John Eccles: Incidental Music, Part 1: Plays A–F

By Amanda Eubanks Winkler

“Go through the mB190 Covericrofilm collection: see what you find.” Twenty years ago, I followed my Ph.D. advisor’s advice as I castabout for repertory for my dissertation. In a dark corner of the music library at the University of Michigan, I discovered the music of John Eccles (ca. 1668–1735).

In Eccles’s own day, no such discovery was needed: he was one of the most popular composers working for the London stage, second only to Henry Purcell, with whom he briefly worked in 1693–95. During these few years they both composed music for the United Company, the theater troupe that resulted from the merger in 1682 of the two patent companies, the Duke’s and the King’s. Judging from contemporary reports, Eccles’s music often surpassed Purcell’s in terms of its crowd-pleasing qualities. Although he did write for professionals, Eccles spent most of his time composing for actor-singers, expertly devising music that suited their talents. Eccles gave them the space to add their own expression, which made his songs tremendously effective in the theater—even if they do not always reward modern musicologists keen on analysis. One rarely finds daring chromaticism or counterpoint, but Eccles was writing to be accessible, both for his actor-singers, who sometimes possessed more modest abilities than the professional singers, and his audiences.

One of Eccles’s most profound and sustained collaborations was with the actress Anne Bracegirdle (bap. 1671–1748), who sang his music exclusively. He shaped his songs to suit her particular musical and dramatic talents, and she made his music famous through her expert interpretations. My volume contains many works sung by the remarkable Mrs. Bracegirdle, but the most famous is probably “I burn, I burn,” from Thomas D’Urfey’s play Don Quixote, Part 2 (1694). Bracegirdle made a huge impression singing the role of Marcella, a woman driven mad by unrequited love. This song was one of the great “hit tunes” of the late seventeenth century, and both Henry Purcell and Gottfried Finger wrote musical responses to Bracegirdle’s performance.

There are seven surviving printed versions and three manuscript sources from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries of “I burn, I burn.” The song was first issued in the collection The SONGS TO THE New Play of DON QUIXOTE . . . Part the Second (printed by John Heptinstall for Samuel Briscoe, 1694), a publication that capitalized on the success of the play by enticing potential consumers to purchase the music to perform at home (just as consumers today might purchase a songbook from their favorite musical). Designed for domestic consumption, the printed version of “I burn, I burn” provides a souvenir of the famous actress-singer’s performance: the header to the songsheet reads “A SONG IN DON QUIXOTE Set by Mr John Eccles. Sung by Mrs. Brasegirdle.” Contemporary printers and engravers seem to have copied material from each other, and in this case Thomas Cross and John Walsh produced their own songsheets of “I burn, I burn” that are almost identical to the 1694 version—though Walsh provides added value by providing an arrangement for recorder.

The primary source for my edition of “I burn, I burn” is found in John Eccles’s omnibus A Collection of Songs (1704), a unique version that may preserve something of the manner of performance in the theater. Produced under the composer’s supervision, it carefully notes tempo changes in the score, possibly recording traces of how Bracegirdle performed the mad song. These markings also allowed recreational musicians to replicate an effective performance of theatrical madness at home.

The manuscript copies of “I burn, I burn” from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries provide further information about how the song was performed in domestic spaces. These manuscripts were almost always copied from printed songsheets or songbooks. Several of them (e.g., London, British Library, Add. Ms. 22099 and 35043) have unique but small variants—what Alan Howard has usefully called “background variation.” The most interesting manuscript source for “I burn” is an early eighteenth-century copy housed at the Library of Congress (M1508.E.Case), which contains manuscript items interpolated with songsheets. The copyist clearly had access to the version found in Eccles’s songbook as well as the 1694 version, and he or she frequently collates readings from the two, showing them alongside each other. The copyist may have also had access to the same copy used by the copyist of Add. MS 22099, for these two sources share one variant in common—suggesting that other sources (now lost) may have existed for “I burn, I burn.”

In 1695 the actors Thomas Betterton, Elizabeth Barry, Bracegirdle, and others left to form their own company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and Eccles joined them as their primary house composer. One of Eccles’s most popular songs during these years was “As Cupid roguishly one day” from Charles Boyle’s Altemira (1701). Judging from the playtext, “As Cupid roguishly one day” was used for an utterly conventional dramatic situation; onstage musicians often performed songs for lovesick men that commented on their tortured emotional state. In this case, the lovesick Altemast languished on the ground as professional soprano Mary Baldwin sang of the power of Cupid. The song’s technical demands are similar to those found in “I burn, I burn” and would have been within the capabilities of a skilled recreational musician. Perhaps the song’s utterly conventional sentiments and its lack of dramatic specificity contributed to its success in domestic spaces. As with “I burn, I burn,” the copy of “As Cupid roguishly one day” in Eccles’s songbook preserves a unique version. Most of the other copies of “As Cupid” seem to have been derived from Thomas Cross’s songsheet, which was issued around the time of the play’s performance. It is unclear whether Eccles’s version, perhaps printed from his own (now lost) theater manuscript or Cross’s version, reflects what Baldwin sang; in this case there are no tempo markings or other performance indicators to tip the scales in one direction or another.

Ultimately, changing tastes and theatrical politics hampered Eccles’s theatrical career. The increasing preference for Italianate opera after 1705 caused considerable challenges for English composers. Eccles tried in vain to respond to the times by writing the fully-sung opera Semele, which was slated to be produced at Drury Lane but was shelved by the duplicitous theatre manager Christopher Rich. The Lord Chamberlain’s reorganization of the theaters in 1706–7 meant that Betterton’s company could only produce plays, while Rich’s company had the monopoly on opera. Perhaps because of this theatrical instability, Eccles spent most of his creative energy after 1707 fulfilling his duties as a court composer. Still, as evinced by the music in this volume, Eccles was a tremendously prolific and inventive composer during his heyday: a true man of the theater. His songs deserve to be reanimated through skilled performance, and hopefully the present edition will speed that process.

Amanda Eubanks Winkler is Associate Professor of Music History and Cultures and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Art and Music Histories at Syracuse University. Her research focuses on English theater music and she has published numerous essays and articles on topics ranging from didactic masques in the seventeenth century to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. She has also edited two volumes of music for the Restoration stage with A-R Editions: Music for “Macbeth” (B133) and John Eccles, Incidental Music, Part I: Plays A–F (B190).

Research for her book O Let Us Howle Some Heavy Note: Music for Witches, the Melancholic, and the Mad on the Seventeenth-Century English Stage (Indiana University Press, 2006) was supported by a long-term NEH fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Eubanks Winkler is currently completing a study of music, theater, and dance in early modern English schools, and she is the Co-Investigator on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) funded project, “Performing Restoration Shakespeare” (2017–2019).