A PHILOSOPHER’S Opera? Hold on a minute. Isn’t opera just a tad too frivolous for philosophy? Well, not if it’s a satire, that’s for sure, and that’s just what John McLaurin’s The Philosopher’s Opera is. So who is getting the 1757 equivalent of the Monty Python treatment? David Hume, no less.

Our most famous philosopher – he with the shiny big toe at the top of the Royal Mile. It’s amazing how the world’s greatest sceptic has become an object of devotion with the public rubbing his bronze toe as though it were the statue of a saint. He would have loved the irony of it. Never mind the fact that he is sitting there right across the street from St Giles’.

By the way, the philosophers won’t let me call Hume an atheist, but he all but signed the atheist’s charter and, according to The Philosopher’s Opera, that’s what he was.

It was Professor Alexander Stewart who drew my attention to MacLaurin’s The Philosopher’s Opera, published anonymously, and he, in turn, was indebted to the work of James Fieser who edited and provided an introduction for its republication in 1999.

Then the BBC and producer David McGuinness gave me the opportunity to record and broadcast bits of it in the BBC Radio Scotland Scotland’s Music series of 2007. What fun we had! But, as far as I know, the whole piece has yet to be revived.

The National:

MacLaurin was the nephew of the famous mathematician Colin MacLaurin, and his The Philosopher’s Opera is a short “ballad opera” satirising David Hume’s philosophy and Hume’s support for the Reverend John Home’s (pronounced Hume, pictured above – portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn) play The Douglas, first produced in Edinburgh in 1756. Young MacLaurin (1734-1796) was 23, and very possibly prompted by his mother to write this jeu d’esprit.

The Douglas created a scandal not merely because it was written by a minister of the Church of Scotland, which was bad enough, but because its conclusion appeared to endorse suicide. The play’s heroine, Lady Randolph, throws herself off a cliff rather than continue living with her husband, who has just killed her long-lost son by a previous marriage, mistaking him for her lover.

The audience, of course, had every sympathy for her, but the Church thought she should learn to put up with it. The play was lauded over Shakespeare and drew much larger audiences in Edinburgh than did Othello. In fact, it was so successful that the famous actress Sarah Siddons (below) made her last stage appearance on June 9, 1819, as Lady Randolph. It even made its way into the world of the Miniature Theatre. I have the sets and characters for a production. I just have to rescue my miniature theatre from the cow shed.

The National:

MacLaurin was later ashamed of his little satire and, in 1798, his editor, Ruthven, chose not to include it in MacLaurin’s collected works. Hence it has languished in obscurity, though it is actually a clever piece and potentially very funny. The Philosopher’s Opera includes

18 Scottish airs. Apart from Gay’s famous satirical work, The Beggar’s Opera of 1728, there were also two Scottish precedents for ballad operas. The first was Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd of 1725 but with many added songs in a second edition of 1729. The second was Mitchell’s The Highland Fair of 1731, which had a brief success in London. Neither of these, however, was overtly satirical.

The title page of MacLaurin’s satire is plain, the sole adornment being a quotation from Lucretius (explained below) and a price of “Four Pence”. The cast of MacLaurin’s ballad opera includes Satan,

two devils, Mr Genius (David Hume), Jacky (John Home), Mrs Presbytery (John Home’s mother) and sundry minor female characters with names such as Miss Weepwell and Miss Sob. The only character who does not admire The Douglas is Miss Sprightly.

Mrs Presbytery and Mr Genius are in love. The reason is that the Church of Scotland (in the form of Mrs Presbytery and her son Jacky) has been so corrupted that the prospect of sharing a bed with the world’s leading sceptic, David Hume, is delightful. MacLaurin chose the aptly titled tune Woe’s My Heart That We Should Sunder for the second air.

The tune title comes from Ramsay’s lyrics, found in William Thomson’s Orpheus Caledonius of 1725. A disappointed lover implies that only death will bring him and his beloved together. In MacLaurin’s version,

Mr Genius, expecting no afterlife and therefore no blissful union

after death, continues to

importune Mrs Presbytery, whose reply shows she understands the need for haste.

Once this scenario is made clear, Satan and his two devils come to Edinburgh seeing a real opportunity to convert its citizens. Satan asks about Mr Genius (David Hume) who duly appears and confirms that, in Satan’s words, he is: “convinc’d that there is no God, no devil, no future state: – that there is no connection betwixt cause and effect; – that suicide is a duty we owe to ourselves; – adultery a duty we owe to our neighbour; that the tragedy of Douglas is the best play ever was written”.

