Composers Datebook

with host John Zech

Monday, April 7

The "historically informed" Mr. Burney

Synopsis

"The feeble beginnings of whatever afterwards becomes great or eminent are interesting to mankind. To artists, therefore, and to real lovers of art, nothing relative to the object of their employment or pleasure is indifferent."

So begins "A General History of Music" by the 18th century British musicologist Charles Burney, who was born in Shrewsbury on today's date in 1726.

Burney grew up in Chester, and his interest in music was fostered by a sympathetic church organist and sightings of the many famous musicians who traveled through that town on their way to Ireland. Burney recalled seeing Handel smoking his pipe at a local coffee house while waiting for favorable winds for sailing to Dublin and the premiere of "Messiah." Eventually Burney himself would play in the orchestra for the London premieres of two Handel oratorios: "Hercules" and "Belshazzar."

But over time, Burney's career as a performing musician shifted more and more into the literary sphere. The first volume of his "General History of Music" was published in 1776, and the last in 1789. His history tells the story of music from ancient Egypt and Greece through to his own time, but it's the wealth of first-hand information that Burney collected on the "new music" of the 18th century that remains essential reading for music historians today.

Burney was also a competent composer, but described his own efforts as "negligible," and posterity has tended to agree with him. He died in London in 1814.

Music Played in Today's Program

George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1757) Belshazzar Vienna Concentus Musicus; Nikolaus Harnoncourt, cond. Teldec 97988

Charles Burney (1726 - 1814) Tell us, O Women Psalmody and The Parley of Instruments; Peter Holman, cond. Hyperion 67150

Additional Information

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