Ballad opera authors drew on a repository of tunes in the public sphere that were transmitted orally and in print. Airs were typically identified by common titles (e.g. ‘Abbot of Canterbury’) but these varied significantly. For this catalogue we have given tunes that are identifiably the same a uniform title, and reproduced the title as it was printed in the earliest playbook. Relatively few ballad opera playbooks contained notated music, but we have noted those that did. Printing music was likely considered superfluous: familiar melodies could be recalled by title. Judging from the 7,000 song titles in this repertory, ballad opera audiences had a prodigious musical memory. That said, earlier and contemporary publications – particularly Thomas D’Urrfey’s Pills to Purge Melancholy, collections issued by the Playfords, and John Watts’ Musical Miscellany – appear to have guided ballad opera authors.
Although occasionally engraved and placed at the end of the playbook (Fig 1.), music was typically reduced to a line of melody, printed using woodblock type and inserted directly into the play’s dialogue typesetting (Fig. 2). The bookseller John Watts issued most playbooks with notated music. This catalogue locates where music was printed within a volume, and whether copper engraving or woodblock type was used.
As a pilot project, this catalogue can only suggest the total number of vocal pieces in each work. Overtures, instrumental accompaniment to the songs, dances, concluding choruses, improvised interpolations, and sung epilogues are indicated almost exclusively by stage directions. While much of the music of ballad operas is therefore lost, one surviving overture by Dr. Pepusch (Fig 3) shows how charming ballad opera overtures could be. Roughly a quarter of all ballad operas never passed into print.
Vocal numbers were diverse, despite being uniformly titled ‘air’. In ballad opera editions, even large vocal numbers were shown merely as a melodic line, or sometimes only a stage direction, which under-represents the amount and complexity of music in ballad operas. Besides solo songs, ballad operas contained dialogues – duets in which the vocalists sang lines alternately then joined together for the last lines – trios, vaudevilles in which three to four singers alternated verses, choruses, and finales that sometimes combined choruses with dances. As in The Beggar’s Opera, the density of musical numbers often increased in the final scene. Players became known for performing certain vocal numbers and certain types of songs. Through this catalogue, users can assemble the ballad opera repertory of individual players who premiered the works.