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‘Sancta Cæcilia Rediviva’. Elizabeth Linley: Repertoire, Reputation and the English Voice

  • Suzanne Aspden

In the early 1770s, Elizabeth Linley was, for a few short years, not just Britain’s most celebrated singer, but also the subject of almost cult-like devotion. Her brief career demonstrated a general awareness on the part of audience, singer and managers alike of the value of enmeshing of art, voice and life in the construction of a successful public persona. The extraordinary adulation she inspired suggests more than just canny use of publicity, however: her cultivation of an apparently distinctive sound and association with a particular repertoire – Handelian oratorio – at a time when Handel was particularly revered suggests British interest in the development of a national musical voice, as well as repertoire.

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Suzanne Aspden, University of Oxford;

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1 Price, Cecil, ed., Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1966), I: 80. Sheridan’s father, the actor Thomas Sheridan, thought so poorly of musicians that he did not want his children to socialise with the Linleys when the families first met in Bath.

2 [William Earle] Sheridan and His Times, 2 vols. (London, 1889), I: 31. A succession of nineteenth-century Sheridan biographers turned Elizabeth Linley into a delicate, retiring and sensitive creature, wholly dedicated to the needs of her family: a paragon of femininity for the age. See, for example, in addition to Earle, Thomas Moore’s Memoirs (1825) and W. Fraser Rae’s Sheridan (1896). Twentieth-century studies of the Linleys, while less prone to painting Elizabeth Linley as the ‘angel in the house’, are frequently unreliable in fact, quotation and referencing, the exception being the exhibition catalogue, A Nest of Nightingales: Thomas Gainsborough, The Linley Sisters (London, 1988).

3 Of course, female singers (and, as the other articles in this issue show, men too) had long given careful consideration to the connection between private and public lives, and their representation of themselves in the public eye. An early, well-known example is Barbara Strozzi; see: Heller, Wendy, ‘Usurping the Place of the Muses: Barbara Strozzi and the Female Composer in Seventeenth-Century Italy’, in The World of Baroque Music: New Perspectives, ed. George Stauffer (Bloomington, 2006), 145168; and Rosand, Ellen, ‘The Voice of Barbara Strozzi’, in Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150–1950, ed. Jane Bowers and Judith Tick (Champaign, 1986), 168190.

4 For example, her verses on her brother Tom’s death in 1778 were circulated and published; for discussion of the contribution her personal verses made to her reputation, see Waterfield, Giles, ‘The Linley Cult’, in A Nest of Nightingales, 33. Sheridan said of their early married life that ‘Mrs. Sheridan and myself were often obliged to keep writing for our daily leg or shoulder of mutton’; Watkins, J., Memoir of the Public and Private Life of … Richard Brinsley Sheridan, with a Particular Account of his Family and Connexions, 2 vols. (London, 1817), I: 144.

5 Joncus, Berta, ‘Producing Stars in Dramma per musica’, in Music as Social and Cultural Practice: Essays in Honour of Reinhard Strohm, ed. Melania Bucciarelli and Berta Joncus (Woodbridge, 2007), 275293.

6 Foote, Samuel, The Maid of Bath (first pub. London, 1771; here Dublin, 1778), 49; the assertion that the story was ‘true’ appears in the Epilogue published with this version of the play, ‘Written by Mr. Cumberland, Spoken by Mrs. Jewell’.

7 In his Poems of 1768, Bath local Thomas Underwood includes verses on Thomas Matthews’s promise to introduce him to Foote. If Foote and Matthews were on friendly terms, it may have explained Foote’s choice of the subject in the first place.

8 For Burney’s candid appraisal of Sheridan’s appearance in early 1779, see The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, ed. Lars E. Troide and Stewart J. Cooke (Oxford, 1987–94), III: 229.

9 Rae, W. Fraser, Sheridan: A Biography, 2 vols. (London, 1896), I: 255. Rae apparently had access to Sheridan family papers, which presumably included these letters; he gives no references.

