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The Letters of Charles Burney, vol.1, 1751-1784.

The Letters of Charles Burney: Volume I: 1751-1784. Ed. Alvaro Ribeiro.

Oxford University Press. xxiv+501pp. 60 [pounds].


Charles Burney's History of Music was a great achievement. When it was written, over 200 years ago, there was n discipline of musiclogy, no guide to libraries and few adequately catalogued libraries. The writer was not even one of the wealthy dilettanti who wandered over Europe with access t almost anywhere. He was an abscure provincial who came to London to be apprenticed to Thomas Arne, an eminent musician. By chance, in a harpsichord maker's shop, he met Fulke Greville, who redeemed him from the remaining three years of his apprenticeship and introduced him to high society. He became a highly successful music teacher. He wrote music for the threatre and other purposes, but as he approached 40 he realised that he would never be outstanding as a composer, and having literary interests--he often wrote light verse to his family and friends--he decided to concentrate on writing about music. His teaching brought him into contact with people of consequence, and he came to be accepted in literary circles. Always anxious to extend his musical experience, during his early years as a church organist he scored works by Tallis, Byrd, Marenzio and Palestrina. Later came to ambition to write a history of music, which he thought was badly needed by general readers, |for the jargon, pedantry, and inanity of musical writers, cannot be matched in any other art.' (p.93).

He abounded with his contemporaries' fondness for correspondence, and his large family hoarded papers of all kinds. Four large volumes of his letters are promised, the present volue being the first. It starts with his early days of married life and ends with the death of Dr. Johnson and the marriage of Mrs. Thrale to a |mere musician", events which broke up the chief literary circle to which he belonged. It shows how he cultivated many friendships and pursued an active social life. More importantly, it reveals how his history took shape.

His approach was to go to the countries where most of the development of European tradition had taken place, armed with introductions to people who could direct him to relevant material. This not only provided him with information about the past but also enabled him to observe the current state of the art, on which he reported in two publications about his tours in Italy and Germany.

He had a great gift for getting on with people of various kinds. He could differ from them and yet retain their goodwill. He told his French acquaintances quite frankly that he considered French vocal music, particularly its opera, old-fashioned. His great respect for Johnson did not prevent him from regretting the latter's prejudice against Gray and Prior. His amiability helped to ensure success for his history. Shortly after the appearance of the first amendment of it, another historty of music was published by Sir John Hawkins. The reception of it was influenced by its author's personality, which was disaliked by most people in London society, but also by his attitude to his subject. He believed |Music was at its greatest perfection in Europe from about the middle of the sixteenth to the beginning of the seventeenth century'. Burney, on the other hand, was no antiquarian; he was forward-looking and appreciated the new developments of his own time. He was one of the first movers for bringing Haydn to London. The greatest tribute he could pay to Purcell was to call him |another Haydn'. Hawkins was academic, while Burney wanted to widen the musical experience of the general public. The conventional style of his letters to some extent transfers to his history. It is still very readable, not only as a monument to late eighteenth century taste but also because he remains an interestig compasion.

Bruce Pattison
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Author:Pattison, Bruce
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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