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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

John Beard, Handel's Tenor

In February 1732, to celebrate his 47th birthday, Handel went to the pub. The pub, a well-known London establishment called the Crown and Anchor, had rooms in which various societies would hold meetings or give small-scale concerts. On this particular occasion, Bernard Gates, the Master of the Boys of the choir of Chapel Royal, presented a performance of Handel's Esther with the composer in the audience.

Handel had written Esther for a private performance outside London fourteen years before and it hadn't been touched in the interim; how Gates got hold of the score is anybody's guess. But the performance was repeated and regarded as something of a success. No-one thought twice about the boys performing in a pub, by the way. When Handel decided to revise Esther and perform it himself in a theatre, then the church authorities objected. Funny how things change.

One of the boys who took part in Gates's performance was a lad of about 14 called John Beard. We know virtually nothing of Beard's early life and the birthdate of 1717 is only approximate. But once he came into contact with London's musical world, and especially with Handel, his life changed. In this program I want to share with you a little of the remarkable life of John Beard.

In the 18th century boys' voices broke much later than they do today. Beard's voice seems to have broken in 1734, two years after the Esther performance in the pub, but before long it became clear that he would be blessed as an adult with a fine tenor voice. On 8 November 1734, still in his teens, Beard appeared for the first time in one of Handel's own performances. This was in the role of Silvio in a revival of one of Handel's early operas, Il pastor fido. [listen]

Clearly Beard made a good impression on Handel, and this helped inspire a complete reassessment of vocal allocations in opera. Up to this time, tenors and basses were used only for minor characters. All the leading roles, whether male or female, were sung by sopranos, mezzos and altos, both male and female, something quite possible in the era of the castrato. And it was very common for leading male roles to be sung by women if a castrato was not available. There were women who actually specialised in singing male roles in opera; such things were accepted parts of the conventions of the time.

But with Beard and one or two other men in his company Handel began to give more prominent parts to tenors and basses, especially later on in the oratorios where the conventions of opera were more easily dispensed with.

Handel set about creating some of the greatest tenor roles in 18th century opera for Beard. In the mid- to late-1730s Handel went through a period of experimentation, stretching the conventions of Italian opera, and mixing English oratorio into his seasons. Beard played major roles in all the works of this period; certainly no tenor could have asked for better music to sing.

Hudson: John Beard

Beard created six tenor roles in new Handel operas in less than three years. The first was one of the best: Lurcanio in Ariodante, which was premiered in January 1735. Handel was testing Beard and must have had enormous confidence in his young protégé to write music for him like this. [listen]

Baroque opera is of course full of vocal fireworks like that but rarely had such music been given to a tenor; such bravura was more the domain of the castrato. And Handel was too much of a theatre animal not to realise that you need light and shade; not every piece can be a showstopper. Hot on the heels of Ariodante came Alcina, and in that Beard created the role of Oronte. While Oronte gets the chance to show off a bit too, he also has music which is more four-square, more English than Italian. This aria from Alcina's second act has the common touch with its toe-tapping tune and catchy little syncopations. There's still the chance for some coloratura display, though not on the blistering scale of the Lurcanio aria we just heard. [listen]

In 1736 John Beard sang the first English-language Handel role written specifically for him, the tenor solo part in the ode Alexander's Feast. Singing in his native language, Beard made even more of an impression, and his career was off and running. [listen]

It's clear from the music Handel wrote for Beard that he had a flexible coloratura coupled with a good declamatory edge. His career rapidly developed beyond singing for Handel, and from this same year - 1736 - he began appearing in operas, plays, pantomimes and burlesques for a number of different companies. He sang in Galliard's opera The Royal Chace at Covent Garden in 1736, and from 1737 he sang at Drury Lane for the first time a role with which he would be connected for years: Macheath in The Beggar's Opera. [listen]

Beard clearly worked well in all manner of social settings, from the rough and tumble of Drury Lane and Covent Garden to the highest levels of society. They don't come any higher than royalty, and it was in 1736 that Beard sang at the wedding of Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of George II. For this service, which took place at St James's Palace, Handel composed one of his most sumptuous anthems, Sing unto God. Beard was given pride of place in the anthem's thrilling conclusion, and it shows that apart from having a flexible voice, it must have been strong and clear.

