At the Harp and Hoboy: John Walsh, Music Publisher

Where has the time gone?  First there was Christmas, then these book thingys which seem to keep you very busy indeed.  Then, as some of you know I ended up in hospital this month for a brief, if unexpected engagement with a morphine drip.  Also, gas + air, useless or what?  So it’s been a rather topsy turvy month and I have neglected poor Georgian London.  However, no longer, as the blog will now be the recipient of the things which couldn’t be crammed into the book.  It’s not second rate, oh no! – most of these characters will still be in there, but they will have smaller parts than the extrapolated versions you’ll see here.  I hope they will give you a taste of things to come later this year.

Whilst there can be no doubt George Frederick Handel defined popular music in London in the early part of the eighteenth century in London, the secret of his success was not confined to his patrons or his charitable leanings. Immediately upon his arrival in London, Handel formed a relationship with John Walsh who had risen to prominence as music-maker-in-ordinary to William and Mary but was a man with an eye to the future. Since 1647, John Playford had been publishing sheet music and the company had passed to his son Henry.  Henry was old-fashioned, focussing on traditional pieces, often for large-scale entertainments and Playford’s was in decline. John Walsh saw that there was a demand for the new music people heard at parties and events not only to be circulated to professional musicians who would then play it at other events, but for people to play at home.  This catered for a large group of amateur musicians amongst all classes of Londoners.  From the lady in her drawing room to the fiddler on the street, Walsh imagined there was a demand for this new music, not just the traditional or folk compositions.  He was right.

Walsh started publishing in 1695 and was soon innovating: using cheap and quick-to-work pewter instead of copper and punches for notes to speed things up.  He had instant success, but his real opportunity presented itself when Handel appeared on the scene.
Handel came to London in 1711 with the ink still wet on his opera Rinaldo, which he had been engaged to write for performance in the 1710-11 season at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket.  Aaron Hill, the manager, had decided upon an ‘Italian’ season, and Handel was the man to deliver, his reputation already known in the city.  Opera was relatively new to London’s sophisticated set and attempts to establish an English style were damp squibs in the main.  Rinaldo – a consciously Italianate opera written by a German – was an instant hit.

Rinaldo was played by Nicolo Grimaldi, the Neapolitan castrato who would enjoy such a productive relationship with Handel – between them they established Italian opera in the popular taste.  Debuting on February 24th, 1711 it was a sell-out, with two extra dates being added on at the end.  Addison and Steele attacked it in The Spectator, pouring scorn on the idea of a foreign language performance and the clumsiness of the production yet the very appearance of an Italian opera in The Spectator, the journal of the thinking man on the street, meant opera had arrived in popular culture.  

Handel’s success was assured in many ways but his relationship with Walsh, who quickly published Rinaldo, cemented his accessibility with all levels of Londoner.  They tapped into a ready market and by 1716 Walsh was importing and exporting music through Amsterdam in partnership with the Huguenot Estienne Roger.  Walsh even launched two music periodicals aimed at competent and interested musicians:The Monthly Mask of Vocal Music and Harmonium Anglicana.

Despite their success, Walsh and Handel would quarrel and the flow of his sheet music was sometimes sporadic, but when Walsh’s son, also John took over the business as a twenty-one year old he had the advantage of having known the composer since he was a tot and was probably young and deferential enough for a great artist now in his heyday.  In 1739, Handel granted John the monopoly on his sheet music for the next fourteen years, ensuring a steady and good quality supply of his compositions.
Handel is the iconic composer of the first half of the eighteenth century in London, but it was the Walsh family who made him beloved of the common man, and ensured his works were heard constantly in homes across the city, the country and Europe.

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