Johann Christoph Pepusch
• 1667 — 1752
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J.C. Pepusch: Tenor Cantatas & Recorder Sonatas
The Taste of This Nation
Johann Christoph Pepusch, who Anglicized his name to John Christopher, was a very active and popular composer on the English scene whose primary contribution was that he led a decisive stylistic break with the Baroque music of his countryman George Frideric Handel. Ironically, this achievement was not representative of his work in general.
Pepusch was the son of a Protestant minister. He studied music theory and organ as a young man, and became an employee of the Prussian court at the age of fourteen, remaining there from 1681 until 1697. At that point he witnessed a distressing event: an officer was summarily executed, without trial, on a charge of insubordination. Pepusch found he preferred to live under a "government founded on other principles" as his biographer Hawkins stated. He went to Holland, then moved on to England, where he remained for the rest of his life.
He found a job as a viola player, and then as a harpsichordist at the Drury Lane Theatre. His earliest creative enterprise was to adapt music for the theater, adding recitatives and some original songs. Pepusch had an unusual interest in music of the past, which at the time was almost entirely ignored. In 1710 he founded (with Needler, Gates, and Galliard) the Academy of Ancient Music, which was primarily interested in works dating from the sixteenth century. His academic achievements were recognized when Oxford University awarded him a Doctorate of Music in 1713. In the same decade he became the music director for the wealthy nobleman James Brydges (later the Duke of Chandos and also an employer of Handel), and composed for him a Magnificat and several verse anthems. These mostly alternate solo and choral sections, and many use large and colorful instrumental accompaniment. (Others are for solo voice and continuo only, apparently testifying to a need for economy that the Duke felt in the 1720s.) It appears that his work for Brydges represents Pepusch's only religious music.
Pepusch's finest vocal music is found in his secular cantatas, written in the Italian mold with alternating recitatives and ensemble passages. However, the melodic style of these works tends to be English. These works became quite popular in his time. The bulk of his compositions were instrumental; among them were over a hundred sonatas. Nevertheless, he is mostly known for his vocal music.
Probably in 1722, he married a well-known soprano, Marguerite de l¹Epine, whose fortune made them financially independent. They had one child, a musically talented son, who died in his early youth. Pepusch took an interest in teaching and in supporting musical education. He supported the Bishop of Berkeley¹s plan for establishing a college in the British West Indies. Pepusch's biographers Burney and Hawkins indicated that Pepusch himself went to the Indies in support of this project and on the way was shipwrecked with the Bishop. Some modern researchers now cast doubt on the shipwreck story. For one thing, the chronology of Pepusch's works speaks against it, for it was in January of 1728, not too long after the shipwreck, that The Beggar's Opera opened, and by the next year Pepusch had composed an overture to another ballad opera called The Wedding and written a complete new one, Polly.
It is The Beggar¹s Opera that has secured Pepusch's fame for posterity. This work erupted into unprecedented popularity. With a libretto by John Gay, it was a highly accessible vernacular work, and it quickly eclipsed the popularity of Handel's operas. Handel often treated subjects from antiquity (from classical drama, myth, and military chronicles) or else were set in some fanciful Elysium. The Beggar's Opera was set on the streets of London, and sharply satirized social conditions and attitudes with which the audience was very familiar. The characters are beggars, thieves, tavern keepers, and prostitutes; its hero is a rogue named Macheath. The work had a succession of songs, all Scotch or English folk ballads. Pepusch actually did no more than write continuo parts to accompany them (which really meant he put harmonies to them), and compose an overture.
The work remained popular for nearly a century. It took the stage again in the second half of the twentieth century, in several different arrangements, including a realization of an accompaniment from Pepusch's bass lines by Benjamin Britten. In addition, in 1928 Bertolt Brecht adapted Gay's text as a libretto for Kurt Weill's original, popular-styled music, producing Die Dreigroschenoper ("The Three-Penny Opera"), whose most popular number, "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," became a popular and jazz standard.
Around 1730 the Duke of Chandos was forced to economize further and to lay off Pepusch, but the composer was now sufficiently wealthy to withstand this loss of employment. Indeed, he generally scaled back his creative work, although he continued to work as an organist and a teacher. He was much in demand in the latter role, and also published theoretical treatises. In 1735 he reconstituted the Academy of Ancient Music as a seminary for training boys in music. He was made a member of the Royal Society in 1746.
Since Pepusch is often discussed in connection with a reversal of fortune for Handel, he is often depicted negatively, as a simplifying panderer to the popular taste and as a dry antiquarian. This has unfortunately led to many elegant works among his compositions being overlooked.