Famous Londoners – Thomas Arne..

Eighteenth century English composer Thomas Arne, considered one of British greatest theatrical composers and most well known for creating the music for his patriotic song Rule Britannia, spent most of his life in London.

Thomas Augustine Arne after Robert Dunkarton line engraving, circa 1775-1800 (NPG D13867) PICTURE: © National Portrait Gallery, London

The son of an upholster, Arne, whose middle name was Augustine, was born in Covent Garden in 1710 and baptised in St Paul’s, Covent Garden. Arne was educated at Eton College where, such was his passion for music, he is said to have secretly practised with a spinet, a smaller type of harpsichord, in his room at night, muffling the strings to keep from being discovered.

He became a violin student of composer Michael Festing and, such was his love of music, that he is said to have disguised himself in the livery of servant to attend the opera.

Following his father’s wishes, Arne worked briefly as a solicitor after leaving school but was subsequently permitted to leave the law and pursue a life in music (there were other family connections to music and performance – his father had actually been involved in financing some operas and both his sister Susannah Maria and brother Richard would go on to have careers in the theatre and music worlds).

Over the more than 40 years between 1733 and 1776, Arne wrote music for about 80 stage works which included everything from plays and masques to pantomimes and operas.

His big break came when he became house composer at Drury Lane Theatre, writing music for various plays and pantomimes and involving both his brother and his sister in the performances (his residences at this time are said to have included properties in Great Queen Street and Lincoln’s Inn Fields).

Arne was already a star when, on 15th March, 1737, he married the singer Cecilia Young (he may have already had a son prior to this).

In 1738, he – along with others including George Frideric Handel – founded the Society of Musicians (which would become the Royal Society of Music). Arne also received the patronage of Frederick, the Prince of Wales – in fact, it was at the prince’s country house, Cliveden, that he debuted Rule, Britannia, during a performances of his Masque of Alfred in 1740.

Arne and his wife spent two years in Dublin in the early 1740s and on his return to London in 1744, he was again composing music for Drury Lane. He also composed music for performances at Vauxhall Gardens.

PICTURE: Spudgun67 (licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Arne left Drury Lane for the Covent Garden Theatre in 1750 after he had begun to fall out of favour with theatre manager David Garrick who was increasingly turning to other composers.

In 1755, while again in Dublin, he separated from Cecilia, alleging she was mentally ill, and began a relationship with one of his students, Charlotte Brent. Brent would perform in several of his works including in Thomas and Sally (the first English opera to be completely sung) and Artaxerxes (which became one of the most successfully and influential English operas of the era). Brent would eventually go on to eventually marry a violinist in 1766.

His career took a downturn in the mid 1760s but in 1769, Garrick appointed Arne musical director for the Shakespeare festival at Stratford upon Avon. Arne composed several pieces for the event including An Ode upon Dedicating a Building to Shakespeare, the success of which put him back into favour with the London theatres.

In late 1777, Arne was reconciled with his wife (their son, Michael, went on to become a composer). But his health deteriorated soon after and Arne died on 5th March, 1778, at a house in Bow Street, Covent Garden. He was buried in the churchyard of St Paul’s, Covent Garden.

An English Heritage Blue Plaque was erected at the site of his former home at 31 King Street, Covent Garden, in 1988 (pictured above).

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