1London eighteenth-century pleasure gardens have often been pictured as places of social mix where members of both polite society and the middling orders would rub shoulders against one another. “One of the most remarkable aspects of Tyers’s Vauxhall from 1735 onwards,” Coke and Borg comment, “was that, in theory at least, he made no distinction between any of his visitors. Everybody was charged the same, entered through the same doorway, and had access to the same refreshments and entertainments; there was no Vauxhall elite, no separation of the classes or occupations, no hierarchy” (Coke & Borg 42). Sociologically speaking, the audience was mixed. In 1790 a Russian visitor found that “London’s Vauxhall unite[d] all classes: it [was] frequented by men of fashion and by flunkeys, by the finest ladies and by women of the street” (Karamzin 415-17).
2Interpretations concerning the questions of sociability and social mixing in the pleasure gardens have varied somewhat, however. David H. Solkin argued that the improvements made by Jonathan Tyers, the owner of the Spring Gardens (Vauxhall), were intended to “gentrify” the place (chap. 4). Conversely, Brian Allen talks of a process of “democratization,” the purpose of which was to “cater to the […] expanding middle-class market that frequented the play houses north of the river” (17). In her recently published The Beau Monde (see also “All Together”), Hannah Greig argues for her part that, in spite of reasonably-priced entrance tickets, only the wealthy and fashionable could afford to frequent the gardens regularly, so that the form of their attendance was different from that of other classes of people. The alleged urban sociability of these public resorts was only superficial in that, although middle-class people could peep at the fashionable, they did not actually engage with them. There was no such thing as a real “cohesive experience” (Greig “All Together” 55). The title of a song sung by Mr. Dignum at Vauxhall Gardens at the beginning of the nineteenth century would seem to prove Hannah Greig right: “One half of the World don’t know how th’other lives.”
3Although I tend to be wary of staunchly “revisionist” theories, I find Greig’s thesis rather convincing. In a former article published in 2007, I personally argued that the eighteenth-century London pleasure gardens remained ambiguous and ambivalent places of leisure and entertainment throughout their existence. I suggested that they were an open scene upon which both “common” and polite people could project their aspirations and their respective ideas of themselves and their standards of taste (Dubois, “Resorts” 66). In other words, while one may agree with Greig that there was not really such a thing as a unified audience, the pleasure gardens provided an acceptable representation of an ideal of social harmony, which suited the ideological aspirations of both the middling orders and their “betters.” A close look at the eighteenth-century pleasure gardens may then contribute to our understanding of the place of the middling orders in the second half of the eighteenth century, when a new social and economic order was being established, and it may help us assess to what extent the ethos of “golden mediocrity” found an apt illustration in the context of these gardens.
4The aim of this paper is consequently to pay attention to the music performed in the pleasure gardens (mainly Vauxhall) to see what it may reveal about the public’s taste and the notion of social “inclusivity.” As a matter of fact, the repertoire performed in the gardens included both pieces borrowed from the noblest genres, and “easy” familiar songs and concertos in the “gallant” style composed specifically for these resorts. Can this be interpreted as an index of “social hybridity” or “inclusive sociable interaction,” to use Hannah Greig’s phrases (“All Together” 55)? Or is it a delusion? I shall argue that the gardens can be interpreted as transitional places between high-brow and middle-brow musical cultures, that is, public spaces where the music formerly reserved for the social elite was apparently made accessible to a broader audience, but, as a consequence, underwent a gradual transformation, thus giving birth to a “medium” or “mediocre” form of culture. In this respect, they contributed to the refashioning of musical culture on the eve of the Victorian era. Restricting myself to the musical question, I will try to show that, culturally speaking, the gap between the elite and the middling sort of people was bridged more in appearance than substance. Behind the façade of an effort towards aristocratic refinement, the pleasure gardens actually fostered and promoted a middling, “mediocre” – that is more accessible – kind of repertoire.
- 1 Here is the example of a characteristic late-century programme: “Concert on 10 June 1785: Full Ove (...)
