Matthew Locke


In Thomas Shadwell’s (1642-1692) libretto (modelled after the French version by Molière, Quinault and Corneille), Cupid falls in love with Psyche, the most beautiful and innocent princess in the world. In a series of fatal events driven by human and divine jealousy, Psyche is sent from heaven to hell and back. Her sisters and the goddess Venus do everything in their power to thwart her happiness, while her two unfortunate suitors Nicander and Polynices offer some surprisingly rationalist comments on the supernatural course of events, before ultimately reconciling themselves to Psyche’s heavenly alliance.

Psyche (1675) was presented as a future model of the operatic genre in England – a new attempt at combining music with spoken drama. King Charles II, anxious to rival the artistic splendours of Louis XIV, commissioned Matthew Locke (1621-23 – 1677) to write the first English opera, which included instrumental music (now lost) by Giovanni Battista Draghi (1640-1708). Locke may even have composed this work in response to a London visit of the troupe of the Académie royale de Musique, under the direction of its creator Robert Cambert (Lully’s predecessor) in 1674. However, Psyche did not graft itself onto the Italian opera model, nor even onto that of the new French tragédie lyrique. It was, in effect, the first true ‘semi-opera’, in which music – including some of the first English recitatives – rubs shoulders with spoken drama in the vein of the earlier court masque. Indeed, by boldly advertising Psyche (1675) as “The English Opera”, Locke claimed Restoration opera as a hybrid form involving music as well as spoken dialogue.

The splendour of the performing forces (probably amounting to more than 100 performers at the premiere) and the beauty and consistent ingenuity of the music (including echo effects, an extremely varied and precisely notated orchestration, and numerous choruses of great harmonic fancy) all make Psyche a hidden monument of English music history. The piece left an indelible mark on the works of other Restoration composers such as John Blow and Henry Purcell.


Music by Matthew Locke & Giovanni Battista Draghi

Libretto by Thomas Shadwell

Created on 27.02.1675 at the Dorset Theatre in Londres

After Lully’s Psyché (Paris, 1671)

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