Bryan White

Lost in Translation? Louis Grabu and John Dryden’s Albion and Albanius

Louis Grabu’s setting of John Dryden’s Albion and Albanius is an unprecedented and unimitated experiment in English musical drama. Grabu returned to London from France to compose “something at least like an opera” when Thomas Betterton failed to import the real thing – a full-blown French opera – on his trip to Paris in 1683. Grabu’s debt to Lullian opera has long been acknowledged, and his setting of English frequently criticised. However, the difficulty he faced in setting Dryden’s text has been too little acknowledged. The libretto did not conform to any precedent in English musical theatre, much less the librettos by Quinault that formed the template for Grabu’s conception of opera. This paper analyses Grabu’s attempt to write music using the style, form and aesthetic of Lullian opera to an English text constructed on an unfamiliar dramaturgical design. A close examination of the Act II dialogue between Albion and Albanius reveals the way in which he created a style of English recitative wholly unlike any English precedent. Although he did not always grasp the idiomatic accentuation of English, Grabu developed a flexible metrical technique –  adapted from Lully – well suited to Dryden's recitative style, which is marked by irregular line lengths and stress patterns. The examination also reveals disparate concepts of opera held by the composer and librettist, in particular Dryden's lack of understanding of the hierarchies of musical style and form required in French opera. Dryden's use of stanzaic song texts in the encounter between Albion and Albanius caused difficulties for Grabu who found it inappropriate to set them in song forms. The result is an uneasy compromise, in which Grabu is nevertheless able to create an unexpected sense of tenderness between Albion and Albanius, a moment in which music transcends the restraints of the libretto.