5Penelope J. Corfield writes that Vauxhall was “a great cultural bazaar” (39). From Tyers’s time onward, one of the assets of Vauxhall was that it enabled the middling sort of people to listen to music by the best composers, while making sure that there was a pleasant mix of performances and a great variety of styles, “with an easy balance between the serious and the light-hearted” (Coke & Borg 142). As the audience was socially mixed, Vauxhall tried to pander to a variety of tastes. Interestingly, the same phenomenon of social mixing can be observed in the eighteenth-century Foires de Paris: “les courtisans les plus raffinés, les plus jolies filles, les filous les plus subtils, sont comme entrelacés ensemble. Toute la foire fourmille de monde, depuis l’entrée jusqu’au bout,” reported Joachim Christoph Nemeitz (1679-1753) in the Séjour de Paris (I, xix, 171). Historically, the diversifi-cation of the public, and the cultural broadening it entailed, was a European phenomenon hinging on a social transformation – that of the opening out of the public sphere (first analysed by Habermas) due to a new economic deal, linked to mass sociability, urban transformation and the commodification of leisure (Corfield 41), and giving birth to a new material culture. Whereas only wealthy people could afford the admission price to the opera and most concert series (Coke & Borg 139), pleasure gardens (especially Vauxhall) made it possible for a wider audience to have access to English music and performers of high quality on a regular basis (Coke & Borg 173). The fact that music was performed in the open air and that people were free to stroll around and to listen, or not, transformed the public’s experience of musical performance (Coke & Borg 141). At Vauxhall, the entrance ticket cost only 1 shilling for a long time until its first increase as late as 1792 (Corfield 12). Such a sum was high enough to exclude the poor, which guaranteed a certain social exclusivity among the visitors, but it was affordable for the middling orders and very small for the better-off. As Corfield remarks, “keeping an ambience of accessibility without losing social cachet was a difficult balancing act” (11). A conscious effort was made to assert the high standards of taste that were supposed to appeal to the more polite members of the audience, while simpler, more popular forms of music were nevertheless programmed. The statue of Handel by Roubiliac erected in Vauxhall Gardens in 1738 presided there significantly as a reminder that Handel, the greatest composer in England at the time, chaperoned Vauxhall. Serious works by major composers, including Arcangelo Corelli, Handel himself, William Boyce, Thomas Arne, Johann Christian Bach, and, later, Joseph Haydn, were performed alongside lighter works, as well as caches and glees.1 Handel’s music featured prominently. The Dead March from Saul was a standard in the Gardens’ repertoire and there were also performances of “God save the King” from the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest and “Hush ye pretty warbling choir” from Acis and Galatea.
6Yet serious composers also composed specifically for Vauxhall, as evidenced by the Vauxhall “scrapbooks” (compiled by James Winston) in the Bodleian Library, which give a broad, fairly representative picture of the musical programmes of these gardens. In 1735, William Boyce set to music verse by John Lockman (the author, incidentally, of A Sketch of the Spring-Gardens, Vaux-Hall, in a letter to a Noble Lord, 1751): “Rural Beauty, or Vauxhal (sic) Garden,” “The Adieu to the Spring-Garden”; Handel himself composed a special Hornpipe for Vauxhall in 1740 (Corfield 11); there were numerous songs by Thomas Augustine Arne, who was appointed principal composer in 1745; Felice Giardini wrote a “Trumpet Song” sung by Mrs. Weichfell in 1771; François Hippolyte Barthelemon composed songs around 1782; Dr. Arnold, organist and composer to his majesty, penned a song entitled “Festivity” sung by Mr Wilson at Ranelagh (Bodleian Scrapbook I, 173/2); and of course, James Hook, composed dozens of songs during his long tenure as organist and conductor at Vauxhall from 1774 to 1820. Among his many compositions can be found one entitled “‘The sorrows of Werter,’ a favourite song sung by Mrs Kennedy at Vauxhall, composed by Mr. Hook, May 1785” (Bodleian Scrapbook I, 173/4), testifying to the way the gardens quickly responded to novelty and changes in fashion and contributed, as in this instance, to the spreading of the new sensibility Goethe’s Werther (1774) staged.
7The presence of organs in several (at least 7) of the more important London pleasure Gardens is particularly interesting. I would like to suggest that the role, image and use of these instruments in the pleasure gardens reflected the very social ambiguities of these places of entertainment and the manner in which they accompanied a gradual transformation of the cultural values propounded in them. Due to the particular status the organ had acquired in eighteenth-century England thanks to Handel, who had introduced organ concertos during his oratorio performances, its presence triggered associations with its roles in respectable, religious contexts (Dubois, “Socio-Cutural Semiotics”). It created an air of devotion and lent “gravity to the organ concerto, a secular genre, in its sacred oratorio context” (Lynan 1997, I, 42). William Mason explained at the time that it was Handel’s intention to erect “an Organ on the Play-House Stage, with a view undoubtedly to difference as much by its dignified form, as by its solemn tones, that semi-dramatic species of composition the Oratorio from a genuine Opera” (Mason 72). While organ concertos continued to be performed regularly during oratorio performances, they soon became an essential part of the musical programmes in the pleasure gardens, which “functioned as surrogates for the theatres and concert rooms during the summer months” with similar programmes (Lynan 1997, I, 60). The organ always remained a central feature and its presence was often mentioned in the advertisements of the period. An overture on the organ always formed part of the entertainment. The instrument would be used for accompaniment purposes (in particular when extracts from oratorios were performed) as well as for solos or concertos. As I have argued elsewhere, “through a process of association of ideas, the visual presence of an organ was supposed to trigger positive impressions and to prompt the visitor to think of the pleasure garden and behave in it in the same way as he would have done during an oratorio performance in a theatre. The organ [was] one of the key elements in the social and ideological machinery whereby an attempt was made to render the pleasure gardens respectable [and] genteel” (Dubois, “Resorts” 59).
