The Royal Academy of Music

Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
August 2023

This was a private organisation, set up for the specific purpose of presenting Italian opera in London, and surviving for nine seasons. It has no connection with the conservatory set up in 1822 and housed in Marylebone Road since 1912. On 8 May 1719 the King undertook to provide an annual bounty of £1,000 to the new company. The warrant for its creation was issued on the following day, with sixty-two individuals subscribing at least the minimum sum of £200: a few individuals, including the Duke of Newcastle, the Duke of Chandos, and the Earl of Burlington, gave up to £1,000. The list included one marquess, three viscounts, and six barons, along with members of the upper gentry ranging from baronets to simple esquires. All were male, although the charter actually states that subscriptions would be taken from “any person or persons whatsoever who shall ,,, be willing to become Members of the said Corporation.” While a few Tories such as the lords Bathurst, Bingley, Lansdowne, and North and Grey are present, the general cast of the group is Whig and pro-Hanoverian, with a good sprinkling of courtiers. All subscribers were required to take oaths of allegiance to the crown, to the Protestant succession, and to the Church of England, as was normal for bodies operating under a royal charter. Among the initial names are those of Lord Sunderland, First Lord of the Treasury (effectively prime minister); Newcastle, Lord Chamberlain; the Duke of Kent, Lord Privy Seal; Lord Berkeley, First Lord of the Admiralty; and James Craggs, Secretary of State. No one could say that the new venture lacked influential backers at its outset. In the event, the experiment was dogged by misfortune from the start.

A very similar but not quite identical list appeared in the charter for the Royal Academy of Musick, granted for twenty-one years by George I on 27 July 1719. This document was witnessed by William Wake, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other Lord Justices, the King being absent all that summer in Hanover. This was a joint stock company for which the subscribers acted as guarantors, with a proposed capital of £10,000—easily met by the initial investors. The charter sets out the financial basis of the enterprise and its form of governance, including the election of directors. Early meetings of the court were chaired by the governor Newcastle) or his deputy (the Duke of Manchester). In many ways the key member was the impresario John James Heidegger (1666–1749), already well established as the purveyor of both operas and masquerades at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, who as early as September 1717 had approached the star castrato Senesino (Francesco Bernardi, 1686–1758) to come to London. Another noteworthy figure was the polymath John Arbuthnot (1667–1735), physician, writer and music-lover, who had become one of Handel’s earliest friends in London, and lived close to Burlington House in Piccadilly, then being remodelled for its owner.  As soon as Burlington got back from a stay in Italy, where he may have sounded out Giovanni Bononcini (1670–1742) on the possibility of joining the composing team at the Academy, he attended meetings of the directors. In fact, acquiring talent was the chief preoccupation of the governing board at this juncture: Heidegger, Arbuthnot, and Burlington all took part in this effort.

Thereafter the institution flourished artistically, with its two leading composers especially producing a series of outstanding works for the brilliant team of singers that had been assembled. Noteworthy among these, alongside Senesino, were the sopranos Margarita Durastante, Francesca Cuzzoni, and Faustina Bordoni; the contralto Anastasia Robinson; the alto Gaetano Berenstadt and the bass Giuseppe Boschi—all with Italian roots. Handel was at the centre of the enterprise, acting as director of music and conducting from the harpsichord what was a sizeable orchestra for the age. The repertoire included many brand-new items, as well as pieces revised and refurbished with the help of the librettists Paolo Rolli and Nicola Haym. Patronage continued to flow from royalty, the aristocracy, and the gentry, with the cavernous spaces of the King’s Theatre filled for new productions, as well for some revivals featuring favourite singers who were paid huge salaries and attained a celebrity status that hardy any working musician had enjoyed in earlier centuries.

In the summer of 1720 everything looked set fair for the new initiative. When the splendid edition of John Gay’s Poems went out to subscribers on 14 July, the list was thickly sprinkled with the names of those sponsoring the Academy. The Prince and Princess of Wales were followed by Dr. Arbuthnot, Lord Bathurst, Martin Bladen, James Bruce, Burlington and Chandos (notionally, fifty copies), Thomas Coke, Craggs, Bryan Fairfax, the Duke of Grafton, Lord Gower, George Harrison, Heidegger, Lord Lincoln, Lord Lansdowne, Sir Wilfred Lawson, the Duke of Montrose, Newcastle, Lord Peterborough, William Pulteney, Anastasia Robinson, Lord Strafford, and Lord Sussex, as well as the Duke of Wharton (who was busy recruiting Italian singers for his own household). A majority of these were directors in the early years of the Academy; Bruce was the treasurer. The roster provides a nice blend of Burlingtonian Whigs and Tories in the circle of Pope. It must have seemed that the speculators had caught a fair wind for their adventure.

