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Savage Boundaries: Reading Samuel Arnold's Score*

Robert Hoskins, Massey University

  1. Thomas Arne's clarion call "Britons never will be slaves" ("Rule Britannia") rings a cracked tone when we consider Britain's deep involvement in the slave trade.1 But if racial discourse occurs in a range of English comic operas and pantomimes composed during the later eighteenth century, then it is to Samuel Arnold we must turn for musical representations of slaveholding society in the British Carribean.2

    Jamaican Paradigms

  2. Samuel Arnold (1740-1802), London's most popular theater composer during the last thirty years of the eighteenth century, composed three stage works set in the sugar islands.3 The first, a completely renovated score for George Colman's 1777 cut version of Gay and Pepusch's Polly (1729), sequel to The Beggar's Opera (1728), was a much anticipated hearing of this work which had originally been banned by the censor.4Polly follows the heroine's progress from slavery to freedom and paradisal happiness in a transracial marriage. Her island landfall in search of Macheath, now masked as a Moorish pirate, finds her trapped in the vices of white slavery and plantation violence; to find paradise she leaves the Old World of plantation shame to chart the New World of the primitive. Polly's discovery of paradise comes when she reinvents herself as white-into-Indian, stepping backwards in time into the wilderness and into the arms of Cawwawkee.5 Polly explores the idea of nature as culture and for the audiences of 1777, Cook's Oceanic voyages offered a paradigm and iconography—as in Hodges' depiction of Cook's welcome to the Pacific (see fig.1)—for the heroine's cross-cultural encounter and the quest for a lost Eden. The moment where Polly "sheds her skin" to be born again comes when she sings a version of Eve's Spring song—serving to re-awaken the restorative memory of Eden—from Thomas Arne's oratorio The Death of Abel (1744). Interestingly, Arnold's score (ms.mus.97 Houghton Library, Harvard University) is probably the only authentic orchestral source of this song to survive (see ex.1). Inkle and Yarico, composed a decade later (1787) to a libretto by George Colman junior, rewinds the plot of Polly. Yarico rescues Inkle, a white trader, and they live together in her garden-cave. The idyll is very short lived, however, and paradise is lost when Inkle returns with Yarico to Jamaica where he attempts to sell her into slavery. The daring aspect of Arnold's score (Longman & Broderip, 1787; facsimile edition, Belwin Mills, N.Y., 1978) is the way he displays Yarico's unquestioned moral superiority. Yarico wants her identity and her love for Inkle to merge and the paradoxical result is, that although he betrays her, she will not give him up because that would be to falsify herself (see ex.2). Inkle and Yarico was a deliberately emancipationist work and its enormous popularity helped to mobilize the abolitionist cause led by Wilberforce.6

  3. Obi (1800), one of Arnold's late stage works, is woven into the imperial age. The site of the plantation is assumed ripe for commercial exploitation and political control. The moral and civic imperative is to impose the unquestioned superiority of Western civilization on new lands and peoples. This mind-set in itself assumes juxtaposition and conflict of opposites—civilization versus savagery and a tamed, pastoral nature versus an untamed wilderness. Thus Afro-Caribbean society and Jack as black insubordinate by definition became that dangerous or unpleasant Other.

    Savage Boundaries

  4. In Obi the idea of the plantation as Eden and of the wilderness as outside Eden is established in terms of the emotional and imaginative geography of the music. Within the borders of the plantation the music is associated with peaceful, safe, restorative nature while, conversely, music coming from without is linked to menace and spectacular acts of violence.