8However, as suggested above, things were not that clear-cut and it would be erroneous to see the pleasure gardens’ organs only in their most noble attire. The fashion for organ concertos gradually led the gardens’ organists to compose their own concertos in the lighter, gallant style of their own time, popularised by Johann Christian Bach, which was better suited to the atmosphere of the place and the taste of the crowd. The performers heard at the gardens were mainly native musicians and the repertoire remained therefore primarily “English” (see Brewer 379). This, Peter Lynan explains, “was a consequence of the gardens’ generous social appeal, which inevitably encouraged a less select patronage than could be found at certain concert-hall entreprises” (“The English Keyboard Concerto” 60). Peter Lynan further explains that “the organ concerto, representative as it was of an older, native tradition and still strongly linked with Handel and oratorio, continued to be favoured by British composers and flourished into the early part of the following century” (Lynan, Preface xix). The numerous works composed by Arne, Hook, Worgan, Gladwin, et al., composed as they were, not as interludes between the movements of oratorios, as Handel’s had been, but as easy entertainment music, in tune with the new songs that were constantly produced for the gardens, were charming but they were decidedly not as elaborate or complex as the keyboard concertos of Haydn, Dussek, Clementi or Cramer, which were becoming fashionable in the concert room. The pleasure gardens organ concertos can thus be said to have somehow encapsulated the characteristically English “virtuosophobic” ethos of the period (see McVeigh 144, D’Arcy Wood passim) that was at one with the middling-orders’ ideal of aurea mediocritas.
9Peter Lynan explains that “the connection between the simple, regular metrical style of concerto finales and songs themselves was not hard to make, and, indeed, a handful of the former underwent the reverse process, had text added, and became better known as song” (“The English Keyboard Concerto” 1: 73-4). The tension between the allegedly “noble” character of the organ and the new use to which it was put in the gardens is well exemplified in adaptations of organ concerto movements to the song-format, such as “a Song to an Air in an Organ Concerto, for Vauxhall Gardens” (Bodleian Scrapbook I, G. A. Surrey c.21, 81, May 1746), the words of which are in the characteristic pastoral vein. The “gentrifying” presence of the organ is thus toned down, so to speak, through the generic rerouting or diverting of the original musical role of the piece, and, consequently, that of the image of the instrument itself. Another one, “Green-wood-hall: or, Robin’ s Description (to his Wife) of the Pleasures of Spring-Gardens. Made to a favourite Gavot, from an Organ Concerto, composed by Mr. Gladwin, for Vauxhall” (Bodleian Scrapbook 1, 94, 1750), also subverts the traditional character of the instrument, since a text about the spring-gardens themselves is superadded to a gavotte from an organ concerto by Thomas Gladwin, one time organist of Vauxhall gardens. Not only is the association of the organ with its religious function completely forgotten, but the text itself is clearly intended as a reflection and illustration of the precise situation in which the song could be heard. The numerous songs “reflected the behaviour of the visitors to Vauxhall – strolling, singing, eating, talking, drinking or engaging in amorous intrigues,” T. J. Edelstein explains (206). The songs sung at the pleasure gardens were about the place itself and the members of the audience. The words had to echo the latter’s middling social situation, activity and concerns. The words of the following “favourite song” set to music by James Hook and sung by Mrs Wrighten (Bodleian Scrapbook I, 160/3), mention the variety of customers (“beaux, wits, courtiers and cits”) but insists mainly on the merry, light and pleasant character of the music heard at Vauxhall, as opposed to the more serious music heard at the concert or opera:
Ye beaux and ye wits,
Ye courtiers and cits,
Attentive to Pleasure’s gay call;
Come, revel away,
For this is the day,
She cries, hark away to Vauxhall.
