Charles Burney

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by

Charles Burney


Charles Burney was a great traveller in music. His research trips across Europe investigating ‘the current state’ of music not only provide insight into the immediate present of composition and performance, but thanks to his insatiable curiosity, glimpses into salons of all types, of conversations around musical performance and readings, and perhaps most importantly of all, the growing sense of the musical past. Burney began to collect musical treasures, souvenirs, and artefacts, albeit less ancient, much in the same way that William Hamilton collected relics from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

His determination to seek out relics of the recently deceased Giuseppe Tartini, upon arrival in Padua, shows this fascination in action:

‘The day before my departure from Padua, I visited Signor Tromba, Tartini’s scholar and successor. He was so obliging as to play several if his master’s solos, particularly two which he had made just before his death, of which I begged a copy, regarding these last drops of his pen as sacred relics of so great and orginal genius.’

He was a also fascinated by instruments: a violinist himself, he was determined to buy an example of the great Amati family’s masterpieces, probably one by the ‘first Amati’ Andrea, in Italy. Note that this all happens over or around, coffee and conversazione in Bologna:

‘WEDNESDAY morning I staid at home to write letters for England.  In the evening to S.  Francisco again and afterward meet Dr. Gentili at the coffee house musical people happtheened to be there and he contrived to make us converse together.  One was a celebrated tenor singer.  I went from thence to try a fine Amati fiddle for which 50 zechins were asked.  If I had been flush I believe I should have offered 30 as it was a very fine instrument.’

Of course, he epitomised the grand tour attitude, albeit remodelled according to his passions. His tour was not the ‘finishing’ education undertaken by young men to model themselves into Inglesi Italiani, but a rigorous and energetically programme of research, one might say of musical anthropology. One aspect of the Grand Tour was that it necessarily eroded social barriers between travelling Englishmen (as is powerfully on show, albeit in different circumstances, in Forster’s Room with a View). So ‘it should come as no surprise that Burney associated with the Henry Fuseli in Italy.’  It was Fuseli’s wild style, which a few years later, it was suggested, had ‘contaminated’ another thoroughly Italian Englishwoman, Maria Cosway, who had grown up as, Maria Hadfield, in Italy.

Burney’s extraordinary breadth of interests gave him access to the great minds of his day. As a member of the ‘The Literary Club’, founded in 1764, he encountered Garrick, Gibbon, Burke and Sheridan.  Peter Gay has pointed out that Burney was one of the first musicians to profit from the influence and interests of Sir Joshua Reynolds, forcing open the doors of artistic salons to a much broader church of disciplines and status than had been hitherto the case:

‘Reynolds’s influence radiated out from painting to other arts as well. His friend Dr Burney was among the first musicians to be admitted to polite company as an equal; Reynolds marked this conquest when he called Burney “both a Philosopher & a Musician.” And his friend David Garrick found a way, as Reynolds and Johnson were happy to note, to make acting respectable. But the painters profited most: in the 1780’s Gainsborough could confidently ask, and expect to get, 160 guineas for a portrait…’

Between 1776, he wrote his General History of Music from the earliest ages to the Present Period.The appraisal of Beethoven’s library carried out in 1827 included 44 books deemed worthy of sale. Along with Shakespeare plays, Gray’s World History, Thomson’s Seasons (in the 1796 German translation), the most expensive item on the list at 15 Wiener Währung, was Charles Burney’s A General History of Music (1789).  Other European commentators were not so impressed with Burney’s work. Stendahl found it somewhat obscurantist:

‘There is no need to remind the reader that Dr Burney has published a most excellent General History of Music. Personally, however, I regret to confess that the perfection of this magnificent work is marred by occasional traces of obscurity. It may be that the origin of this veil of opaqueness, which sometimes falls between the eye of the reader and the conceptions of the author, lies in the latter’s failure to make any clear statement about his own musical credo. I rather think that he might have done better to give us examples of what he understood by the terms beautiful, sublime, mediocre, etc.

Leter in the 19th Century other German writers, found it downright inaccurate. In 1870, Emil Naumann remarked that:

‘But as a history, it is not by any means so trustworthy. Dates are often omitted, and when given, are not unfrequently erroneous; the criticisms, though often elaborate, betray a want of musical discrimination; and much valuable space is wasted on trivial details.’

But Burney had been ‘travelling without a road map’, inventing the idea of a music history, so these cavils are a little disingenuous. By1783, Thomas Jefferson’s library already included all Burney’s available works, on the ‘present state’ of music in Italy and Germany, and the ‘history of music’ as he listed it.

Burney’s music journalism, his observation of every aspect of concert giving, was nowhere better illustrated than in his description of the chaos and grandeur of the 1785 Handel celebration at Westminster Abbey, all of it, one long upbeat to Zadok the Priest.

