Music in The Unhappy Penitent

By Sam Bailey

Eighteenth-century theatres were noisy. On its opening night at Drury Lane on the 4th February 1701 [1], viewers of The Unhappy Penitent would have entered riotously, having almost no reserved seating. Throughout the production, they would have heard fruit-women selling oranges and programmes among the audience, sex workers haggling with customers and the general chatter of a bored and uninterested audience [2]. Music was a necessary tool in the war against noise, appearing between the acts and often accompanying action in an attempt to entertain a rowdy audience. Rather than being requested by the playwright, music was often foisted upon the play by the theatre company, sometimes without any appreciation for the dramatic structure or mood of the scenes in which it appeared [3].

Much of the music that features in The Unhappy Penitent has been lost: there are no known records of music accompanying the drama, but most of the score of the incidental music (music that played before the play and between the acts) has been preserved. Thanks to the Harmonia Anglicana, a pamphlet that published incidental music between 1701-1706, we know that the score for the play was composed by Daniel Purcell, a relative of the famous Henry Purcell [4]. Daniel was one of the London stage’s three go-to composers between 1700-1703 [5], and he was likely contracted to write music for Drury Lane. For many theatregoers, it would have been Purcell, not Catharine Trotter that attracted them to the play. Daniel, while unfavourably compared to Henry, was by 1701 an established theatre composer and a renowned musician [6]. Drury Lane had a pit orchestra of some of the best musicians in London making it one of the few places audiences could hear high-quality contemporary music [7]. Incidental music was published, while dramatic music was not because incidental music was an attraction in its own right, often completely unconnected to the themes and genre of the play [8]. While having a top-class orchestra and composer was an effective way of advertising a play, it was also a burden for playwrights who needed to compete for the attention of an audience who may have cared more about what they heard between the acts than in them.

If Trotter had to compete with her composer, how successful was she? An examination of some of the eight pieces of incidental music that remain provide some insight. Contemporary scores preserved in the Harmonia Anglicana contain an overture (played just before the start of a play), two aires (short pieces), a slow aire, a bore (possibly a melancholy piece), a chaconne (a piece allowing wide variation) and a hornpipe (a merry piece) [9]. The Harmonia Anglicana did not publish scores in the order they appeared on stage, this makes the process of determining where each piece came on the night of the performance almost impossible. Of what remains, only one piece has an accessible recording – the chaconne, which is available in an album from 2013 and can be listened to below. The chaconne, while an ornate piece that could mimic the aristocratic setting of The Unhappy Penitent, does not alone demonstrate connection between the incidental music and the play. The overture, however, reveals a stronger connection between playwright and composer. A MIDI rendition I have adapted from the score can be listened to below.

The piece is melancholic and (like the Chaconne) finely ornamented, reflecting the miserable aristocrats of the play. The instrumentation is haunting, with the score calling for two oboes, a cor anglais and a bassoon to produce a reedy whine that is not entirely pleasant but is befitting of a tragedy. It may seem unsurprising to a modern audience that the overture of a play should connect with its genre, but because Restoration composers rarely meaningfully collaborated with playwrights, and because incidental music was perceived as separated from the drama, many tragedies would have surprisingly upbeat scores [10]. Given that composers were not acclaimed for appropriately connecting music to the play, Purcell’s choice to connect the overture with the drama demonstrates an unusual dedication to the play, and perhaps the power of Trotter to negotiate creative choices with the composer.

In addition to incidental music, the script of The Unhappy Penitent demonstrates that dramatic music was incorporated into the play, although evidence of the nature of this music has been lost. The King is a lover of music, Brisson references his desire to be entertained by music upon his return in Act I, and the King also requested music be played during his meeting with the Duke of Austria [11]. It is possible that music was played at these points, diverting both the audience and the characters and serving as a light refrain from the tragedy of the play. The scene most explicitly featuring music, and which demonstrates Trotter’s creative control comes in Act III. After the King seeks to rekindle his relationship with Margarite (who is secretly in love with Lorraine), she is visibly bitter. The King asks “can musick charm and soften your resentment?”, they then sit and listen to a piece of music [11]. We don’t know what this piece was, but the King states that “musick can all the Passions calm or raise, and whist it melts, and kindles you to love, I’ll watch your Eyes, and the soft Flame improve.” [11]. The piece was, therefore, diverting and romantic, a valuable distraction for an audience seeking relief from the tragedy and who may simply have long edto hear more Purcell. Read alone, this instance appears like an advertisement for the composer, the play stops, and the audience watches characters react to a piece, perhaps demonstrating its quality. But Trotter’s incorporation of this piece into her play demonstrates resistance to the drama being used as an advertisement. The music doesn’t effectively rouse Margarite’s passion for the king, on the contrary, she rejects him by secretly Marrying Lorrain in the following scene [11]. Rather than selling Purcell as a composer capable of changing human passion and changing the drama of the play, the scene shows how ineffective his music is. The piece, despite being deliberately incorporated into the play, has no effect on the drama and upstages the orchestra mid-performance. In the battle between composer and playwright, Trotter puts herself firmly ahead.

Trotter’s resistance to music through its incorporation into the play as well as Purcell’s apparent respect for the genre of The Unhappy Penitent suggests that Trotter was a playwright capable of negotiating with composers and wresting creative control over them. In the competitive environment of a Restoration production, Trotter shows how incorporating music could cut through the noise and bring attention back to the drama.

[1] “London Stage Event: 04 February 1701 at Drury Lane Theatre.” London Stage Database, Accessed 10 March 2020. RETURN TO DOCUMENT

[2] Powell, Jocelyn. “Riding the audience”, Restoration Theatre Production , Routledge, 1984. RETURN TO DOCUMENT

[3] Price, Curtis Alexander. “Introduction”, Music in the Restoration Theatre , UMI Research P,  1979,  pp.I-XI. RETURN TO DOCUMENT

[4] Harmonia Anglicana , London: I Price, 1701. RETURN TO DOCUMENT

[5] Lowerre, Kathryn. “Power Shift, 1700-1703”, Music and Musicians on the London Stage, 1695-1705 , Routledge, 2017, pp.689-712. RETURN TO DOCUMENT

[6] Humphreys, Mark. “Purcell, Daniel”, Grove Music Online , Oxford Music Online, 2001, RETURN TO DOCUMENT

[7] Fiske, Roger. “Interlude”, English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century , Oxford UP, 1973, pp. 252-301. RETURN TO DOCUMENT

[8] Price, Curtis Alexander. “Incidental Music”, Music in the Restoration Theatre , UMI Research P, 1979, pp.51-66. RETURN TO DOCUMENT

[9] Purcell, Daniel. Ayrs in the Tragedy of an Unhappy Penitent, Phylloscopus Publications, PP256, 2013. RETURN TO DOCUMENT

[10] Price, Curtis Alexander. “Music within the Drama”,Music in the Restoration Theatre, UMI Research P, 1979, pp.1-49. RETURN TO DOCUMENT

[11] Trotter, Catharine. The Unhappy Penitent, 1701. RETURN TO DOCUMENT