The play ends with Satan and his devils praising The Douglas for rather different reasons than Miss Weepwell and Miss Sob.

The National:

It is worth looking at MacLaurin’s title page with its quotation from Lucretius. This is a homage to Epicurus. Both Epicurus and Lucretius denied the existence of divine providence or rationality governing the universe. They feared neither gods nor death, and Lucretius is said to have committed suicide.

Lampriere’s Classical Dictionary gives an idea of how Lucretius was regarded in MacLaurin’s day, and this explains MacLaurin’s choice

of quotation in the context of Hume’s views on the deity, the human soul and on suicide: “ ... the opinions of the philosopher [Lucretius] are justly censured, who gives no existence of power to a supreme Being, but is the devoted advocate of atheism and impiety, and earnestly endeavours to establish the mortality of the soul. This composition, which has little claim to be called an heroic poem, was written and finished while the poet laboured under a violent delirium, occasioned by a philtre, which the jealousy of his mistress or his wife Lucilia had administered. It is said that he destroyed himself in the 44th year of his age.”

BUT what of MacLaurin’s choice of tunes? In the light of the above, the themes to look out for are suicide, love, jealousy and adultery, atheism and the status of the human soul; heavy stuff – but bear in mind that this is a satire, deliberately ludicrous in character. With one exception, all the airs are named, but no music is given with them.

Of the 18, two are found in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, two in Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd, three in Ramsay’s The Tea-Table Miscellany and six in William Thomson’s Orpheus Caledonius. MacLaurin took Can Love Be Controll’d By Advice? from Gay as its title is derived from Gay’s lyrics.

To this tune Mrs Presbytery proclaims her clearly ill-advised love for Mr Genius despite singing that “His limbs are so bulky that I/Their beauties sans spectacles see.” – a reference to David Hume’s corpulence.

The National:

But there is a possible sub-text in this choice as the actual tune name in Gay is Grim King Of The Ghosts, and the original lyrics are assigned to a young man disappointed in love, who seeks death as the way out.

This notion that there might be a sub-text is not a far-fetched suggestion. MacLaurin uses Gill Maurice for air 15.

Gill Maurice was the ballad which first inspired John Home to write The Douglas, and this was known at the time.

The story of the ballad is that of a husband who mistakes his wife’s son for her lover and kills him, and his wife begs him now to kill her.

Miss Sprightly, the sole defender of Shakespeare and Otway, uses it with obvious irony for her song which proposes that all the paltry Scots works such as The Douglas be consigned to the flames.

In the fifth air, the sub-text is one of corruption. The devil, Sulpheureo, sings to a tune by Thomas Arne with which it works hilariously:

In ev’ry street, in ev’ry lane,
In ev’ry narrow slippery close,
Nothing but filth is to be seen;
In all of them I stopt my nose.

It ends with “Auld Reeky is a hell on earth”. Please, Glaswegians, show restraint. The 7th air, Susannah, is probably taken from Handel’s eponymous oratorio on the subject of Susanna and the elders, in which they falsely accuse Susanna of adultery having failed to seduce her themselves. So the themes of despair in love and of potentially ravaged innocence are apparent yet again. David Hume was accused of condoning adultery, though his views on the matter were more sensibly utilitarian. Sinners may make of that what they will.

MacLaurin gives Satan the last word and last song – a drinking song praising The Douglas because it has so effectively corrupted the clergy. Meanwhile, the Church of Scotland and David Hume anticipate their nuptial bliss, despite the fact that Mrs Presbytery is 200 years old – the Philosopher’s Opera having been written nearly 200 years after the Reformation in Scotland. They sing to the wonderfully pathetic air of Logan Water promising each other to be youthful in bed.

The piece as a whole deserves modern performance and recording, reflecting on the aesthetics, morals and religious controversies of the time, with a degree of musical knowingness and even sensitivity and, of course, a lot of fun.

By the way, a word of thanks to Martin Hillman for drawing attention to available recordings of 18th-century Scottish music, including the efforts of the Italians. There is a whole other essay there.

The trouble with listing the recordings of each and every one of these composers is that they are scattered over many albums, so I have restricted myself to the ones that cover the most ground in a single album. Also thanks to Marjorie Carroll for flagging up Concerto Caledonia’s concert. This is just what is needed. Next week, Oswald. Did I tell you he’s my favourite? He’s my favourite.