenty-six part series highlighting the works and recordings that every Classical Music collector needs to own.
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A twenty-six part series highlighting the works and recordings that every collector needs to own.

(composer) Thomas Arne (1710-1778)

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(title) The Judgment of Paris (1742)

(recommended version) The Brook Street Band, conducted by John Andrews - Dutton Epoch CDLX 7361 (SACD - 2019)

English dramatist William Congreve’s masque libretto Judgment of Paris was composed in 1701, at the suggestion of Lord Halifax.The urge to establish an English-language operatic tradition had been building for some years, and it was decided to stage a competition in which a number of the era’s composers, Daniel Purcell, John Eccles, Gottfried Finger and John Weldon among them, would each set Congreve’s opera to music.

Time was short.The competition was announced on March 18, 1701; a grand final was set for June 3.Throughout that spring, all four offered up individual performances of their work, with a grand final then being staged at the Dorset Garden Theatre.It was won by Weldon.

Did his triumph avert the flood of Italian opera onto the London stage?No.Indeed, of the best known survivors of this cultural insurrection, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), was effectively as much a musical satire as it was a political one.

However, the conflict continued, and in 1738, William Arne burst onto the scene with The Way of the World - the first piece ever staged at the newly-opened, but soon to be world-renowned Covent Garden Theatre.Six years later, his musical setting of John Milton’s Comus was a massive hit.Arne’s setting of Judgment of Paris debuted at Drury Lane in March 1742.

The piece has an evocative title. Judgment of Paris has been punningly applied to studies of events as far apart as the French Revolution and the rise of impressionism.Congreve’s vision, however, was purely mythological, the titular shepherd’s struggle to determine which of three goddesses, Venus, Pallas and Juno, is the most beautiful.In Arnes’ hands, perhaps unsurprisingly, his wife Cecillia Young appeared as the eventual victor, Venus.

Arne’s Judgment of Paris was a reasonable success, at least at the time. However, it soon fell out of favor, and had already gone unperformed for decades, when disaster effectively plunged into total obscurity.

On the night of September 20, 1808, adisastrous fire razed Covent Garden Theatre killing some twenty people, spreading to fifteen other properties, and destroying countless musical scores, librettos and more.

Handel’s organ and many of his manuscripts were numbered among the cultural casualties; so was Judgment of Paris.All that survived was an incomplete 1744 publication which lacked the choruses and the secco recitatives.It would be 1978, 234 years later, before Musica Britannica editor Ian Spink attempted to restore the missing elements.

Despite these efforts, performances of Arne’s Judgment of Paris remained thin on the ground.In fact, all three surviving entrants from the 1701 competition (by Eccles, Purcell and Weldon) have been better represented on the stage, beginning with Anthony Rooley’s airing of all three at the 1989 Proms.

Recordings, too, are sparse.Indeed, while Carlos Surinach conducted Arne’s eight minute “Overture” for a Heliodor label compilation in 1966, it would appear that Dutton Epoch’s 2019 recording is indeed, as the artwork proclaims, the World Premier Recording of the entire work.

How can this be? True, Arne’s Judgment of Paris is not “A Major Work,” even within his own canon. Thomas and Sally was recorded by the Northern Sinfonia in 1970 (Pye Golden Guinea), while excerpts from Comus, The Tempest, Love in a Village and Artaxerxes have all attracted greater attention.And then, of course, there’s “Rule Britannia.”

Within the confines of the musical cul-de-sac of which it is a part, however, Judgment of Paris certainly withstands comparison with many other period pieces, and effortlessly eclipses a lot of them, too.Without Judgment of Paris to light the way, after all, it is exceedingly unlikely that Handel would even have considered a musical setting for another of Congreve’s operatic texts, Semele, the following year. And this 68 minute performance, by the Brook Street Band is absolutely magisterial.

Do not be fooled by the more familiar connotations of its titular designation. The Brook Street Band is glorious.Named for the London street on which Handel lived for much of his London residency, and best regarded for its handling of his repertoire, the Band was formed in 1996 by baroque cellist Tatty Theo and here comprises three first violins, two second violins, two viola, double bass, timpani, bassoon, a Flemish petit ravelment two manual harpischord, two trumpeters, flautists and oboes, Theo, of course, supplies cello continuo.

They are joined here by sopranos Mary Bevan, Susanna Fairburn and Gilliam Ramm, respectively, taking the parts of Venus, Pallas and Juno; tenors Ed Lyon and Anthony Gregory as Paris and Mercury; plus Anthony Mahon (bass). And all takes place beneath the baton of John Andrews, who himself has long since gained a reputation for shining light upon neglected English music.His past recordings for Dutton Epoch include Arthur Sullivan’s incidental music for MacBeth and The Tempest, and his oratorio The Light of the World, plus WS Gilbert and Alfred Cellier’s The Mountebanks.

Judgment of Paris might be the most triumphant of them all.It hails, after all, from what - thanks to the influence of Handel - ranks among the key eras in the development of English music.Moreover, while the English language setting might jar listeners more accustomed to hearing their operas in Italian… well, that was the point. Certainly the performances here are breathtaking, and the inclusion of the full libretto only amplifies the breadth of Arnes’ achievement.

He did not, after all, simply set Congreve’s words to music.That had already been done.He colored them in the broadest pastoral strokes. The first appearance of the three goddesses is both grand and understated, with an almost slinky sense of mischief accompanying Venus’s introductory air (“Hither turn thee, gentle swain”.)

Later, Pallas’s “hark, hark! the glorious Voice of War” is as strident and martial as it ought to be; Venus’s “stay, lovely youth,” as seductive.And so on, until we arrive, breathless, at the concluding grand chorus, “sing and spread the joyful news…,” a finale whose sole drawback is that it ends so abruptly.

The quality of the recording is as spectacular as the music, a hybrid SACD/CD disc that opens up so broadly that you might almost wonder precisely how many speakers you’ve surrounded yourself with.No, not the most technical description you’ll ever read, but play it.You’ll see.

There were several contenders for this first installment of this series, but in terms of ticking all the boxes that we intend to act as the criteria for inclusion - the strength of the piece, the quality of the performance and recording, historical import and, perhaps, just a soupçon of obscurity (“please, not Beethoven’s Fifth again!”) - the first ever full rendering of an eighteenth century English opera really does fit the bill.

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