Passions run deep in British history.

No further proof necessary than that of an eighteenth-century Frenchman, François-Marie Arouet, more commonly known as that great French philosophe, Voltaire. His 1759 publication Candide proved his attachment, if not outright admiration, for all things British – something Frenchmen were not supposed to do. But Voltaire’s Candide reveals to us his befuddlement over something that happened at noon on 14 March 1757: the execution of Admiral John Byng. Voltaire’s response? To write Britain into his satire of the Western World, “Mais dans ce pays-ci,” Voltaire explained, “il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” Roughly translated, “But in this country [Britain], it is good to kill from time to time an admiral [John Byng] to encourage the others.”

musketball oratoria

Part of the programme guide to The Musket Ball

I am here to report that passions still dictate activities in London, some 259 years after the admiral’s death. Proof of that comes in the form of an oratorio. Entitled The Musket Ball, a joint venture written by Thane Byng (ancestral niece to Admiral Byng) and composer Piers Maxim, this three-scene choral adventure blends history and fantasy to reclaim the admiral’s reputation.

In the opening scene, none other than George Frederic Handel, perhaps Britain’s most famous eighteenth-century composer, laments Byng’s death. Handel was in Covent Garden, London, on 11 March 1757 engaged in the performance of his own oratorio, Triumph of Time and Truth. And this is, coincidently, the purposeful theme of The Musket Ball. . . that Byng’s reputation will someday be vindicated, that with time, and armed by the truth, the stain of Byng’s infamy will be lifted.

I do regret not being there. But for my friends in England, it will be held at the Chapel at St. Peter’s and St. Paul, on 12 March.

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