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The Saucy Arethusa is a nautical song which, although usually considered ‘traditional’, has been attributed to Prince Hoare, a comic opera librettist, as part of a “musical entertainment” titled The Lock and Key, performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1796. The melody to the song has been wrongly attributed to William Shield, who was the musical arranger of The Lock and Key. It is more rightfully known as a piece by the Irish harper and composer Turlough O’Carolan called Miss MacDermott or The Princess Royal.
The “Arethusa” of the title is a frigate of the Royal Navy, named HMS Arethusa, which was originally built in 1757 as a French privateer under the name Pélerine, renamed Aréthuse in early 1758 when purchased for the French Navy, from whom she was captured in 1759. According to Greek mythology, the nymph Arethusa, for whom the ship was named, was transformed by Artemis into a fountain. The song chronicles an engagement in the English Channel on 17 June 1778 between the Arethusa and the French frigate, Belle Poule.
Sir Henry Wood included a version of this song in his Fantasia on British Sea Songs which is an integral part of the Last Night of the Proms.
This set of variations on the theme is lively and upbeat, with each instrument taking a share of the solos.