Music08 Apr 2008 01:50 am
They were not based on a pair of identically idiotic political blowhards. They were not early forerunners of French critical theory, as Lewis Carroll would have you believe. And, finally, they were not just another pair of völkisch characters, drawn from a stock of traditional Anglo-Saxon nursery rhymes (famously edited by the indefatigable Mother Goose). No, dear reader, there were no such antecedents for Messrs. Tweedledee and Tweedledum; if anything, their genesis bears the imprint of a far nobler stamp, plucked, as it were, from the Eternal Harmonies of the Seven Spheres.
In the 1720s, the elite circles of English society were still in some turmoil following the accession of George I, a German prince, to the throne. The new king spoke very little English, and, while the practice of promoting favorites was neither unique nor unexpected, his practice of advancing German courtiers provoked the ire of native-born aristocrats, who felt that their provenance had been usurped.
One notable favorite of King George was his kappelmeister, or chorus master, whom he brought with him from Hanover: George Frideric Handel. Handel had met with much early success in Italy and was well regarded throughout Europe. However, he was not yet the dominant composer of the Messiah and Water Music that lorded it over the English scene when he was appointed director of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719. His main rival in these years proved to be one Giovanni Battista Bononcini, himself a beneficiary of patronage from the powerful and anti-Hanoverian Duke of Marlborough.
The rivalry between the two composers soon became quite fierce, and support for either one bore a suspicious affinity to political allegiances. There were accusations of musical pilfering from both parties and, in fact, there was pilfering by both parties: When asked why he borrowed material composed by Bononcini, Handel is said to have replied, “It’s much too good for him; he did not know what to do with it.”
At the height of the controversy, John Byrom, a minor poet and writer of hymns from Manchester, penned an epigram which gently ridiculed the spat (the last two, relevant lines of which are occasionally attributed to both Pope and Swift). In the poem, he assigns the composers onomatopoeic names that poke fun at the notion that there could be any serious difference between two men whose musical measures are separated solely by a “dee” and a “dum:”
Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!
Bononcini was eventually forced to retire from London in ignominy; he was caught passing off an entire composition written by someone else as his own, and this was plagiarism beyond the pale. In our own time, Handel’s reputation occupies the loftiest of perches, while Bononcini is forgotten. Of course, contrariwise, it could be argued that Bononcini’s memory is preserved, if only in two notes—his tweedle-dum lives on.
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