As part of Baroque Music Month on Bachtrack, Stephen Raskauskas tells us about a little-known collective of composers who caused some trouble for Handel in the 18th century.

What was the “Opera of the Nobility”, and why should I care?

The Opera of the Nobility is the name used today for the opera company that put Handel and his Royal Academy of Music out of business in the mid 18th century.

Whoa! Handel went broke? But I thought he was the most popular composer in London at the time?

Not exactly. Handel was extremely popular, but he had lots of competition and the Opera of the Nobility bankrupted Handel twice.

Portrait of Charles Wesley, court musician, by John Russell RA circa 1780 © Image reproduced with permission from the Royal Academy of Music, London
Portrait of Charles Wesley, court musician, by John Russell RA circa 1780
© Image reproduced with permission from the Royal Academy of Music, London
That’d be like if English National Opera bankrupted the Royal Opera!

Yup, but because King George II and the Queen supported Handel, and history has favored him instead.

But the name “Opera of the Nobility” makes it sounds like it had the support of some fancy people, too, right?

Frederick, Prince of Wales funded the company in order to rival Handel’s company that his parents supported.

So, a rebellious kid created the Opera of the Nobility just to annoy his parents?

Well, that’s not the only reason. Because Handel had a literal government monopoly on opera at the time, the company gave voice to other composers, particularly the younger generations of Italians who had recently immigrated to England.

Like who?

Italians like Giovanni Battista Pescetti and Francesca Maria Veracini were some of the composers who wrote operas for the company, but it also performed works by a composers like J.A. Hasse, who were extremely popular but never travelled to London.

Is their music even any good, though?

These guys composed for the leading performers of their time and in fact poached nearly all of Handel’s singers since they were able to offer more pay.

They took all of Handel’s singers? It sounds like he was kind of a #hasbeen at that point in his career.

Sadly, that’s kind of true. Contemporary accounts indicate that the King sat in Handel’s cold and empty opera house while the Prince and the rest of the noble class went to the Opera of the Nobility down the street.

So what do the operas by these guys sound like? All I find on YouTube by Pescetti and Veracini are a bunch of sonatas.

Many of their operas still remain in manuscript, unfortunately. The operas they wrote contain a variety of styles, from those used by Handel to some that anticipate trends that would become popular later in the century.

Prompt book for Radamisto 1720 © VA © Andreas Praefcke
Prompt book for Radamisto 1720
© VA © Andreas Praefcke
How did Handel react to all of this?

When Handel first went bankrupt, it actually made him physical ill and he skipped town to go recover at a spa – no joke!

I’d probably be a nervous wreck too, if I went bankrupt!

Later that same year Handel ate some humble pie when, out of economic necessity, he was forced to share an opera house with the Opera of the Nobility for the season.

Did Handel ever try to compose music that sounded similar to these guys?

Some of Handel’s works like Serse and Berenice were strongly influenced by the more modern, comic style for which the Opera of the Nobility was known.

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