- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 22 October 2009 23.30 BST
In 1791, Joseph Haydn, then working in London, went to a performance of Thomas Arne's opera Artaxerxes. He was astonished by it. He had "no idea", he is on record as saying, "that we had such an opera in the English language". That an English-born composer might have produced one of the great operas was difficult for Haydn to imagine: he was unaware of the huge popularity of Arne's masques, operas and songs, which audiences had flocked to see only a few decades previously. Premiered in 1762, Artaxerxes was regarded as one of Arne's masterpieces. By the turn of the 19th century, every British music lover was familiar with it, almost to the point of satiety: in 1814, Jane Austen admitted she was becoming "very tired" of hearing it.
Austen's reaction was symbolic of the 19th-century reappraisal of the work. The Romantics, with their dislike of the 18th century, declared Arne frivolous, while the Victorians nearly managed to ruin him for posterity. Arne's most famous song is Rule, Britannia!, and by jettisoning almost everything else in his output, the Victorians ensured his name became synonymous with expansionist nationalism. All that is ironic, given that in the 18th century he was seen as an outsider, whose attitudes towards the establishment were conflicted at best.
Three crucial factors defined his career. The first was Handel, whose presence on the British musical scene was so dominant that any emerging composer had to take him as a point of departure, whether by means of imitation or opposition. Then there was the question, important then as now, as to whether opera should be performed in a foreign language or that of the audience. Finally, there was religion. Arne was born – in 1710, in London – into a Roman Catholic family of upholsterers. His faith meant he could never hope to attract extended aristocratic patronage (though he would, eventually, be offered individual royal commissions). Arne, consequently, had to live on his wits.
He got himself noticed in 1732. With a group of friends, he formed a small company that set out to perform opera solely in English at a theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields in central London. This was a challenge to Handel, who wrote his operas in Italian. Arne's contribution was Rosamond, a setting of a libretto that the dramatist, essayist and noted anti-Handelian Joseph Addison had written in 1705. Financial constraints eventually forced the company to disband. Arne got a job as house composer at Drury Lane, where he stayed until 1747, when tensions between himself and the actor-manager David Garrick provoked his move to the rival Covent Garden Theatre.
It was Arne's 1738 setting of Milton's Comus, his most popular work in his lifetime, that made him famous. Two years later, however, came his opera Alfred, which gave us Rule, Britannia! and the ensuing controversy.
The opera was commissioned by Frederick, Prince of Wales, to mark his daughter's third birthday. Frederick was forever arguing with his father, King George II, who was Handel's patron. And it was Frederick who chose Arne to set James Thomson's libretto, which depicts the Saxon king Alfred being granted a prophetic vision of the defeated Spanish Armada, leading to that now infamous demand that Britannia rule the waves.
First performed in private on Frederick's estate near Maidenhead, Alfred would probably have sunk into oblivion had Arne not revived it at Drury Lane at the height of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Rule, Britannia! was immediately adopted as a unionist anthem. Arne compounded Alfred's nationalistic associations by adding an arrangement of God Save the King to the score. This, interestingly, was the point at which the practice of performing the national anthem at public performances became current.
His success also ensured that Arne's private life became the subject of gossip. In 1737, he married the singer Cecilia Young. There was soon trouble. Arne was an inveterate womaniser, and Cecilia was by all accounts an unattractive personality. They were childless, and Arne's fondness for his illegitimate son, Michael, cannot have helped matters.
Things came to a head in Ireland in the mid-1750s. Anxious to conquer another city where Handel was hugely popular, the Arnes had been sporadic visitors to Dublin since 1742. In 1755, however, they were accompanied by a young soprano named Charlotte Brent, to whom Arne had been giving singing lessons. By the time he returned to London a year later, Arne had dumped his wife and installed Charlotte as his mistress. Cecilia spent the rest of his life taking him to the cleaners.
Arne's greatest music dates from the early 1760s. Charlotte is reckoned to be its inspiration, though it is also possible that Handel's death in 1759 absolved Arne of his psychological need to adopt an oppositional stance to his rival. From this point onwards, he allowed himself to gravitate towards Handelian form. The operas Thomas and Sally, and Love in a Village, are effectively anglicisations of the classical pastorals of which Handel was so fond. Artaxerxes, meanwhile, was an attempt – unique in musical history – to write an Italian tragic opera in English.
The anonymous text is a translation of a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, which had already been set in Italian by Johann Hasse and Johann Christian Bach, and the subject is the relationship between authority, desire and violence. Artaxerxes, prince of Persia, finds himself thrust into a position of power after the murders of his father and elder brother. The killer is General Artabanes, though suspicion falls on the latter's son, Arbaces, who is involved in a clandestine affair with Artaxerxes' sister, Mandane. To save his own skin, Artabanes refuses to acknowledge his son's innocence.
The music is glorious, and the work is characterised by great psychological veracity. Artaxerxes's innate nobility is undercut by twinges of obsession as he tries to separate truth from lies. Rather than turn Artabanes into a stereotypical psychopath, Arne observes him with striking empathy: like the composer himself, he is a man close to the establishment who can never quite become part of it. Mandane was the role Arne wrote for Charlotte, which allowed him to express his own feelings for her by way of Arbaces's breathtaking declarations of passion. Mandane's arias, meanwhile, are formidable in their complexity and difficulty, and Charlotte's performances of them made her a star.
Arne's later years, however, were discontented. In 1766, Charlotte left him for a violinist, though he would never be short of protegees whose careers he could launch (and whom he could seduce). In Dublin, meanwhile, Cecilia continued to denounce him to any hack who would listen, and sued him for every penny she could get. The satirists were vicious: one of them described him as "that sick, monkey-faced maker of crotchets, that eternal trotter after all the little draggle-haired girls of the town". He died in 1778.
The best of his music is now coming back into fashion after too long an absence. Artaxerxes, familiar from concert performances and on disc, receives its first staging for more than a century when the Classical Opera Company present it at the Royal Opera House later this month. Arne lived and worked in Covent Garden for most of his life, and the opera's effective homecoming seems curiously apt.
Artaxerxes is at the Linbury Studios, Royal Opera House, London from 30 October. Box office: 020-7304 4000.