Group 1, Subcategory 1: National Folk Songs: Welsh Airs
Among the important trends in late 18th and early 19th-century literature was the so-called “Ballad Revival,” which challenged the neo-classical models of poetic language followed by Pope and Swift through advocating the simplicity and directness of ballad composition. Poets built on the work of musicologists such as Bishop Percy and Joseph Ritson whose ballad collections offered alternative models for composition. Contemporary composers also offered new arrangements of traditional airs and marketed them for performance in domestic settings. Opie collaborated with Edward Smith Biggs on Six Welch [sic] Airs adapted to English Words, and Harmonized for Two, Three, and Four, Voices, with an Accompaniment for the Piano Forte or Harp in 1801, a collection that featured Opie’s lyric “Poor Mary Anne! A dirge” set to the tune “Arhyd Y Nos or the Live-Long Night,” and “Nos Galen, or New Year’s Night” (familiar as “Deck the Halls”) two of the most enduring of Welsh national melodies. Three years later they collaborated again on A Second Sett[sic] of Welch Airs, with English Words written to them by Mrs. Opie. Harmonized and Arranged for One, Two, Three & Four Voices, with an Accompaniment for the Harp or Piano Forte.
Opie’s growing reputation as a poet and her participation in Biggs’s Welsh songs led to her involvement with the one of the most ambitious national song projects, George Thomson’s multi-volume collections of Scots, Irish, and Welsh airs. Thomson envisioned showcasing simple national melodies through soliciting new lyrics written by recognized poets of the day and new settings produced by leading composers. Opie wrote nine songs for Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Welsh Airs adapted for the Voice, united to characteristic English poetry … With Introductory & Concluding Symphonies and Accompaniments for the Piano Forte or Harp, Violin & Violoncello composed chiefly by Joseph Haydn, published in 3 volumes (1809, 1811,1817). The British Library holds correspondence between Opie and Thomson concerning her contributions, and these documents constitute the only extended contemporary evidence of Opie’s compositional practice.
1) From Six Welch Airs adapted to English Words, and Harmonized for Two, Three, and Four, Voices, with an Accompaniment for the Piano Forte or Harp. London: R. Birchall, 1801, Music by E.S. Biggs:
“Arhyd Y Nos or the Live-Long Night. Poor Mary Anne! A Dirge. 7-9.
“Nos Galen, or New Year’s Night.” 4-6
2) From A Select Collection of Original Welsh Airs adapted for the Voice, united to Characteristic English poetry … With Introductory & Concluding Symphonies And Accompaniments for the Piano Forte or Harp, Violin & Violoncello Composed chiefly by Joseph Haydn. 4 vols. London/Edinburgh: Preston/G. Thomson, 1817. Music by George Thomson:
“Hud Y Bibell: The Attractions of the Pipe.” [Where dost thou bide, blessed soul of my love?].1: no 13.
“Mentra Gwen: Venture Gwen.” [Low Hung the dark clouds on Pinlimmon’s tall peak]. 1: no. 9.
“Torriad Y Dydd: The Dawn of Day.” [Go, youth, by all regretted, fair Clwyd’s Blooming pride]. 1: no. 4.
Group 1, Subcategory 2: International Experiments/Hindoo Airs
Although they do not feature prominently in histories of Empire, among Britain’s spoils from India were included what were regarded as exotic methods of musical composition. Biggs introduces Twelve Hindoo Airs by explaining that the airs are based on a collection published at Calcutta by Bird, entitled Oriental Miscellany: “It has been the endeavour, of the editor of this Collection, to give the Melodies, with all their native simplicity, and not to obscure them, by the introduction of extraneous Harmonies … The Poetry, is the production of Mrs. Opie, whose Muse has so deservedly received the tribute of public admiration. Those only, who have experienced the difficulty of writing appropriate words, to Regular Airs, will be adequate judges of her success, in inventing subjects, and contriving verses, for Airs so IRREGULAR as the following.” Biggs also collaborated with Opie on Venetian and Russian Airs.
1) From Twelve Hindoo Airs with English words adapted to them by Mrs. Opie, and Harmonized for One, Two, Three, and Four Voices, with an Accompaniment for The Piano Forte or Harp, by Mr. Biggs. London: R. Birchall, 1800. Music by E.S. Biggs:
“Hail Vernal Hour!” [On Spring]. Music by Edward Smith Biggs. 36-40.
“To the Chace Let’s Away.” Music by Edward Smith Biggs. 22-7.
2) From A second set of Hindoo Airs with English words adapted to them by Mrs. Opie, And harmonized for one, two, three, and four voices, (or for a Single Voice) with An Accompaniment for the Piano Forte or Harp, by Mr. Biggs. London: R. Birchall, 1800.
“Fill the Bowl, and Let’s Be Joyous.” 15-6.
Group 2, Subcategory 1: Songs of Sensibility/Performing Affect
For much of the 18th century Britain experienced what critic Bruce Barker Benfield has described as a “culture of Sensibility.” Understood partly as an aspect of physiology, partly as a philosophy of social interconnection, sensibility celebrated the importance of feeling and emotional response to pathos. Thus affect, or the ability to stimulate sympathetic response, attained unprecedented importance in both composition and performance.