The other opera roles Handel wrote for Beard in 1736 and 1737 were Aminta in Atalanta, Varo in Arminio, Vitaliano in Giustino and Fabio in Berenice. All of these operas are almost totally unknown today and labelled (by those who don't know them) as failures. They were among Handel's final attempts to keep Italian opera - a form he loved - alive and fresh against the tide of changing public taste. The Roman envoy Fabio in Berenice, for example, has some gorgeous music. His first aria describes a bee flying from flower to flower, an image reflected in Handel's mellifluous setting. Beard must have loved this. [listen]

John Beard's popularity as both singer and actor is attested to by the sheer amount of work he undertook quite apart from his work for Handel. He was on contract to the Drury Lane company from 1737 to 1743, then at Covent Garden from 1743 to 1748. He was back at Drury Lane from 1748 until 1759 (the year Handel died), and then back again at Covent Garden until 1767. His performances for Handel were often sandwiched in among nightly performances of plays and operas elsewhere.

Zoffany: John Beard (centre) as Hawthorn in Bickerstaffe's "Love in a Village". (1767)

In 1740 Thomas Augustine Arne's English opera Alfred was first performed at Cliveden House, the residence of the Prince of Wales and a virtual rival court to that of his father, George II. The king supported Handel, while the prince supported the Opera of the Nobility, Handel's competition. Yet performers often overlapped these artistic tribal arrangements. Handel, after all, provided the anthem for the prince's wedding, and Beard sang in Arne's works as well as Handel's. And it should be remembered that Arne and Handel certainly respected each other and admired each other's work; the animosity came from their fans.

Over the course of his career Beard sang in many works by Arne. In addition to Alfred he is known to have taken roles in Arne's Comus, Rosamund, The Judgement of Paris, Artxerxes and Love in a Village. But in singing the title role in Arne's Alfred he took part in regular performances of this, one of the most famous tunes in British music history. [listen]

The year before the premiere of Alfred, Beard sang in two remarkable new English works for Handel. The oratorios Saul and Israel in Egypt have tenor solo parts expressly written with Beard's voice in mind, and the role of Jonathan in Saul shows that Handel was starting to view the young Beard, still only in his early 20s, as capable of more than just gunshot coloratura. Jonathan is a gentler role, dramatic when needed, but comprised of more lyrical music than perhaps Handel had considered writing for a principal character before. [listen]

Handel's experimentation with oratorio in 1739 also included Israel in Egypt which has very little for the soloists to sing at all. But the tenor is given one glorious aria in the final part, and Beard would have had the best time singing it. [listen]

1739 was an important year in Beard's personal life. In January of that year he married Lady Henrietta Herbert, a marriage which caused no small amount of scandal in London society.

For a start, Beard was very much beneath Henrietta socially. Her family were not impressed and there was much ribald comment generally regarding what was seen as a serious mismatch. Part of the issue was religion - she was Catholic, he Anglican - and it was common knowledge that they couldn't find a priest who would marry them. Eventually they found one, Edward Ashwell, a Catholic priest who was incarcerated at the time at the Fleet Prison. He was, through a quirk of English law, allowed to perform secret marriages in the prison for a small fee without the need for publication of the banns or the issuing of a license.

Neil Jenkins, whose essay on Beard presented at the 2005 Handel Symposium was an essential reference for this article, has discovered an entry in the prison records which show that Beard married Henrietta at the Fleet Prison on 8 January, 1739, and that Ashwell officiated.

This leads to two remarkable observations. Firstly, apart from singing for Handel at the time, Beard was under contract to perform every night in a comic afterpiece at Drury Lane, and he often had to dash before the end of Handel's oratorio to be there if there were performances on the same night. (This may explain why Jonathan doesn't sing in Act 3 of Saul.) But on 8 January, Beard would have had a very busy day: the final rehearsal for Saul was that morning. In the afternoon he married Henrietta at the Fleet Prison, and at night he performed at Drury Lane.

The other observation which has come to light is that Ashwell was actually not a priest at all. It also seems he was a bigamist. Colourful characters for colourful times...