  5. This very clear map-sense can be illustrated by the opening turn of events. The overture, set in Jack's territory beyond the plantation, opens in a mood of somber expectation, while later cross-references to the "cannibal feast" music in Linley's 1781 pantomime Robinson Crusoe define Jack and the maroons as brute savages in a beastly wilderness (see ex. 3a and ex. 3b). The slave women's duet ("The white man comes"), starting a long vocal ensemble of continuous music for Scene 1, migrates from the bitter memories of being taken from home and passing from hand to hand, to the sanctuary of the plantation and a kind master. This reconciliation occurs as the tears shed at "O be it very very sad to see poor Negro child and father part" transpose into a bracing trumpet-like motif at "He heal the wound in Negro's heart". Choric rejoicings ("Good massa we find"), sung by the slaves harvesting sugar-cane, affirm an Edenic present and in this redeemed phase of things Rosa enters to a lyric flute-led rondo graced with melodic figuration and sixteenth note motion standing for a carefree state of nature; intensified episodes represent Rosa's sexual attraction to Captain Orford who, all too soon, is signalled back to camp (4a and ex. 4b). As Orford crosses over the plantation border the music springs into the violence of Jack's first attack. He returns to the extended lyricism of Mozart's A major Andante from String Quartet in D (K575), artfully cut and pasted by Arnold (see ex.5).7 The music radiates a sense of full summer beauty and this affirms Orford's spiritual survival and the plantation as an ultimate home. Yet more, Mozart's score serves to define Orford against Jack's violence and cruelty as the embodiment of peace and civilization in rather the same way as John Webber portrays Cook as a peacemaker and martyr-hero in his famous painting The Death of Captain Cook (1782); in a detail from this painting (see fig.2) we can easily substitute the beach scene for Jack's murderous attack (in some sources Orford is said to be stabbed, in others shot). Scene 1 closes into the shadow of night when, under a waning moon, the slaves sing a retaliatory chorus against Jack and the sacrilege of Obeah ("Swear by the silver crescent of the night").

  6. Soon after, Orford and Rosa declare their mutual love in dance-style while hunting horns signal the formation of a celebratory sporting party. The music gallops buoyantly over the home border but wrenches once again into violence as Orford advances under the crags into the comfortless area where Jack strikes; the episode ends with lumpy figurations depicting Jack dragging Orford's body down into his den.

  7. Beyond the plantation Jack stalks the rocks of the wilderness to music possessing an appropriate head-on strength and the power to terrorize. Yet it is the Obeah-woman who creates a unique musical aura. She appears in her under-earth to the reptilian chromaticism of Mozart's D minor String Quartet finale (K421/417b) and the strange end-phrase repeated notes sound incantatory as she calls up the maroons to do the devil's work. The effect of this passage comes alive in the hearer's imagination as a kind of dog-breath in the dark (see ex.6). Obeah equals preternatural force for evil and at key points it is associated with music that feels perilous. The interlude for maroons lurking in the night, for example, is set to the complete "Surprise" movement of Haydn's Symphony #94; the uncoiling variations, spiked by unusual chromatic tips, are consonant with the slouch and lunge of the raid and, altogether, there is a sense of displacement meant to emphasize moral inversion and collapse. It is likely that Arnold maintained Haydn's original orchestration, which in passages including trumpets, horns and kettledrums along with full strings and woodwind, must have sounded terrific in the tiny auditorium of the Haymarket Theater.

    Down Under

  8. Rosa, cross-dressed as a sailor, advances into the mountains in search of Orford while a musical storm breaks to mark the dangerous turn in events. The storm music converts into a borrowing from the D minor Andante of Haydn's Piano Trio in D (transposed to the storm's C minor) as, exhausted, Rosa enters a cave for shelter (7a and ex. 7b). Jack startles her; he is alternately abusive and sensual; he takes her down below. Caliban-like, Jack drinks and becomes drowsy; Rosa sings him to sleep then explores the cave to find Orford who is moaning in the dark; she screams at the sight of his wounds. Jack awakens; he ties Rosa's wrists and locks Orford's cell, then sleeps. Rosa burns the rope that binds her and steals the key; the lovers climb an escape ladder; Jack lunges at Orford who knocks him down.

  9. Arnold's score tracks each detail of the scene with enormous economy. For example, the tiptoe music following Rosa's lullaby stops and starts to accommodate Orford's groans, Jack stirring in his sleep, Rosa recalling the lullaby to quiet Jack, opening the door to Orford's cell, and so on. Structurally the whole is bound together by an initial 16-bar Andante plus 4 bars of song-recall (see ex.8). Following this is heard a 16-bar development of the Andante, then 11 (8 + 3) bars of new material, plus 8 bars of the initial Andante and 8 of the new material.

