Captain Macheath's execution lament in The Beggar's Opera

Author: Jocoy, Stacey
Source document: Theatralia. 2021, vol. 24, iss. 1, pp. 78-91
  • ISSN
    1803-845X (print)
    2336-4548 (online)
On the eve of his execution, Captain Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728) sings a lament or "Last Goodnight". Unlike the rest of the opera's musical numbers, Macheath's lament is a medley consisting of ten tunes. Placing them in close succession, Gay created a mini-narrative embedded within the larger story, forming a climactic picture of Macheath's mind – clearly the most musically dynamic moment of the opera. Daniel Heartz likens Macheath's "delirium" lament with the quodlibet or medley, popular on the contemporary French stage. While this speaks to the dark humor of the piece, an Italian musical genre, the solo cantata, had only recently been introduced to English audiences and may also account for the style and placement of Gay's work. Johann Christoph Pepusch, responsible for musical settings in The Beggar's Opera, had published his English Cantatas in 1710, and Henry Carey had published comic cantatas throughout the 1720s. Comparing continental traditions and formal analysis of Macheath's lament, this study considers the lament as a musical combination of the French comic and the dramatic Italian cantata traditions, in which the two continental genres melded with the English ballad to create a musical, sociopolitical tour de force, mocking British and Italian conventions simultaneously.
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