John Gay's Use of Music for Satire in The Beggar's Opera
John Gay=s The Beggar=s Opera is a rather complex work, despite its apparent simplicity. Critics have interpreted it variously as political satire, moral satire, even (at a stretch) Christian satire. Common to many interpretations is the assertion that the Opera is a satire directed at both the politics and the art of its day. A fairly conventional interpretation of the play and its composition shows that it is, and was intended by its author to be, specifically a satire of Italian opera and of the aristocrats that patronized that form. While that interpretation is not in doubt, because critics almost universally agree about it in the literature, most interpretations overlook a certain aspect of the satire and comedy. Specifically, the nature of the music and the manner in which Gay uses that music in the play produces a certain brusque effect, one which can serve to heighten the comedy and deepen the satire of Opera. This caustic use of music extends to the content of the songs themselves, the technical features of the music, and the manner of their insertion into the play itself. Several examples of the songs, as well as the text surrounding them, evidence this acerbic use of the music within the play to satirize opera.
That Gay means to satirize opera categorically is fairly obvious within the text, even without outside knowledge of the operas of the day. Gay first indicates his satiric intent in the Beggar=s opening speech when the Beggar says:
I hope I may be forgiven, that I have not made my opera throughout unnatural, like those in vogue. (Nettleton 530)
Further, the Beggar represents opera composers to some extent, which is an unflattering representation in itself. That the Beggar speaks like a literary hack furthers the insult delivered to those composers through this character:
I have introduced the similes that are in all your celebrated operas: the swallow, the moth, the bee, the ship, the flower &c.
At the end of the play, the Beggar and Player return to further insult opera. The Player says AAn opera must end happily@ (III.xvi), to which the Beggar replies by indicating that he can create a happy ending, because A*tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about@ in opera. additionally, the composer and performer do these things Ato satisfy the taste of the town,@ thus assigning blame for the banality of opera to its audiences.
Gay was motivated to satirize opera because of its immense popularity, as William Schultz says:
In 1728 (the year of the Opera=s premiere) Italian opera was firmly settled as a popular fashion. People of all ranks...flocked to hear the foreign compositions, as well as English pieces in a similar style. (136)
Italian opera was so very popular that it eroded native English music and musical styles. Musical productions of anything besides opera were poorly funded by patrons, if...