10 Angelo, H., Reminiscences, 2 vols. (London, 1828), I: 87.

11 Morning Post, 4 February 1774; noted in Price, Letters of Sheridan, I: 84, n.2.

12 Kenneth James suggests she, like her brother, would have started performing at around age seven, although the earliest record of her performance comes from Mary Dewes, cited below; see James, Kenneth Edward, ‘Concert Life in Eighteenth-Century Bath’, PhD diss., Royal Holloway University of London (1987), 762763. On 14 May 1767, in Pope’s Bath Chronicle, Thomas Linley advertised his thanks to the public for supporting his children’s appearance in ‘their Concert’, by indicating how hard he intended to work (and to make them work): ‘To merit their future Favour, it shall be his constant study, by every effort in his Power, to promote their Improvement.’

13 Mary Dewes to her brother on 27 April [1767], in The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs. Delany, ed. Lady Llanover, second series, 3 vols. (London, 1862), I: 133. Many biographers assert Linley’s desire for a lighter workload, but provide no evidence; it does, however, seem a reasonable assumption.

14 Thomas Linley to George Colman, Bath, 11 October 1770, in Posthumous Letters from Various Celebrated Men … to Francis Colman and George Colman the Elder, ed. George Colman (London, 1820), 151.

15 Elizabeth Harris to James Harris, Jr, Salisbury, 6 October 1770; in Burrows, Donald and Dunhill, Rosemary, Music and Theatre in Handel’s World: The Family Papers of James Harris, 1732–1780 (Oxford, 2002), 603. Similarly, when in London for the Lenten oratorios in 1773, Linley and her father and brother performed for the king and queen in a private concert lasting five hours, during which time, according to The Bath Chronicle, ‘no one sat except the two performers who played the harpsichord and the violin-cello’. The Bath Chronicle, 13 April 1773; cited in W. Fraser Rae, Sheridan, I: 262.

16 Price, , Letters of Sheridan, III: 295297.

17 Price, , Letters of Sheridan, III: 301.

18 Samuel Johnson approved of Sheridan’s stance, according to Boswell: ‘He resolved wisely and nobly … Would not a gentleman be disgraced by having his Wife singing publickly for hire? … I know not if I should not prepare [i.e., castrate] myself for a publick singer as readily as let my Wife be one.’ Boswell’s, JamesLife of Johnson: An Edition of the Original Manuscript, ed. Bruce Redford and Elizabeth Goldring, 4 vols. (Edinburgh and New Haven, 1994–), II: 165.

19 Lyons, Daniel, Origin and Progress of the Meeting of the Three Choirs of Gloucester, Worcester, & Hereford, and of the Charity Connected with it, ed. and continued by John Amott, organist of Gloucester Cathedral [with notes by E. Rimbault and others] (London, [1864/5?]), 50.

20 Lyons attributes this comment to John Wilson Croker, commenting: ‘Croker has a note in his edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson’; Lyons, , Origin and Progress, 50. Croker in turn attributes it to the Reverend Doctor Hall: Boswell, James, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., including a Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, ed. John Wilson Croker, 5 vols. (London, 1831), III: 244, n.2.

21 Price, , Letters of Sheridan, I: 84, n.2.

22 Burney, Fanny, Memoirs of Dr Burney, 3 vols. (London, 1832), I: 68. These lines (or rather, versions thereof) are widely but erroneously attributed to Fanny Burney’s Early Diaries. For further demonstration of the popularity of these subscription concerts, see Bor, Margot and Clelland, Lamond, Still the Lark: A Biography of Elizabeth Linley (London, 1962), 74.

23 Letter of Elizabeth Harris to James Harris, Jr, on 16 May 1776, on an informal concert at ‘Lady Galways’, at which, because Tessier refused to perform, others sang instead: ‘Mrs Sheridan sung four songs[,] a finer voice was never heard’, though, interestingly, she added ‘the learned say she has been ill taught’; Burrows, and Dunhill, , Music and Theatre in Handel’s World, 893.

24 Ozias Humphry and R.B. Sheridan, among others, make it clear that Thomas Linley worked his children very hard; for an overview see James, , ‘Concert Life’, 762763.

