Burney was born at Shrewsbury, Shropshire, in 1726. He attended The King’s School in Chester, where his music master, a previous student of John Blow (see John Blow’s bad singing), was organist at the cathedral. On leaving the school, he was taught first by his half-brother and then apprenticed in London to Dr Thomas Arne. From 1746, the aristocrat Fulke Greville adopted Burney as a musical companion, but they parted when Greville wanted to go abroad, and Burney wanted to stay with his new love, Esther Sleepe, who he then married (in 1749). Left otherwise without funds, he won an appointment as organist of St Dionis-Backchurch, Fenchurch Street.
In 1751, Burney went to Lynn Regis in Norfolk, where he was again elected organist, taught music students, and lived for nine years. During that time he began to entertain the idea of writing a general history of music. In 1760, he returned to London with a young family (his daughter Fanny would go on to become one of the most famous diarists of the age), but his wife Esther died soon after. In 1769 he married Mrs Stephen Allen of Lynn.
Burney published concertos for harpsichord which were much admired, and, in 1766, he produced, at Drury Lane, a translation and adaptation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opera Le Devin du village, under the title of The Cunning Man. In 1770, Burney left London to travel in Europe to collect material for a history of music; and he undertook a second Continental journey in 1772. The first volume of his history appeared in 1776, with further volumes appearing in 1782 and 1789. In between, he continued teaching, he finished other notable musical and written works, and contributed many articles to Ree’s Cyclopaedia. In 1783, he was appointed organist to the chapel at Chelsea Hospital, where he lived, and then died on 12 April 1814. For more biographical information see The Burney Centre hosted by McGill University, Westminster Abbey’s website, or Wikipedia.
After each trip to the Continent, Burney published a book of his travels made up largely of the journal he had kept on route. The first of these, published by T. Becket & Co, came out in 1771: The Present State of Music in France and Italy or The Journal of a Tour through those Countries, undertaken to collect Materials for a General History of Music. This is freely available online at Internet Archive. His record of the second tour, published also by T. Becket & Co, came out in 1773, with a similar title: The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands and United Provinces. This is also available at Internet Archive.
One hundred and fifty years later, Cedric Howard Glover revisited Burney’s journals, and, in 1927, Blackie & Son published Dr. Charles Burney’s Continental Travels 1770-1772. In this volume, however, Burney’s actual diary entries are merged into a general text composed by Glover. He explains, in his introduction, his decision to revisit and re-edit the journals:
‘The primary object of Dr. Burney’s travels was the acquisition of material for the General History of Music which it was his ambition to compile, and his Journals are therefore mainly concerned with the results of his researches. However interesting to the public of his own day, there can be no question that the sections of his Journals devoted to purely musical matters are in the main responsible for the somewhat rapid decline in popular favour which his books experienced. Yet embedded in accounts of interviews with long forgotten musicians, we can still find plenty to delight and entertain us.
The Journals contain graphic descriptions of encounters with many of the notable figures in the literary and musical history of that time - Voltaire and Rousseau, Mozart and Gluck, Laura Bassi, the lady professor of Bologna, and Sir William Hamilton, antiquarian and collector. Few Englishmen had the luck to hear Frederick the Great play the flute at Potsdam, or to watch Henry, Cardinal York, the last of the Stuarts, say Vespers in Rome.
But it is not only the personal side of the Journals which arrests our attention. There is much to interest us in Dr. Burney’s adventures on the road. He gives us a striking picture of the devastation and misery caused by the Seven Years’ War, of his own discomforts on the journey by river on a log raft from Munich to Vienna, and of the villainy in general of postboys and innkeepers. Finally, there is the pleasure of watching the actions and reactions of an engaging personality. A man of his age, with no great complexity of character, Dr. Burney makes us share his pleasures even in the condescensions of the great. His insatiable curiosity is infectious; nothing is too trivial to enlist a sympathetic attention. [. . .]
The Journals have long played their part in the formation of musical history; the present volume sets out to win them the favour of a wider circle of readers than the musical lexicographers by bringing into prominence the many factors of varied interest contained in them; these, it is hoped, may prove a substantial contribution to the history of those remote days when Continental travelling required the courage and endurance now demanded of an Arctic explorer.’
Here, though, are several extracts from the original published journal of Burney’s travels in France and Italy. (At the time, an f-like s was still being used at the start of, or in the middle, of words).
13 June 1770
‘This morning I fpent in the library of the College Des Quatre nations, founded by cardinal Mazarin. It is a noble one. I confulted the catalogues, and found feveral of the books I wanted.