Yet speculation is what it was. This success in terms of artistic merit (generally) and of public visibility came at a heavy price. The seeds of the ultimate collapse of the Academy were sown right at the start. After just one season, the failure of the South Sea Company had various ramifications for the undertaking. Some of its most munificent contributors including the Duke of Chandos lost heavily when the Bubble burst, and began to draw in their horns. Others were found to have been heavily implicated in the wrongdoing: Lord Sunderland was ousted in disgrace and James Craggs exposed as a passive collaborator. Both were dead by the end of 1722. The royal family and their trusted Hanoverian circle did not escape the scandal.

From the outset, fissures began to emerge in the opera company, some musical, some personal, some political. Commentators did not fail to see links with the financial meltdown. Thus, Giuseppe Riva, the Modenese representative in London, wrote in the wake of the crash, “May the South Sea directors be impaled—they who have ruined all my friends, and I fear greatly will have in consequence ruined the Academy.” In 1721, Riva observed that “The Academy of Music is descending into a kind of South Sea Company. The fondness for faction, which is characteristic of this nation and the gossiping of the caterwaulers have brought things to a state of collapse.”  He exaggerated a little, but not too extravagantly; Chandos did have to make severe cuts to his musical staff, as a result of the terrible situation that had produced “overwhelming confusion and losses for honourable men.” It was widely known that Gay had lost most of what he had earned by his poems. Riva reported more optimistically in January 1721 that the opera house was “always full at half guinea a ticket, that is to say at twice the normal cost.” This referred to performances of beautiful works by Bononcini (Astarte) and Handel (Radamisto). Not all the offerings were of quite this quality.

Even when the crisis passed, finances remained a problem at the Haymarket. Calls were made to subscribers at regular intervals, usually a demand at 5%, which would require a payment of £10 from most subscribers. Opera is of course an expensive art form at the best of times, and the overheads were high, leaving aside the astronomic salaries paid. It probably did not help that Heidegger was engaged in managing two separate enterprises on the same site, which must have drained the time and resources he devoted to the upkeep of the operatic space. As for the factious spirit that Riva described, this was natural in a company whose talents were matched by their temperamental nature. Handel’s fiery outbursts are well documented, while Bonononci had a record of bitter disputes in Vienna, where he was said to have displayed “an insolent temper.”

Equally, Senesino, Cuzzoni and Faustina were all noted for their prickly response to any perceived slight, and their huge earnings gave them more freedom to create scenes—which they gladly took. The alleged fisticuffs on stage between the rival queens in 1727 may not have happened in quite the way it is usually reported, and it was obviously not a typical occurrence: but it does reflect tensions that can be detected from other evidence. Bad blood also existed between the partisans of individual performers. Thus in 1723, the arrival of Cuzzoni as the new leading lady prompted “very great Debates, and warm Speeches” among the directors. A year later, newspapers reported “a civil Broil” among subscribers at a rehearsal of an opera by Attilio Ariosto, the third member of the house composing team, which ”turn’d all the Harmony into Discord.” The quarrel was believed to have been caused by an affront that Anastasia Robinson had received from Senesino.  thus galvanising partisan feelings on either side. Ominously, the story went on, “if these Dissensions do not cease, it is thought Opera Stock will fall.” So, in time, it did.

By the date of the fracas between the two divas, the writing was on the wall. Things came to a head in 1728. It is possible, as John Gay jokingly suggested to Swift in February, that the massive recent success of his Beggar’s Opera had reduced audiences at the King’s Theatre to a trickle, and that he might expect retaliations from the Academy. In the summer, the star singers were out of contract and left the country: Faustina was pregnant and never returned, Cuzzoni did not sing for Handel again, and Senesino worked only briefly for the would-be successor to the company known as the Second Academy. Handel and Heidegger enjoyed little success in their efforts to find new singers, and the theatre went dark for a year. Luckily, Handel was unaffected by the financial losses, and survived to produce some of his greatest music in the next two decades. Still, it was an ignominious conclusion to an enterprise that had promised so much.

The fullest treatment is Elizabeth Gibson, The Royal Academy of Music, 1719–1728: The Institution and its Directors (New York, 1989). Day-by-day episodes can be followed in George Frideric Handel: Collected Documents, ed. Donald Burrows et al., vols. 1 and 2 (Cambridge, 2013–15). For the ways in which Handel tailored the music to the powers of particular singers, see the book by C. Steven Laurie, Handel and his Singers: The Creation of the Royal Academy Opera, 1720–1728 (Oxford, 1995). Valuable background can be located in George E. Dorris, Paolo Rolli and the Italian Circle in London 1715–1744 (The Hague, 1967).