Beard encountered a great deal of hardship through his love for Henrietta. She had large personal debts from before their marriage, and the liaison with Beard had estranged her from her father, the Earl of Waldegrave. Beard worked hard not only to support his wife and start to pay her debts but also to effect a reconciliation between Henrietta and her father in the hope of some inheritance when the elderly Earl died.

But it was not to be. The Earl died in 1740 still estranged from his daughter. With no provision for Henrietta in his will, the couple went to France for a while to escape the heat of the situation. Beard was short of money despite working hard, and his social ostracism due to the marriage wasn't helping. For some reason he turned down the offer to go with Handel to Dublin in 1741 and thereby missed out on singing in the first performances of Messiah. The legal wrangling with regard to the inheritance dragged on, unresolved, for years.

Fortunately Drury Lane gave Beard some work and he alternated with another well-known London tenor, Thomas Lowe, in The Beggar's Opera to make ends meet. Handel's return from Dublin in 1742 was the start of some better luck for Beard, as Handel had him in mind for three extraordinary title roles in three extraordinary oratorios.

The first was Samson, which Handel had started before leaving for Dublin but had not finished until after his return. The title role of Samson is a gift for the tenor voice, and here again we can see that in writing music for the tragic, blinded hero, Handel seizes the opportunity to go beyond mere coloratura fireworks and compose music of simple means yet dramatic depth. [listen]

Belshazzar, which was premiered in 1745, is one of Handel's greatest achievements of any sort, and the title role here is a complete contrast to the humbled Samson. The heathen, drunkard King of Babylon is given some of Handel's most challenging and theatrical music. His short, defiant final aria, sung immediately before his death in battle, is magnificent. [listen]

Handel's military oratorios of the mid-1740s (The Occasional Oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus, Alexander Balus and Joshua) contained one more gift of a title role written for Beard: Judas Maccabaeus. Clearly Beard hadn't lost any of his coloratura or declamation from his operatic days... [listen]

Beard as it turns out did eventually sing Messiah for Handel. He sang in the London premiere in 1743 and was a stalwart of the Foundling Hospital Charity performances which started in 1750. He also went on in Handel's later years to sing in revivals the tenor roles (such as the title role in Joshua) which were written for others. The other principal tenor who sang for Handel in the years Beard was working elsewhere was none other than his colleague from Drury Lane, Thomas Lowe.

In fact, John Beard is the only singer, tenor or otherwise, to have sung in every one of Handel's English language odes and oratorios, with the exception of The Choice of Hercules. Whether he sang the roles created for him or for others, Beard's connection with the music of Handel was probably his greatest artistic achievement in a life full of incident and great performances.

John Beard had the honour of creating the title role in Handel's last oratorio, Jephtha, in 1752. I can just imagine how wonderfully Beard brought his decades of theatrical experience to bear on this remarkable and heartfelt part. [listen]

Henrietta Beard died in 1753 without any success in the legal battles to receive part of her late father's inheritance. In 1759, the year Handel died, Beard remarried, this time taking as his wife Charlotte Rich, daughter of John Rich who managed the Covent Garden theatre. On Rich's death in 1761 Beard took over the theatre's management and still continued performing. He retired in 1767 when he was about 50 due to increasing deafness. He must have managed the business well; on his retirement Beard sold the Covent Garden patent for 60,000 pounds.

Any social stigma attached to his first marriage had long passed by this stage. In the years before his retirement he was given the title of "Vocal Performer to His Majesty", the closest a singer in those days could come to a knighthood. He was regarded as the finest English singer of his age and the music historian Charles Burney said that he "constantly possessed the favour of the public by his superior conduct, knowledge of music, and intelligence as an actor".

On his retirement Beard moved out of London and spent his final years quietly at Hampton in Middlesex, where he died 24 years later on 5 February 1791. He was about 74, the same age Handel was when he died.

In 1762, Thomas Arne's magnificent attempt at an English opera, Artaxerxes, was performed at Covent Garden and John Beard, by then the theatre's manager, sang the role of the villain Artabanes. It would have been one of the last new roles he undertook before his retirement. We'll end here with one of the arias Beard would have sung in that production. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2012.

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