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Penny Merriments: Street Songs of 17th Century England
22 Sep 2005

Penny Merriments: Street Songs of 17th Century England

In 1728 John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera was produced in London as a sardonic response to the ongoing craze for Italian opera seria.

Penny Merriments: Street Songs of 17th Century England

Lucie Skeaping, soprano; Douglas Wootton, tenor; Richard Wistreich, Bass-baritone; The City Waites

Naxos 8.557672 [CD]


The Beggar’s Opera consisted of an original book and lyrics, with music taken from a wide variety of sources, everything from the actual operas of Handel to the popular broadside ballads that were sung between the acts of serious plays at the theatre, or in coffee houses or on the streets. It is these broadside ballads that are presented on this recording, and if the increased popularity of opera seria during the past few decades has left some opera-lovers surfeited with its motifs and conventions, they might find a suitable tonic on this disc.

This is not to say that royalty, great battles, mad lovers, and even women dressed as men are not to be found here. Shall we just say that they are viewed from a different angle. The program begins with “The Courtiers Health, or The Merry Boys of the Times,” which celebrates the restoration of Charles II to the British throne as a grand justification for drinking. We see William and Mary through the eyes of a country bumpkin who stretches his resources to go to London for the coronation. And Queen Elizabeth makes an appearance in “An Old Song on the Spanish Armada,” which describes the defeat of the Spanish fleet in 1588. While this song describes a historic event, it was also quite customary for ballads to present news reports and commentary on current events, as is done in “London Mourning in Ashes”, which presents eyewitness accounts of the London fire of 1688 and warns the citizens to mend their sinful ways or face an even worse disaster in the future. Another ballad that is apparently based upon an actual event is “The Female Captain, or The Counterfeit Bridegroom”, in which a woman who needs money dresses as a man and successfully courts and marries an heiress. The song describes with relish how the Counterfeit Bridegroom manages to keep the bride satisfied for a month, until “his” true identity is revealed. Not all the songs are comical or topical; “Grim King of the Ghosts” sets a text in which a jilted lover tortures himself with thoughts of his lover in the arms of another and appeals to the dark forces to take him away from the world.

The haunting tune used in “Grim King of the Ghosts” was used in a number of ballad operas, including The Beggar’s Opera. Other familiar tunes appear on the program, including “Greensleeves”, to which is set a text bemoaning the “good old days” of England, and “Liliburlero”, to which is set “Good Advice to Batchelors, How to Court and Obtain a Young Lass”, advice that is decidedly insensitive to the feminist question “what part of no don’t you understand?” In fact, sensitivity could hardly have been what the ballads’ audiences were seeking, as other songs lampoon country bumpkins, Quakers, and all sorts of sexual follies, shortcomings, and misadventures.

In keeping with the variety of venues in which these songs might have been heard in the seventeenth century, the arrangements vary from a cappella, as might have been heard on the street, to accompaniments by one or more period instruments. One of the most imaginative of these arrangements combines a ballad about two members of a band who create trouble when they choose to “play the game of Uptails All” with an instrumental presentation of a tune entitled “Uptails All.” The instrumental palette on the disc includes such instruments as lute, recorder, fiddle, and bagpipes (mercifully not all at once). The voices of the singers, Lucie Skeaping, Douglas Wootton, and Richard Wistreich, are, of course, not operatic, but I personally find them quite pleasant to listen to, as they present the stories and characters with great energy and flair. To my American ears they handle the various dialects convincingly and humorously. It is the combination of the dialects and the sometimes outmoded language that will probably send all but the most specialized listeners to seek the texts. These, in order to keep the disc in the budget category, are not included in the notes distributed with the CD, but can be accessed online at

Barbara Miller

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