Thomas Clayton

(1673 - 1725/30)

English composer. Clayton was a member of the King's band from 1692 through 1702, when he went to Italy to study composition. Having been impressed there with Italian opera, on his retrun to London he joined with Nicola Haym and Charles Dieupart to whether they could profitably present this type of entertainment in England. Their first production in 1705, was Arsinoe, Queen of Cypress, with a libretto by Peter Motteux after Tomaso Stanzani, which they described as "an opera after the Italian manner: All sung." The critics derided the work, but it was strikingly successful with the public. There is some suggestion that the music was not Clayton's, but consisted of airs he collected in Italy; it has in any event little merit. Clayton's next venture would seem to confirm his lack of original musical talent: Clayton associated himself with "A Person Of Quality," Joseph Addison, whose Rosamond, written as an experiment in substituting homegrown literature for the fashionable nonsense illustrated by Italian music, was first performed on March 15, 1707. Thomas Clayton's music to Rosamond was described as 'a jargon of sounds.'

Addison never again attempted an opera libretto, clearly having soured on the form. In the Tuesday, March 6, 1711, Spectator, Addison rails at the absurdities of Italian opera, singling out for ridicule the staging in Handel's Rinaldo. In particular, he makes light of the unleashing of sparrows in one of the opera scenes in order to enhance the setting depicting a delightful grove of trees. He asks why the birds had to be real when, in the end, their music "proceeded from a consort of flageolets and Bird-calls" which came from behind the scenes. "A little skill in criticism," Addison writes, "would inform us, that shadows and realities ought not to be mixed together in the same piece; and that the scenes which are designed as the representations of nature, should be filled with resemblances, and not with things themselves." Later in the essay Addison warns that freeing birds in the opera house may not be considered such a pleasant spectacle when they cause "inconveniences" to the heads of those in the audience.

Clayton himself was essentially finished as an opera composer by the resounding failure of Rosamond. No. 20 of the Spectator and other numbers from time to time advertised 'The Passion of Sappho, and Feast of Alexander: 'Set to Musick by Mr. Thomas Clayton, as it is performed at his house in York Buildings.' It is unclear, however, whether these publications received professional productions.


Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus Opera in three acts, libretto Peter Motteux after Tomaso Stanzani (London, 1705); Rosamond Opera in three acts, libretto Joseph Addison (London 1707); A Pastoral Mask (London 1710); If Wine and Music have the Power, text Matthew Prior (London 1711); The Feast of Alexander, libretto John Hughes after John Dryden (London 1711); The Passion of Sappho, text William Harrison (London 1711); Ode for the Prince's Birthday (London 1711); Ode on the King (London 1716)

VIIA: Henry Purcell and his Contemporaries