‘Early in the morning, the weather being very favourable, persons of all ranks quitted their carriages with impatience and apprehension lest they should not obtain seats, and presented themselves at the several doors of Westminster Abbey, which were advertised to be opened at Nine o’clock; but the door-keepers not having taken their posts, and the Orchestra not being wholly finished, or, perhaps, the rest of the Abbey quite ready for the reception of the audience, till near Ten o’clock; such a crowd of ladies and gentlemen were assembled together as become very formidable and terrific to each other, particularly the female part of the expectants; for some of these being in full dress, and every instant more and more incommoded and alarmed, by the violence of those who pressed forward in order to get near the door, screamed; others fainted; and all were dismayed and apprehensive of the fatal consequences: as many of the most violent, among the gentlemen, threatened to break down the doors; a measure, which, if adopted, would, probably have cost many of the most feeble and helpless their lives; as they must, infallibly, have been thrown down, and trampled on, by the robust and impatient part of the crowd./It was a considerable time after a small door at the west end was opened, before this press abated; as tickets could not be examined, and cheques given in return fast enough, to diminish the candidates for admission, or their impatience./ However, except dishevelled hair, and torn garments, no real mischief seems to have happened. In less than an hour after the doors were opened, the whole area and galleries of the Abbey seemed too full for the admission of more company; and a considerable time before the performance began, the doors were shut to everyone but their Majesties, and their suite, who arrived soon after twelve; and on entering the box, prepared for their reception, pleasure and astonishment, at the sight of the company and disposition of the Orchestra and Performers, were painted so strongly in their countenances, as to be visible to all their delighted subjects present. Eagerness and expectation for the premier coup d’archet were now wound up to the highest pitch of impatience; when a silence, the most profound and solemn, was gently interrupted by the processional symphony of the CORONATION ANTHEM.

Burney was inspired by his trips to Italy and Germany to try and set up a music school in London. In 1774, he attempted to found just such an Academy, attached to the  Foundling Hospital, but was thwarted. Boswell observed, that such was Burney’s enthusiasm for music, that he almost persuaded Dr Johnson to love music:

‘After having talked slightingly of musick, he was observed to listen very attentively while Miss Thrale played on the harpsichord and with eagerness he called to her, ‘Why don’t you dash away like Burney?’ Dr Burney upon this said to him, ‘I believe, Sir, we shall make a musician of you at last.’ Johnson with candid complacency replied, ‘Sir, I shall be glad to have a new sense given to me.’

But most of all, he was an enthusiast, as excited by the future that he would not see, as the past which he collected so assiduously:

‘I tell my grandchildren they will live to see a regular Balloon Stage established to all parts of the Universe that have ever been heard of.’

The links are all around us, constantly reaching out, I find, to me. In 1988, I took myself to Boston. I was seeking out the great violinist Louis Krasner. It was Krasner, who in 1935 had arrived in Vienna, determined to eke a Concerto out of the composer of the age, Alban Berg. Berg initially demurred, but famously, produced his extraordinary Violin Concerto in the weeks before his death. It was premiered by Krasner in Barcelona, the following year, with the young Benjamin Britten in the audience, the Civil War stirring outside.

Krasner believed that connections between us were, are, everything. He demanded that I believe, as a Credo , that J.S.Bach had arranged the chorale, es ist genug, specifically so that Berg should find its meaning, the ‘kronende Abschluß’ of his own ‘requiem’ centuries later. He made me promise that I too, would, in sixty years, ‘pass it on’, as he had passed it to me. And Louis Krasner appears here, a link in the chain back to Beethoven, to Burney. On the 27th September 1825, Charles Burney’s daughter, Sarah Burney Payne, handed her ‘album’ to Beethoven in Vienna; perhaps it was she who gave Beethoven her father’s great work of music history. He inscribed the album, in his mother’s French: “Come [sic] un souvenir a Sarah Burney Payne, …par Louis van Beethoven….’ With the inscription, as was his wont, a 13 bar canonic piano piece, in G minor. This autograph was one of the treasures of Louis Krasner’s collection.

Pp. 120-147, The Present State of Music in France and Italy, Charles Burney, London, Becket and Co. 1771

1770 Music, Men and Manners in France and Italy 1770, Charles Burney, Ed.   H.   Edmund Poole, The Folio Society, London, 1969 P. 98

Henry Fuseli, Martin Myrone, Tate, London, 1996, P.24

The Spirit of Britain, Roy Strong, Hutchinson, P.442

Tbe Enlightenment, Peter Gay, Norton, New York, USA, 1996 P.237

The Spirit of Britain, Roy Strong, Hutchinson, P431

Letters to Beethoven and other correspondence, Translated/Edited Theodore Albrecht, University of Nebraska, Lincoln and London, 1996, Volume 3, P.232

The Life of Rossini¸ Stendahl, 1823, tr. Richard Coe, Oneworld Classics, Oneworld Classics, 1970, P.14

The History of Music, Emil Naumann, [ca 1880], Translated by F.Praeger, Cassell & Co, London, Volume 5,

Thomas Jefferson and Music, Helen Cripe, University of Virginia Pres, Charlottesville, 1974, P.97

Pleasures of Music, ed. Jacques Barzun, Cassell, London, 1977, Pp.148-9

The Early Romantic Era Between Revolutions 1789-1848, Ed. Alexander Ringer, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1991, P.213

The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Methuen, London, 1991, P.168

The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes, Vintage, New York, 2008, P.136

Beethoven Verzeichniss, Kinsky/ Halm, Henle Verlag, Munich, 1955/1983, Pp.507-8