25 Rae, , Sheridan, I: 195.

26 James, , ‘Concert Life’, 765, 773, cites a letter of 1771 from Mrs M. Sneyd to Mrs Stears.

27 Letter undated, in Black, Clementina, The Linleys of Bath (London, 1911; rev. edn, 1971), 60.

28 Sichel, Walter Sydney, Sheridan, from New and Original Material, including a Manuscript Diary of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 2 vols. (London, 1909), I: 500501.

29 [Charles Burney], ‘Linley, John’ [sic], in The Cyclopaedia, ed. Abraham Rees, 31 vols. (London, 1802–20), XXI (1812).

30 Burney, Charles, A General History of Music: From the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (1776–1789), 2 vols. (Dover, 1957), II: 883.

31 On Linley’s domestic music-making, see Lefanu, William Richard, ed., Betsy Sheridan’s Journal: Letters from Sheridan’s Sister (Oxford, 1960).

32 James, , ‘Concert Life’, 164ff.

33 Humphry, Ozias, ‘The Correspondence and Papers of Ozias Humphry’, 8 vols. (London Royal Academy, HU 1–8) 1: 33; cited in James, ‘Concert Life’, 754–5. This anecdote has been misapplied to Elizabeth herself by a succession of biographers; examination of the quotation in full makes it clear that Humphry is referring to her mother, Mary Linley, née Johnson.

34 James, , ‘Concert Life’, 755.

35 James notes that, while the first reference to Linley singing in public is found in Mary Dewes’s letter of 1767, she was almost certainly performing before then; ‘Concert Life’, 762–3. Ozias Humphry recalled that the children (Elizabeth and Tom) participated in Thomas Linley’s benefit concerts; Humphry, ‘Correspondence and Papers’, I: 33; cited in James, ‘Concert Life’, 762. James notes that ‘later in the century’ audiences often attended concerts ‘to hear some favourite English ballad or patriotic song’ (45); see also 92–3.

36 See Chedzoy, Alan, Sheridan’s Nightingale: The Story of Elizabeth Linley (London, 1997), 1011, although he provides no sources.

37 See Bath Chronicle, 22 November 1770, 27 December 1770, 17 January 1771. All cited and discussed in Green, Emanuel, Thomas Linley, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Thomas Mathews, their Connection with Bath (Bath, 1903), 2527. In addition to the Purcell, the songs performed in the first Entertainment were: ‘A Scotch ballad beginning: I oft have heard Mary say’, ‘Elin a Roon, an Irish song’, ‘Black eyed Susan, an English ballad’. On 17 January the programme advertised changed, including: ‘A song beginning: One day I heard Mary say’, ‘The noontide air, a song’, ‘A Scotch song, called, Low down i’ the broom’.

38 Humphry, , ‘Correspondence and Papers’, I: 33; cited in James, , ‘Concert Life’, 762.

39 James notes the presence of Handel’s music from early in the century and his dominance in the mid- to late century: ‘Concert Life’, 82–3, 86–8.

40 On Thomas Linley’s connection to Chilcott, and on Handel performances in Bath, see James, , ‘Concert Life’, 100102, 141. See also Bradley, Ian, Water Music: Music Making in the Spas of Europe and North America (Oxford, 2010), 3940.

41 Chedzoy, , Sheridan’s Nightingale, 8.

42 James, , ‘Concert Life’, 141.

43 Pope’s Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 12 May 1768; discussed in James, , ‘Concert Life’, 763.

44 Climenson, Emily J., ed., Passages from the Diaries of Mrs. Philip Lybbe Powys of Hardwick House, Oxon, A.D. 1756 to 1808 (London, 1899), 152.

45 Performers in London’s spoken-drama theatres were not paid the sums Italian opera singers received, of course.

46 Walpole, H., Correspondence, ed. W. S. Lewis, 48 vols. (1937–83), XXXII: 106.

47 Burney, Susan, The Journals and Letters of Susan Burney: Music and Society in Late Eighteenth-Century England, ed. Philip Olleson (Aldershot, 2012), 76.

