Thomas Arne was born in London to an upholsterer. He attended Eton College to study law, but also undertook violin with Michael Festing against the objections of his father. This disobedience was eventually uncovered, but Arne's father eventually withdrew his opposition and allowed his son to pursue a musical career. Arne got started by providing singing lessons to his brother Richard and sister Susannah; the three of them would present Arne's first masque, Rosamond, at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1733 (the sister, under her married name of Susannah Cibber, would become the most admired dramatic actress of her age).
Arne married singer Cecelia Young in 1736. Establishing himself as house composer at Drury Lane, in 1737 Arne produced Comus, a masque which introduced, in Burney's words, "an era in English Music." This was followed by the masque Alfred in 1740, including "Rule, Britannia!" -- destined to become one of England's most popular patriotic songs. In 1745, Arne unveiled his arrangement of the English tune "God Save our Noble King" at Drury Lane. As "God Save the King," Arne's setting would be adopted as the national anthem of Britain. 1745 also witnessed the opening of the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall, and Arne was a major contributor of popular songs performed there for nearly two decades.
Owing to a salary dispute with impresario David Garrick, Cibber defected to Covent Garden in 1750, and Arne likewise followed. This led to a bitter competitive battle between the two theaters. In 1755, Cibber would return to Drury Lane, but Arne was out of favor with Garrick, and left for Dublin with his wife and a student, Charlotte Brent. Arne became involved romantically with Brent, and returned to London, leaving his wife behind in Dublin. The difficulty with Garrick still proving an obstacle, Arne took up residence at Covent Garden. There in 1759-1762, Arne produced four works that would set stylistic standards in English theater for generations; first, a revamping of Gay's The Beggar's Opera, and in 1760 Thomas and Sally, the first English comic opera based on an Italian model. Artaxerxes, a grand opera and Arne's crowning artistic achievement, followed in 1762, as did his greatest commercial success, Love in a Village, which introduced pasticcio opera to England.
In 1766, Susannah Cibber died, and Charlotte Brent departed to marry the violinist Thomas Pinto. A revival of Artaxerxes given at Drury Lane in 1768 failed against a competing production at Covent Garden starring Mrs. Pinto. Though mortally wounded in a professional sense, Arne would continue to write and produce a few more stage works, including his lost valedictory effort Caractacus (1776). Arne's fortunes foundered, and by 1770, his wife was petitioning for support. In October 1777, after two decades of separation, Arne and Cecilia were reconciled, but by that time, his health was failing, and he died the following March at age 67.
Outside of Thomas and Sally, the patriotic tunes and some songs, Arne's music went into total eclipse for two centuries, and much of it burned in the Drury Lane fire of 1809. Of Arne's stage works, which numbered over a hundred, only 14 survive. In surviving songs and cantatas, Arne achieves an exquisitely light transparency of texture, and often his orchestration is striking in its boldness and color. His vocal writing is difficult but not showy, it flows naturally, and the frame in which it resides is ordered and direct. He also left some odes, the oratorio Judith, sacred music, four symphonies, several overtures, six keyboard concerti, chamber music, and many fine songs, particularly those on texts of Shakespeare.