by NEIL JENKINS
The tenor John Beard had a fascinating life, and was the first male theatrical personality to marry into the aristocracy when he wed Lady Henrietta Herbert secretly in 1739. Beard – an Anglican who had been brought up in the Chapel Royal choir – thus found himself wed to a catholic descendant of King James II, and a close relation by marriage of Bonny Prince Charlie.
At the age of 19 Handel plucked Beard from the choir and gave him starring tenor roles in his Italian operas. When Handel turned instead to the composition of oratorios, it was Beard who created the leading tenor parts in such works as Judas Maccabaeus, Samson, Belshazzar & Jephtha. Beard sang every one of Handel’s oratorios for the composer, and was a frequent interpreter of the Messiah solos throughout England.
At the two London patent theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, he gained further fame as the foremost Macheath of his day in John Gay’s perennially popular The Beggar’s Opera; as the performer of Arne’s delightful songs in Garrick’s staging of Shakespeare plays; and as a principal singer in Ballad Operas and Pantomimes. In the summer months he entertained the fashionable audience at Ranelagh Gardens with popular ballads and cantatas.
His wife’s story is not so happy. After a marriage of 14 years she seems to have died of the classic ‘broken heart’ when her daughter by her first marriage to Lord Herbert renounced catholicism, and married back into the Herbert family – thus denying Henrietta the chance of ever gaining the rightful inheritance for which she had campaigned so long.
At this time Beard found it difficult to be always available to Handel. The only oratorio roles which were not originally written for his voice were the ones from these years: 1748-1751. But Handel subsequently rewrote them in the 1750s for his voice.
For lovers of a good picaresque 18th century novel Beard’s life then took a change for the better, and the happy ending was in sight. After 6 years as a widower he married again. This time he found himself fortuitously allied to the influential Rich family when he married Charlotte, John Rich’s daughter. Rich had made his fortune out of The Beggar’s Opera, and had built Covent Garden Theatre with the profits. By 1759 he was old and ailing, and so he invited his new son-in-law to be his assistant manager. Although competing with Garrick’s Drury Lane Beard managed so well that he virtually turned it into an opera house for English operas. King George III rewarded him with the title ‘Vocal Performer in Extraordinary to his Majesty’ and a pension. When he retired he sold Covent Garden for the huge sum of £60,000 and went to live in comfortable retirement in a Thames-side villa up the road from Garrick in Hampton Middlesex.
Neil Jenkins recently curated the exhibition – “John Beard – Handel’s tenor” – at the Handel House Museum. His biography of Beard – “John Beard, Handel and Garrick’s favourite tenor” – is published by Bramber Press