Here music you’ll find
To enliven the mind
That never your fancies can pall;
The ladies come away
And lasses be gay,
Hark – Pleasure invites to Vauxhall.
Sweet nymphs grave or gay,
Quite sick of the play,
And cloy’d with each op’ra and ball;
Come here, change the scene,
Hail Pleasure’s gay Queen,
She cries, Hark away to Vauxhall.
10The ethos of mediocrity was also expressed by the tendency, after 1770, to round off a concerto with a set of variations or a rondo based on a well-known tune, the incorporation of which “served to establish an immediate link with domestic music-making,” as Peter Lynan has remarked (“The English Keyboard Concerto” 1: 172). Music had to be simple and straightforward in order to be successful, just as the food served at Vauxhall always remained simple, avoiding the sophistication of French food which was becoming fashionable in polite society (Coke & Borg 200). Thus, whereas the genre of the organ concerto had originated in the concert hall in the context of “polite” oratorio performances, it underwent a transformation as it reached, and thrived, in the pleasure gardens, in order for it better to meet the simpler, less high-brow aspirations of the mixed audiences there. A kind of cheerful mediocrity gradually became the order of the day as the music programmes provided variety, with overtures, songs, concertos and catches and glees. Coke and Borg remark that “the combination of serious, sometimes even solemn, music interspersed with more playful pieces and popular songs became the accepted sound of the Vauxhall evening” (153). Up until the end of the eighteenth century, the ideal or ethos of “aurea mediocritas” was reflected in the process of gradual transformation and simplification of “serious” musical forms imported from the concert-stage into lighter pieces, so as to please a less well-educated, less sophisticated audience. Of course, saying this implies no value judgment on my part concerning the taste of this part of the audience. As David Hume remarked, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty” (208). Who is to say whether the more aristocratic frequenters of the gardens had “better” musical taste than their bourgeois counterparts? Yet what is beyond doubt is that the so-called elitist repertoire of the concert venues differed markedly from that which tended to become the hallmark of the pleasure gardens.
11An intriguing debate seems to have taken place in the late 1780s concerning the direction the Vauxhall concerts were to take. In May 1786, Johann Baptist Cramer and William Shield were offered an engagement, which they declined (Bodleian Scrapbook II, G.A. Surrey c.22, n.p.). This suggests that the proprietors and managers of Vauxhall intended to upgrade the musical quality of the concerts by hiring well-known, fashionable musicians such as Cramer and Shield. The image of Vauxhall was probably not enticing enough for the latter to accept these positions, however. And, whereas the managers announced that the organ concertos were to be “discontinued, as being insuitable to the stile of the place” (ibid.), that is presumably, not high-brow, cosmo-politan or foreign enough, Hook is later mentioned as still performing on “Harpsichord and organ,” while Dieudonné Pascal Pieltain is mentioned as 1st Violin. Although violin, oboe, bassoon, clarinet or even trumpet concertos gradually replaced the organ, organ concertos were mentioned as late as August 1803 (Bodleian Scrapbook II, G.A. Surrey c.22, n.p.) and Hook probably performed some until he eventually retired in 1820. This may be interpreted as a sign that there was a discrepancy between the aspirations of the management of the gardens, who may have wanted to align the musical programmes with those of the major concert venues of the metropolis, and the taste of the “middling sort of people” who constituted the core of the audience and liked the light, pleasant, middle-brow or “mediocre” music of James Hook better than the more difficult manner of a Cramer.
12Music performed two roles at the same time: metaphorically, it expressed an ideal of harmony and politeness, but practically it also provided entertainment in the simplest, most straightforward and popular manner. As long as such a dichotomy was perceived to be tolerable, the pleasure gardens prospered. Conversely, their eventual demise corresponded to the moment in history when social polarisation rendered such contradictions no longer acceptable. Whereas in the eighteenth century there was no clear dividing line between popular and “classical” (or “serious”) music (Corfield 10), things gradually changed around the turn of the century. Concert audiences became “more specialised in their demands” and the musical world “more segmented” (Corfield 28). New, more popular, less high-brow and more vulgar forms of entertainment for large crowds of visitors were introduced into the pleasure gardens, which changed from places of open social intercourse and diversion into resorts of organised, commercial or “commodified” entertainment (Ogborn 119, 123): fire-eaters, sailing and rowing matches, rope-dancers (such as the famous Madame Sacchi ,who was said to produce “wonderful effects” in the middle of “a glare of blue flame,” “an appearance almost super natural”), “transparencies,” fireworks, illuminations. Vauxhall was turned into a place of illusion and enchantment. For some time, this appealed to polite people, but increasingly they distanced themselves from these new forms of attractions, as reported by Mrs Papendiek, Assistant Keeper of the Wardrobe and reader to her Majesty:
After a most elegant tea, given in tents on their lawn [the Stillingfleet’s], we proceeded to Vauxhall, with which, I believe, we were all equally enchanted, although in these days we are so genteel that we should not admit it to have been even bearable. I heard the famous Vernon sing, and Mrs. Weichsel, a German, originally a scholar of Bach’s. We supped, and went through the whole of the amusements, including the Cascade, an object of attraction at that period. (Papendiek 121)
- 2 For instance: “Last night, as soon as the sailing match was over, the company resorted to these ga (...)