  10. The music for the first part of the action swells to its peak when Rosa sings and this is the moment depicted in Harding's watercolor of 1800, engraved 1801 (see fig.3).8 Thereafter, the focus shifts away from Rosa and Jack to Rosa and Orford with the music withdrawing abruptly into the tiptoe sequence which leads to Orford's cell and the ensuing escape. The climacteric lyricism of Rosa's song invites us to understand in this scene that Jack not only occupies the seductive position of demon-tempter but that Rosa comes to see him as an object of desire. Harding's watercolor encourages the idea of transgressive sexual attraction. Jack lies bare-chested in loose garments with one muscular arm raised above his head; a phallic drinking-horn hangs around his neck and a sash, which may later be used to bind Rosa's wrists, is tied around his waist. Skeletons of a turtle and crocodilian reptile associate Jack with sorcery while snakeskins relate him to the serpent in Eden. Rosa's desire becomes palpable in response to the presence of this predatorily sexual racial Other; she sings a sleep-song ("A lady in fair Seville city") about illicit lovemaking with melodic end-phrases rubbed by horny horns (see ex.9). The ballad is in pseudo-Spanish ronda de enamorados (lover's ronda) style with pizzicato strings representing a guitar, or the lyre depicted by Harding, and thereby a wealth of susceptive associations (for example David and Saul or Orpheus in Hades). Withdrawal by sudden modulation into the passage of tiptoe music serves both to arouse Rosa's awareness of Orford's presence and to sedate her memory of transracial desire.

  11. In the dreamscape of this song-episode, effectively a kind of inverted seraglio-fantasy, Jack is proffered and retracted as sexual symbol while Rosa experiences the victimized position of slave. But if we glimpse in Rosa's desire the idea of the sexual racial Other, then can we ask if Jack's embitterment is only possible because of the institution of servitude from which he has rebelled? Or is it that only slavery, or something very like it, can suppress the symptoms of a larger freedom—the freedom of explorations of alternative possibilities, of fearless sexuality, and of an expression beyond the taboos both of race and class?

    Cry Freedom

  12. At the mid-point of the pantomime a government proclamation is announced granting freedom to any slave who conquers Jack. The music gathers momentum as Quashee declares he will fight, becomes Christianized, enjoys the slave festivities, explains the proclamation to his children, and prepares to leave. The plantation, therefore, is not just a garden but the paradisal site of benign rule, Christian faith and emancipation—after all, Christian marriage strengthens family ties and compromises the sale of slaves. Contrapuntally, the scene subscribes to European notions of cultural supremacy and Otherness with Quashee turned from "savage" to "civilized" and very much in awe of colonial authority. A solemn D major movement marks Quashee's scrutiny of the proclamation. When he traces the printed word "Freedom" the music dips to D minor with a glow of woodwind to color the phrase and for the moment we are aware that nothing highlights freedom—or indeed creates it—like slavery (see ex.10). The episode closes when Quashee's wife sings "My cruel love to danger go," a sad song of farewell. The ache of the music stretches beyond the stage action to suggest the dimensions of her suppressed fears for race survival. This song, at the heart of the drama, creates a space through which slave experience begins to take a shadowy, suggestive shape and, being so situated, it suggests the possibility of a different, though unpursued, kind of discourse.

  13. Jack's last scene is sounded to warrior music springing from three impactive chords, presumably to represent the three fingers of his mutilated hand (see ex.11). A sudden collapse indicates his fatal wounding and as he dies the music falls to a bare octave (see ex.12). Marches draw us back into the safe boundary of the plantation and a final chorus of relief and rejoicing ("Wander now to and fro") which is peppered with C major shouts of "God save the King". The episode parallels Christianity's victory over Obeah and the triumph of plantocratic society over any potential cultural danger. And yet the plantation now is at once honor-bound to grant a slave his freedom and blood-stained by exacting a price (a legally fixed compensation) for Jack's death.9 Fundamentally Obi is a morality tale about the meeting of two perceived entities—the West and Afro-Caribbean peoples. These entities are personified, variously, into forces of good and evil that engage in a prolonged contest. Even more, West Indian slave history is fundamentally about the idea of Western civilization and its creation of an Afro-Caribbean Other onto which are projected and tested its various priorities and expectations. If the final chorus stands for Enlightenment imperialism, then the setting remains an exotic paradise, whether lost or found or rejected outright.

