Old folks always have the best stuff. A framed piece of sheet music on paper always hung next to Mom's piano, given to her by my Aunt Ann. The title is “The King and the Miller.” The archaic notation could be a clue to the history of this piece of old music.
Under a few of the bars of music, we see a fraction 6/5. The song is written as given in 6/8 time. So what is this ‘5’? I discovered the 5 indicates a ‘droning 5th’; meaning in the lively key of G major of this song, the bass would “drone” under particularly 6/5 annotated bars, singing a “D” note.
That droning sound, I remembered, having been married to the tune of a bagpipe, is typical of certain country-folk instruments, notably the bagpipe or musette. The sound of that drone to the audience would signal “peasant” music.
However, the elegant engraving style of the illustration over the music is anything but unsophisticated. And the words of the song deride the Courtly Courtier’s life: “(this – the Miller) Clown in his dress may be honest’r by far, than a Courtier who struts in a Garter and Star.” The composer throughout the words and the lilt of the song is meaning to prick the nobility, but upon which occasion?
This song came out in a theater piece called The King and The Miller of Mansfield, first performed on Drury Lane on 29th January 1737. The musician and librettist was a Mr. Arne, often a composer for the Musical Theatre of the second quarter of the 18th Century, and the song might have been performed by his songstress wife Cecelia who was noteworthy for her “fine shake” (i.e. trill)!
The song marks the beginning of the successful years of Drury Lane Theatre, and enjoyed a long and popular life after the run of the play, appearing in George Bickham’s illustrated songbook The Musical Entertainer I of 1737.
The producer of the play The King and The Miller, Robert Dodsley, along with the composer and librettist Arne, narrowly missed future likely censorship because an Act was brewing in Whitehall and would come to fruition in 1738: government censorship of the theatre in the form of The Licensing Act of 1738. The Act was spurred on by the famous Henry Fielding’s dramatic stage farces in which he attacked Sir Robert Walpole, such as Fielding’s Pasquin of 1736. In fact, the Royal Government was becoming more and more disillusioned with London theaters in the 1730’s, such as Drury Lane and Covent Garden, where singing castrati with bawdy pantomimes were the rage.
Henry Fielding attended when performers sung this song on Mom's sheet music at Drury Lane. The Prince and Princess of Wales attended as well that January of 1737. And the show became so popular in its veiled attacks on the hoi-polloi that it ran for 35-consecutive nights to sold out boxes.
Because Mom’s sheet music is a reproduction of the 18th Century original, it's worth $50, the original would be $500. But it is a great example of how a slice of history can tell volumes, about the social climate, the political climate, the tastes of the era, what was humorous or risqué, and what would engender a guffaw. Moreover, one of the reasons the Shakers and Quakers came to this country was the ribald nature of the stage in at that time, which is a whole ‘nother story.
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Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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