13As a consequence, there was a gradual change in the composition of the crowds attending the gardens, as reported in contemporary press cuttings.2 One of them insists upon the fact that, though numerous, the people of distinction were outnumbered by “the well-dressed multitude of a subordinate description [my italics] on the Prince of Wales’ Birth Night” at Vauxhall in 1803 (12 August 1803, Bodleian Scrapbook II, G. A. Surrey c.22, n.p.). The early-nineteenth century gardens now catered primarily for “the rapidly expanding middle-classes and the working classes who provided services to the growing bourgeoisie” (Coke & Borg 250) and the entertainments were consequently monitored to suit these new classes’ tastes.
- 3 See for instance this advert for a concert of Vocal and Instrumental Music in 1831, which lists “T (...)
14This change in focus impacted, and was reflected in, the music performed in the garden. In the 1780s, there were new kinds of musical entertainments, such as “the Savoyards,” a group of foreign performers who apparently eclipsed more conventional musicians (Bodleian Scrapbook I, 162/2, 1781), or a bagpipe player who apparently played “with uncommon beauty” and a great “tenderness of tone and variety” (Bodleian Scrapbook II, G. A. Surrey c.22, n.p., 1st May 1788). From 1790, the expression “martial music” creeps into the programmes with mentions of “military galas” and patriotic songs, such as “The Grand Expedition,” a “new song written by Dr Houlton, composed by Mr Hook & sung by Mrs Moutain,” or Hook’s Grand Ode, “The Shield of Providence” (Bodleian Scrapbook II, G. A. Surrey c.22, n.p.). In 1817, a reader denounced the new songs which he thought were not as pleasing as “the compositions of old veteran Hook, which always delighted the ears of the auditors at this fashionable place of resort,” and had been changed into “the most dull and unmeaning compositions.” Thus, through an interesting reversal, the “light” music of Hook, once considered less refined than the music performed at the London concert-halls, was now held as a model against which the material now in fashion appeared low and vulgar. Concerts then took a turn for the worse. The word “comic” was often used to advertise mixed combi-nations of light pieces now called “operettas.”3 The days of “aurea mediocritas” were numbered.
15Strangely, the idea that the gardens made a social mix possible was still dominant in the first decades of the nineteenth century, even as the wealthy and polite part of society tended to turn their backs on them because of the dropping standards of behaviour and taste. As late as 1824, an article linked the gardens with the character of the British nation precisely because they were places where all classes of people could mix (Anon., Bodleian Scrapbooks G. A. Surrey c.21-25, July 1824). Vauxhall was still hailed in newspapers as a “delightful place of amusement,” but it was also denounced for its vulgarity and potential violence. London pleasure gardens were indeed ambiguous and ambivalent places of leisure and entertainment where opposites were conflated. In the eighteenth century, English society strove through these gardens to establish – at least in theory and in representational terms – a social common ground between different classes of people with vastly different incomes, manners and tastes. These gardens can be said to have been transitional places between high-brow and middle-brow musical cultures as they enabled exposure of a broader strata of society to high-quality music, and they also had an impact on musical composition intended for them as the repertoire was gradually adapted to the less demanding musical expectations of the middling-orders, who constituted the bulk of the public at the gardens. To some extent, the phenomenon can be compared with today’s Proms, which pander to the taste of people from a broader section of the population than those who usually attend classical music concerts. However, in spite of the original efforts at gentrification, the pleasure gardens gradually stopped having a lasting impact on the general public’s exposure to demanding classical music, which remained – or became again – the sole preserve of a limited educated, high-brow and wealthy elite in other venues. By the 1830s, the two classes of music, intended for different classes of people, had parted their respective ways. The eighteenth-century ideal of social harmony between “all ranks of life” and ethos of “aurea mediocritas” had by then become more a matter of myth than reality (see Pincus 215, quoted in Greig, “All Together” 56).