48 Lyons, , Origin and Progress, 47.

49 Burney, , Early Journals and Letters (March 1773), I: 249250.

50 Jackson, William, ‘A Short Sketch of my own Life’ (1802), reproduced in Gainsborough’s House Review (1996/7), 65.

51 Climenson, , Passages from the Diaries of Mrs. Philip Lybbe Powys, 161.

52 Climenson, , Passages from the Diaries of Mrs. Philip Lybbe Powys, 153.

53 Burney, Charles, Memoirs of Dr. Charles Burney, 1720–1769, ed. Slava Kilma, Garry Bowers and Kerry S. Grant (Lincoln, NE, 1988), 191.

54 Burney, , Early Journals and Letters (March 1773), I: 251: ‘so young a Woman, Gifted with such enchanting talents, & surrounded with so many Admirers, who can preserve herself, unconscious of her charms, & diffident of her powers, — has merit that entitles her to the strongest approbation’.

55 Burney, , Early Journals and Letters (January 1779), III: 226.

56 [Burney], ‘Linley, John’ [sic], in Cyclopaedia, ed. Rees, XXI.

57 Lefanu, , Betsy Sheridan’s Journal, 5051.

58 Chedzoy, , Sheridan’s Nightingale, 297.

59 Waterfield, Giles, ‘The Linley Cult’, in A Nest of Nightingales, 31.

60 Fraser Rae, in his biography of Sheridan, suggests that Linley sang a coquettish song about suitors in the Music Hall at Oxford on 29 April 1771, beginning ‘Well! Sirs, then I’ll tell you without any jest’. If this was so, it would be the only such instance I have come across – it does not seem particularly likely the calculating Thomas Linley would have lowered his daughter’s market value by agreeing to a Music Hall performance unless substantial financial inducement was involved. Rae, , Sheridan, I: 150.

61 The cantata’s narrative also seems to draw inspiration from James Thomson and David Mallet’s Alfred, set by Thomas Arne, and performed in various guises from 1740 to the 1770s; it includes Emma as Alfred’s wife, who similarly repines alone in the wilderness while Alfred is doing battle.

62 Chedzoy, , Sheridan’s Nightingale, 157.

63 Lyons, , Origin and Progress, 25.

64 [Charles Burney], ‘Frasi, Giulia’, in Cyclopaedia, XV: n.p.

65 Lyons, , Origin and Progress, 32.

66 Winton Dean, ‘Frasi, Giulia’, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed 22 July 2015,

67 Burney, , ‘Miss Linley (Mrs. Sheridan)’, in Memoirs of Dr. Charles Burney, 1726–1769, 192.

68 In a personal communication, Anne Desler has suggested that ‘sweet’ was the default equivalent of ‘beautiful’ in eighteenth-century descriptions of the voice, the latter term not typically being used. She also notes, however, that dictionary definitions from the period do not ever define ‘sweet’ in terms of the voice. The Oxford English Dictionary definitions, indeed, seem to indicate that ‘sweet’ was a catch-all term for all kinds of sensory pleasure up until at least the end of the eighteenth century.

69 Jackson, William, Observations on the Present State of Music in London (London, 1791), 913: ‘Perfect Music—if my idea be just—is the uniting Melody to Harmony. Though the assistance which each receives from the other is immense, yet Melody is best qualified to exist alone. The pleasure excited by a succession of chords, is very inferior to that natural, and sometimes artificial, succession of single sounds, which Musicians distinguish by the term Melody … Vocal Music had once nothing but Harmony to subsist on: by degrees, Melody was added; and now it is very near being lost again. // In the Grand Opera, Songs may be considered as pathetic, bravura, something between the two which has no name, and Airs called Cavatina. Generally, the last have most Melody, and the first sort have the least; but it is scarce worth while to ascertain which has most, where all are defective … In the English Opera, the Composers very wisely adapt some of the Songs to Tunes which were composed when Melody really existed: and it is curious to observe how glad the Audience are to find a little that is congenial to their feelings, after they have been gaping to take in some meaning from the wretched imitations of Italian bravura and pathetic Songs.’

