Arguably England's finest theatrical composer of the 18th century, Thomas Arne is perhaps most famous for penning the song Rule Britannia, sung at the last night of the BBC Proms in a Henry Wood arrangement.
Born in London on 12 March 1710, the son of an upholsterer and undertaker, Arne was educated at Eton and was destined for a career in law, before abandoning it in favour of music. Initially opposing his son's choice of career, Arne's father helped him found a company in 1732 to stage English operas at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket. In addition to staging the works of others, Arne began writing his own theatrical works, including the opera Rosamund, first produced on 7 March 1733.
Arne's theatrical career was aided immensely by several advantageous unions in the 1730s. First, his sister, Susanna, married the actor/playwright Theophilus Cibber in April 1734. As a result of her influence, Arne became the resident composer at the Drury Lane theatre. Three years later Arne himself married, to England's finest soprano, Cecilia Young. With such a talent to write for, Arne scored his first big success in 1738 with a setting of Milton's Comus that proved so successful it was still being staged into the next century.
Arne's success was at its height in these years. He was one of the founding members of the Society (later Royal Society) of Musicians, along with Handel, Pepusch and Boyce, and was considered one of London's brightest musical stars. In 1740 he wrote the masque Alfred, which features the song Rule, Britannia, and also composed music for Drury Lane productions of Shakespeare plays. One of his most well-loved songs, Where the bee sucks, dates from this period.
Inspired by the success of Handel's Messiah in Dublin, Arne travelled to the Irish capital in 1742, returning after two seasons. Following several flops in the 1750s, he returned to Dublin in 1755 with his wife, Cecilia and pupil, Charlotte Brent, hoping to revive his career. He returned just a season later with Brent, who was now his mistress, leaving Cecilia in Ireland. Arne's fortunes rapidly improved with Brent by his side, and several successes were achieved at Covent Garden with Brent singing Arne's music. On 7 July 1759, Arne received an honorary doctorate from Oxford and it appeared as though his reputation was once more in the ascendancy.
The 1760s witnessed another period of decline with Arne badly hit by the death of his sister and the marriage of Charlotte Brent in 1766. By 1770 he was in financial difficulty, though he continued to produce some fine works including the masque The Fairy Prince in 1771. In October 1777 he became reconciled with his estranged wife, but fell ill shortly after. He died on 5 March 1778 and was buried in the churchyard of St Paul's, Covent Garden.
Arne's achievements are generally overshadowed today by the popularity of a few songs, such as Where the bee sucks, and Rule, Britannia. In the musical life of 18th century London, however, he can perhaps be considered as important a figure as Handel.