Alfred (Arne opera)

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Alfred is a sung stage work about Alfred the Great with music by Thomas Arne and a libretto by David Mallet and James Thomson. The work was initially devised as a masque in 1740 and was first performed at Cliveden, country home of Frederick, Prince of Wales, on 1 August 1740, to commemorate the accession of George I and the birthday of the Princess Augusta.[1] Arne later revised the work turning it into an all-sung oratorio in 1745 and then an opera in 1753. It is best known for its finale "Rule, Britannia!".

Background and performance history[edit]

Frederick, a German prince who had grown up in Hanover and at whose house the masque was first performed, had arrived in Britain as an adult and was on very bad terms with his father. He made considerable efforts to ingratiate himself and build a following among his subjects-to-be (although he never ultimately reigned, as he died before his father in 1751). A masque linking the prince with both the ancient hero-king Alfred the Great's victories over the Vikings, together with the contemporary issue of building British sea-power, went well with his political plans and aspirations.

Thomson was a Scottish poet and playwright who spent most of his adult life in England and hoped to make his fortune at Court. He had an interest in helping foster a British identity, including and transcending the older English and Scottish identities.

In its original form, Alfred contained only seven musical numbers, including the famous patriotic song "Rule, Britannia!" With successive additions, Arne significantly expanded the music, and the final version was an all-sung opera in three acts. Today, the third and final version of the work is the one that is most often performed.


Roles Voice type Premiere cast, 1 August 1740[2]
Conductor: Thomas Arne )
Alfred tenor Thomas Lowe
Emma/Venus soprano Kitty Clive
Spirit/Pallas/Paris mezzo-soprano Susannah Maria Cibber
Bard/Mercury bass


The following synopsis is based on the work as performed in London at the King's Theatre in 1753 and the Drury Lane Theatre in 1754 and is the version performed by Bampton Classical Opera in 1998.[3]

The setting is the Isle of Athelney in the year 878. Following a defeat by the Vikings, Alfred has taken refuge in the hut of the shepherd Corin and his wife Emma who wonder about the mysterious stranger. Alfred expresses his anguish at the state of affairs of his kingdom and prays to the Genius of Britannia. Alfred's wife Eltruda and his son Edward arrive and rejoice at finding him alive. Corin and Emma still have no idea who their guests really are.

Later, Edward brings news that twelve hundred Britons loyal to Alfred are camped nearby and awaiting his command. Emma and Corrin now realise the true identity of their guests as Alfred departs for battle. When news of his victory reaches them, all rejoice. Edward praises the return of British values. Alfred, exhorts his people: "Britons, proceed, the subject deep command, awe with your navies ev'ry hostile land". In response, all sing "Rule Britania", an ode in honour of Great Britain.


  • Thomas Arne's AlfredOrchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Nicholas Kreamer (conductor), 1997. BBC Music Vol.V No. 10
  • Thomas Arne: Alfred – Philarmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, Nicholas McGegan (conductor), 1999. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi



  1. ^ Scholes p. 897.
  2. ^ Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Alfred, 1 August 1740". L'Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia (in Italian).
  3. ^ Heighes, Simon (1998). "Restoring Alfred". Bampton Classical Opera. Retrieved 29 September 2015.


  • Arne, Thomas; David Mallet; James Thomson (1981). "Alfred". In Alexander Scott (ed.). Musica Britannica. XLVII (full score, Urtext edition ed.). London: Stainer & Bell. ISBN 0-85249-476-9.
  • Percy Scholes (1970). The Oxford Companion to Music (tenth Edition). Oxford University Press.
  • Michael Burden (1988). "A mask for politics; the masque of Alfred", Music Review, xli (1988), 21–30.
  • Michael Burden (1991). "The English Theatre Masque 1690–1800". 2 vols. PhD diss., University of Edinburgh.
  • Michael Burden (1994). Garrick, Arne, and the Masque of Alfred. (New York).

External links[edit]

  • Review of the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi recording of Alfred in Goldberg Magazine.