Opie’s popularity as a writer rested largely on her ability to arouse emotion in her readers. Especially important in her song lyrics are the voices of abject speakers, figures who articulate their experience from positions of disempowerment, whether through poverty, madness or lost love. Her “Orphan Boy’s Tale,” for example, features a child of poverty who struggles to understand the personal tragedy of a national triumph, as the celebrations of Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile coincide with the loss of parents, his father dying in the battle and his mother of grief as she learns of her husband’s fate. The early success of this piece encouraged Opie to pursue her literary career: she wrote to Robert Garnham: “An anxious time this [waiting for her first novel to be published], but as I have felt the pulse of the public, & I find it beat kindly towards me, I am a little encouraged. My ‘Orphan Boy’s Tale’ was a good pioneer…” (Crabb Robinson Mss). Perhaps her most popular speaker of this type was the Hindustani Girl, bereft of her colonial officer lover by the arrival of an English bride. Known popularly as “The Poor Hindoo” from its refrain, this is one of the few songs by Opie to exist in more than one setting, and it appears in more music libraries than any other.
Fatherless Fanny. A Favourite Ballad, by Mrs. Opie. Composed by Mr. Biggs. London: R. Birchall, c. 1801.
“A Mad Song.” [Ha! what is this that on my brow presses with such a weight of woe]. Music by Edward Smith Biggs. Six Songs Written by Mrs. Opie, Set to Music With an Accompaniment for the Harp, or Piano Forte, and Dedicated to the Right Honorable, Lady Willoughby De Eresby; by E. S. Biggs. London: R. Birchall, 1801. 18-21.
The Orphan Boy’s Tale, Written by Mrs. Opie to Whom the Music Is Respectfully Inscribed by Thomas Wright. Music by Thomas Wright. London: Goulding & Co.
The Poor Hindoo. Words by Mrs. Opie. The Melody Composed and Sung by Mrs. Alsop At the Theatres and Arranged with Piano Forte Accompaniments at Her Request By A. Clifton. This Melody Is One of a Collection, the Gift of Mrs. Alsop to Mr. Clifton, Shortly before Her Death. Music by Mrs. Alsop. Baltimore: Geo. Willig, 1824.
Group 2, Subcategory 2: Songs of War
The years of Opie’s rise to literary fame were years of conflict for Britain, first in the Revolutionary Wars with France (1792-1801) and then in the Peninsular campaign against Napoleon (1807-1814). In the mid-1790s a growing fear of revolution fueled by events in France led to repressive governmental measures. During this period Miss Alderson was sympathetic to the Jacobin cause and her lyrics represent the human cost of warfare. In 1813 that cost struck close to home: Charles William Thompson, a cousin doubly related through both the Alderson and Briggs families, was killed serving under Wellington in the Napoleonic campaign. Her commemorative dirge is first published as a poem in her Lays for the Dead in 1834, but appears to have circulated as a lyric tied to a musical score soon after Thompson’s death.
‘in My Cot Tho’ Small’s My Store’ a Favorite Song, the Words Imitated from the French. Music by Edward Smith Biggs, London: R. Birchall, 1810.
My Love to War Is Going. A Song with an Accompaniment for the Piano-Forte. Music by Edward Smith Biggs, London: R. Birchall, 1795.
O! May I Then Your Words Believe. A Ballad. Music by Edward Smith Biggs, London: R. Birchall, 1801.
Weep Not, Dirge to the Memory of Captn. Charles Wm. Thompson, of the 1st Guards, Killed at Bidart, 12th Decr. 1813. Written by Mrs. Opie. The Music Composed & Sung at the Vocal Concerts, Hanover Square … by Mrs. Bianchi Lacy, London: Goulding & Co., 1814?.
Group 2, Subcategory 3: Songs of Love and Friendship
This final grouping brings together songs that focus on a variety of emotional states: the plea of the youth who loves despite his knowledge of his coquettish mistress in “I know you false, I know you vain”; patient mourning for lost love in “Then be it so” and “Lost is my quiet forever”; celebration of the bonds of friendship and society in “The Winter’s Lone Beautiful Rose”; and the celebration of religious devotion in “Who gave the Sun his Light.” The latter is especially significant, given that Opie, after a period of intense social life in London where she was celebrated as a literary lion, became increasingly devout and joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1825. Despite the disapprobation of singing and hymns among stricter Friends, Opie contributed a number of hymns to Priscilla Gurney’s collections.
I Know You False, I Know You Vain, a Ballad, Written by Mrs. Opie, the Music by Wesley Doyle Esqr. Music by Wesley Doyle, London: Chappell & Co., 1806.
“Lost Is My Quiet for Ever.” A Song with an Accompaniment for the Piano Forte. Music by Edward Smith Biggs, London: R. Birchall, 1806.
Then Be It So, A Ballad by Mrs. Opie. Music by Mrs, Robert Arkwright. London: J. Power, c. 1825.
O! That I Cou’d Recall the Day, a Ballad, Written by Mrs. Opie, the Music by Wesley Doyle Esqr. Music by Wesley Doyle, London: Chappell & Co., 1806.
The Winter’s Lone Beautiful Rose, Canzoncina. The Poetry by Mrs. Opie from Songs for the Drawing room, Composed for & Dedicated to the Lady Gordon Cumming. Music by by William Aspull, London: Z.T. Purday, c. 1850.
Who gave the Sun his Light: A Hymn to the Creator written to a Celebrated Melody of Trajetta’s by Mrs. Opie. Music by Mr. Biggs, London: Birchall.