Britain in the 18th century was an age of extremes: an era of elegance, roaring trade and enlightened idealism. At the same time it also suffered from depravity and bitter inequality.
This was a nation grappling with its identity, obsessively documenting itself through letters and diaries, paintings and newspapers. And it was home to some of the most exciting and diverse music being produced anywhere in the world: music that came to define and reflect the newly united ‘Great Britain’.
In this new three-part series, broadcaster and writer Suzy Klein tells the story of the composers and musicians that helped shape the musical map of Britain – among them Arne, Avison, Herschell and the towering figure of George Frederic Handel.
She discovers what it was like to be right at the centre of this cultural explosion, as she sets out to play some of the 18th century’s cutting-edge musical instruments, visits its refined assembly rooms and concert halls, tries her hand at ballad singing in Covent Garden and learns that most fiendish of social dances – the minuet.
Along the way, she finds a nation where music, more than any other art form, touched the lives of everyone. And she discovers that the seeds of today’s global music business were sown in the vitality, inventiveness and modernity of 18th century Britain.
In this first episode, Suzy investigates music as a weapon in the fight for British identity: helping to cement the power of a new German Royal family and used in Jacobite uprisings against them. She discovers why Italian opera was all the rage – thanks, in part, to a fascination with castrated male singers.
When Handel arrives in London, the city realises it has a genius on its hands: a man capable of creating music of such power, vigour and vitality that it can stir the hearts of the whole nation.
And music stirs a ‘bottom up’ revolution, as the Beggar’s Opera brings the satirical, subversive songs of the street on to the British stage, inventing modern musical theatre as we know it.
The music featured in this programme includes Rule Britannia, God Save The King, Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks as well as Thomas Arne’s savage attack on all things French: Beer-Drinking Britons.
Episode One is broadcast on the 8th of April on BBC Four from 9:00pm to 10:00pm.