70 Jackson’s favour for Handel abated after the 1784 Commemoration, however, as he expressed concern (much as Charles Burney did) for the cloying impact of idolisation of Handel on national musical taste.

71 Sainsbury, John S., Dictionary of Musicians from the Earliest Times, 2 vols. (London, 1825), II: 66.

72 R.B. Sheridan to Elizabeth Angelo, Bath, [13 Oct 1770?], in Price, Letters of Sheridan, I: 20.

73 Burney, , ‘Miss Linley (Mrs. Sheridan)’, 191192.

74 Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 24 February 1776; cited in Gwilym Beechey, ‘The Linleys and their Music’, in A Nest of Nightingales, 10.

75 Dibdin, Charles, The Professional Life of Mr. Dibdin, Written by Himself, 4 vols. (London, 1803), II: 113114, and n.

76 Gainsborough wrote to a friend of his, William Dodd, on 24 November 1774, the day of Thomas Linley’s benefit concert: ‘we are going this evening to the benefit of a certain musical gentleman who talks of talking by notes ere long’; in Woodall, Mary, ed., The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough (London, 1963, 55); cited in James, ‘Concert Life’, 50.

77 Letter to David Garrick, 28 September 1775, in Garrick, David, Private Correspondence, [ed. J. Boaden], 2 vols. (London, 1832), II: 101.

78 James (‘Concert Life’, 102–3) notes that Thomas Linley re-worked his early songs for later use on the London stage, but as we must assume he restructured them, at least partly, to suit the new singers, it is difficult to assert a connection to his daughter’s vocal style.

79 Sheridan, , The Rivals, Act II, scene 1. ‘Go, gentle Gales!’ and ‘When absent from my soul’s delight’ are respectively songs five and six in the Twelve Songs, Op. 4 (London, c.1765); they display the vocal flexibility and wide range as well as the contemplative themes characteristic of Linley’s style. The Bickerstaff song was probably included as a comment on Linley’s rejection of other suitors in favour of Sheridan; it was, of course, one of the works Humphry identified as her mother’s favourites. ‘Ye verdant plains and woody mountains’ is alluded to in Absolute’s line ‘they were some pretty, melancholy “purling streams” airs, I warrant’.

80 James, , ‘Concert Life’, 727728.

81 The advertisement for the Bath performance appears on 26 November 1767 in Pope’s Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette. If it was Jackson’s setting of the Ode, it may of course have been altered or updated in the three years prior to publication in 1770. For discussion of the possibility that the 1767 performance was of Charles Rousseau Burney’s setting, see Richard McGrady, ‘The Elegies of William Jackson and Thomas Linley the Elder’, Music and Letters 77 (1996), 209–27, 213. McGrady suggests that Jackson would not have waited three years to publish his work, but since he failed to publish Lycidas at all, and spoke in his preface to the Canzonets of works circulating in performance prior to publication, it does not seem reasonable to assume that publication was necessarily tied to performance for Jackson.

82 [Burney], ‘Linley, John’ [sic], in Cyclopaedia, XXI.

83 ‘In yonder grove’ was sung on 12 March 1773 by Linley for her brother’s benefit concert at the Haymarket, and the next day’s Morning Chronicle reported that she had written the text; Beechey, ‘The Linleys and their Music’, 13.

84 Charles Burney particularly remarked upon her ornamentation and ‘the extreme length, & difficulty’ of her cadenzas, as well as their ‘variety’ and that they were ‘generally ingenious & fanciful’; Burney, ‘Miss Linley (Mrs. Sheridan)’, 192.

85 Desler, Anne examines Farinelli’s cultivation of an association with the nightingale in ‘“Il novello Orfeo” Farinelli: Vocal Profile, Aesthetics, Rhetoric’, PhD diss., University of Glasgow (2015), 121152.

* Suzanne Aspden, University of Oxford; .

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