Thomas Augustine Arne

At a time when musical life of England was dominated by foreign music and musicians, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778) was the most successful and popular native composer, keeping alive and advancing the traditions of the English baroque school.

Thomas Arne was born in London on March 12, 1710, the son of an upholsterer and coffin-maker. Educated at Eton, he spent 3 years apprenticed to an attorney before his obvious talents in music persuaded his father to allow him to pursue a career in this field. Arne's first major composition was a setting of Joseph Addison's Rosamond (1733). Arne's sister Susannah Maria, 4 years his junior, sang a leading role; later, as Mrs. Cibber, she was a famous dramatic actress and singer. In 1736 Arne married Cecelia Young, a soprano who later gave remarkable performances of music by her husband and by George Frederick Handel.

Arne quickly established himself as a major talent with music to three masques done at the Drury Lane Theatre: Comus (1738), adapted from John Milton by John Dalton; The Judgment of Paris (1740), by William Congreve; and The Masque of Alfred (1740), to a libretto by James Thomson and David Mallet, which concludes with an "Ode in Honour of Great Britain," known now as "Rule, Britannia," Arne's most persistently popular invention. Drury Lane launched a series of revivals of some Shakespearean plays, commissioning Arne to write music to some of the lyrics. As You Like It (1740) was followed by Twelfth Night (1741), The Merchant of Venice (1742), The Tempest (1746), and Love's Labour's Lost (1747). Many of Arne's most enduring songs, such as "Under the Greenwood Tree," "When Daisies Pied," and "Where the Bee Sucks," were written for these productions.

Arne spent the years 1742-1744 in Dublin, where he composed his first oratorio, The Death of Abel. On his return to London, he became the leader of the orchestra at Drury Lane, and in 1745 he was also appointed official composer for Vauxahll Garden. The music he wrote here, and later for Mary-le-bone and Ranelagh gardens, became extremely popular and was printed in such collections as Lyric Harmony and The Vocal Grove, then reprinted and rearranged in other publications for many decades in England and the American colonies.

In 1759 Oxford University awarded Arne the degree of doctor of music. Soon he left Drury Lane for Covent Garden, where he wrote operas in a wide range of styles. Love in a Village (1762) was a ballad opera, with spoken dialogue alternating with songs, some his own and some arrangements of popular airs of the day. Thomas and Sally, or the Sailor's Return (1780) is a true comic opera, with all original music and dialogue set as recitative. His most ambitious work was Artaxerxes (1762), an opera seria with a libretto adapted and translated by Arne himself from a play by the Italian dramatist Metastasio. It is the only example of a full-length opera in English for a period of many decades. Despite some contradictions in style, it had immediate success and held the stage for many years. A less successful piece was Olimpiade (1764), also from Metastasio, in Italian and completely in the Italian style.

Arne's catches and glees, written for the Madrigal Club, have proved to be durable works for social and school singing groups. His second oratorio, Judith (1761), is considered by some to be one of his finest works, and his setting of Libera me for solo voices and five-part chorus is an interesting and rare example of a setting of a Latin text from this period in England.

Arne also wrote concertos for keyboard, overtures for orchestra, lessons (or sonatas) for harpsichord, and trio sonatas, but this instrumental music has received little attention. He died in London on March 5, 1778.

Arne's dramatic and vocal works are his best; his greatest talent was for graceful, expressive, and memorable melodic lines. His contemporary Charles Burney offers this opinion in A General History of Music: "From the death of Purcell to that of Arne, a period of more than fourscore years, no candidate for musical fame among our countrymen had appeared, who was equally admired by the nation at large…In secular music, he must be allowed to have surpassed him [Purcell] in ease, grace, and variety."


Further Reading on Thomas Augustine Arne

Brief biographies of Arne are Burnham W. Horner, Life and Works of Dr. Arne, 1710-1778 (1893), and Hubert Langley, Doctor Arne (1938), neither of which is scholarly. Arne's place in the history of music in England is noted in Frank Howes, The English Musical Renaissance (1966). There is a discussion of some aspects of Arne's life and works in Charles Burney, A General History of Music: From the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (4 vols., 1786-1789; new ed., with notes by Frank Mercer, 1957).

Additional Biography Sources

Burden, Michael, Garrick, Arne, and the masque of Alfred: a case study in national, theatrical, and musical politics, Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1994.