Works Cited

Hoskins, Robert H.B. The Theater Music of Samuel Arnold: A Thematic Index. Warren, MI: Harmonie Park Press, 1998.

"Obi: or, Three-Finger'd Jack." Music for London Entertainment. Series D, Vol 4. London: Stainer & Bell, 1996. Facsimile edition of Samuel Arnold's printed piano-vocal score, published by John Longman and Muzio Clementi, 1801. Critical introduction by Robert Hoskins, with Eileen Southern.


* This essay concentrates on the music for the original pantomime. Most of the vocal items mentioned (but only some of the instrumental) are performed in the video clips linked to melodrama version of Obi, included with this Praxis volume.

1 Arne's "Rule Britannia" ends his patriotic masque Alfred (1740); it achieved instant popular success. By 1750 the established population of 13 British colonies was 236,000 blacks, almost all of them slaves, and 934,000 whites.

2 Racial representations—including "harem" operas by Thomas Arne (The Sultan, 1759) and Charles Dibdin (The Seraglio, 1776), "Captain Cook" pantomimes by Thomas Linley (Robinson Crusoe, 1781) and William Shield (Omai, 1785), and Dibdin's The Padlock (1768) which includes trauma songs sung by Mungo, a black servant (sung by the composer in blackface)—all partly influenced Obi. We know that Arnold had Linley's score of Robinson Crusoe in mind because of an actual borrowing (Sheridan and Linley's adaptation encodes Crusoe as Cook) and clearly Shield and John O'Keeffe's Omai, or A Trip round the World, which gave currency to the idea of Cook's deification, is another crucial model. In Obi, Arnold and Fawcett translate Cook's embodiment of peace and civilization to Orford; and the familiar topos of the European confronting the native on the Pacific beach relocates to Jack's mountainous hideout. See Fig.2, also ns. 5 and 8.

3 Arnold established his reputation at Covent Garden with The Maid of the Mill (1765) but his greatest successes belong to his twenty-five years (from 1777) as composer for the Little Theater in the Haymarket. Arnold was also a noted conductor, organist and editor of Handel's works.

4 A modern edition by Robert Hoskins for Artaria Editions (AE100) is forthcoming; see

5 Cook's voyages drew attention to the existence of native peoples and for Londoners in 1777 Cawwawkee had a living prototype in Omai, the first (and much fêted) Polynesian to visit England (from 1774 to 1776). See also ns. 2 and 8.

6 Colman's Libretto was tapped from Richard Steele's The Spectator, Tuesday 13 March 1711, via Richard Ligon's History of the Island of Barbados (1673); also Weddell's Incle and Yarico: A Tragedy of Three Acts (1742). Colman's model for Yarico may have been Phillis Wheatley (1753-84) who was taken from Africa as a child and brought across the Atlantic to British North America; she was in London in 1773 to publish a volume of poems. In her writings Wheatley asks how was it that the empire of the free became an empire of slaves.

7 Arnold freely adapts the slow movement of K575 into the sequence of measures 1-5, 19-29, 40-42, and 9-19, this constituting somewhat less than two-thirds of the original. Mozart's chamber music was little known in London at this time and Arnold's adaption may well have been the first public performance of this work in England (Mozart's score had been imported by Longman & Broderip after 1791).

8 Harding's cave seems to have been partly inspired by the "banditti" paintings of Salvator Rosa and also Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg's scene design "Inside a Jourt" (snow hut, Kamchatka) for Omai (extant maquette in Victoria & Albert Museum, London, E.157-1937). Jack in his tunic is arguably a variant of Sir Joshua Reynolds's famous painting of Omai (c.1775) as Nature-prophet draped in flowing robes and standing in a Tahitian Eden. See also ns. 2 and 5.

9 In this sense the pantomime predicts British abolition of the slave trade passed by act of Parliament in 1807.

Published @ RC

August 2002