Thomas Augustine Arne, born in London in 1710, was one of the leading native English composers of the mid-18th century. The son of an upholsterer, he was sent to Eton and then apprenticed to an attorney, but soon found his way into the musical profession. As a Roman Catholic, he was barred from writing for the court and the Anglican church; and he composed only a handful of orchestral and instrumental works. But he made up for this with a prolific career in the London theatre, setting almost exclusively English words, as opposed to the Italian of Handel’s international companies. He was house composer at the Drury Lane Theatre from 1734 to 1750, with an interlude of two seasons in Dublin, and after that house composer at Covent Garden.
Arne’s theatrical output, much of it now lost, covered a wide range, from songs for plays, by way of comic operas in various genres, to full-length serious operas – notably Artaxerxes, which was first performed in 1762 and remained in the repertoire well into the 19th century (and will returned to Covent Garden, downstairs in the Linbury Theatre, in 2009). He also wrote songs for the London pleasure gardens and in 1761 an oratorio, Judith. But he is chiefly remembered today for some of his tuneful songs for Shakespeare plays, and of course for ‘Rule, Britannia!’ from the 1740 patriotic masque Alfred.
Profile © Anthony Burton