In the evening I heard two pieces performed at the Theatre Italien, in which the finging was the worft part. Though the modern French compofers hazard every thing that has been attempted by the Italians, yet it is ill executed, and fo ill underftood by the audience, that it makes no impreffion. Bravura fongs, or fongs of execution, are now attempted; but they are fo ill performed, that no one ufed to true Italian finging can like any thing but the words and action. One of thefe pieces was new, and meant as a comic opera, in all its modern French forms of Italian mufic, (that is, mufic compofed in the Italian ftyle) to French words. No recitative, all the dialogue and narrative part being fpoken. And this piece was as thoroughly d—d as ever piece was here. I ufed to imagine that a French audience durft not hifs to the degree I found they did upon this occafion. Indeed quite as much, mixt with horfe laughs, as ever I heard at Drury Lane, or Covent Garden. In fhort, it was condemned in all the Englifh forms, except breaking the benches and the actors heads; and the inceffant found of hifh inflead of hifs. The author of the words, luckily, or rather judicioufly, lay concealed; but the compofer, M. de St. Amant, was very much to be pitied, for a great deal of real good mufic was thrown away upon bad words, and upon an audience not at all difpofed, efpecially in the two laft acts (there were three) to hear anything fairly. But this mufic, though I thought it much fuperiour to the poetry it accompanied, was not without its defects; the modulation was too ftudied, fo much fo as to be unnatural, and always to difappoint the ear. The overture however was good mufic, full of found, harmony, elegant and pleafing melody, with many paffages of effect. The hautbois at this theatre is admirable; I hardly ever heard a more pleafing tone or manner of playing. Several of the fongs would have been admirable too; if they had been fung with the true Italian expreffion. But the French voice never comes further than from the throat; there is no voce di petto, no true portamento or direction of the voice, on any of the ftages. And though feveral of the fingers in this theatre are Italians, they are fo degenerated fince they came hither, that if I had not been affured of it, their performance would have convinced me of the contrary. The new piece had several movements in it very like what is heard at the ferious opera. (It muft be remembered that the whole was in verfe, and extremely ferious, except fome attempt at humour in Calliot’s part) which, however, did not prevent the audience from pronouncing it to be deteftable.’
14 June 1770
‘This being Fete Dieu or Corpus Chrifti Day, one of the greateft holidays in the whole year, I went to fee the proceffions, and to hear high mafs performed at Notre Dame. I had great difficulty to get thither. Coaches are not allowed to ftir till all the proceflions, with which the whole town fwarms, are over. The ftreets through which they are to pafs in the way to the churches, are all lined with tapestry; or, for want of that, with bed-curtains and old petticoats: I find the better fort of people, (les gens comme il faut) all go out of town on thefe days, to avoid the embarras of going to mafs, or the ennui of ftaying at home. Whenever the hoft ftops, which frequently happens, the priefts fing a pfalm, and all the people fall on their knees in the middle of the ftreet, whether dirty or clean. I readily complied with this ceremony rather than give offence or become remarkable. Indeed, when I went out, I determined to do as other people did, in the ftreets and church, otherwife I had no bufinefs there; fo that I found it incumbent on me to kneel down twenty times ere I reached Notre Dame. This I was the lefs hurt at, as I faw it quite general and many much better dreffed people than myfelf, almoft proftrated themfelves, while I only touched the ground with one knee. At length I reached the church, where I was likewife a conformift; though here I walked about frequently, as I faw others do, round the choir and in the great aifle. I made my remarks on the organ, organift, plain-chant, and motets. Though this was fo great a festival, the organ accompanied the choir but little. The chief ufe made of it, was to play over the chant before it was fung, all through the Pfalms. Upon enquiring of a young abbe, whom I took with me as a nomenclator, what this was called? C’eft prefer, ‘Tis profing, he faid. And it fhould feem as if our word profing came from this dull and heavy manner of recital. The organ is a good one, but when played full, the echo and reverberation were fo ftrong, that it was all confufion; however, on the choir organ and echo ftops I could hear every paffage distinctly. The organift has a neat and judicious way of touching the inftrument; but his paffages were very old fafhioned. Indeed what he played during the offertorio, which lafted fix or eight minutes, feemed too ftiff and regular for a voluntary. Several motets, or fervices, were performed by the choir, but accompanied oftener by the ferpent than organ: though, at my firft entrance into the French churches, I have frequently taken the ferpent for an organ; but foon found it had in its effect fomething better and fomething worfe than that inftrument. Thefe compofitions are much in the way of our old church fervices, full of fugues and imitation; more contrivance and labour than melody. I am more and more convinced every day, that what I before obferved concerning the adapting the Englifh words to the old canto fermo, by Tallis, at the Reformation, is true - and it feems to me that mufic, in our cathedral fervice, was lefs reformed than any other part of the liturgy.
At five o’clock I went to the Concert Spirituel, the only public amufement allowed on thefe great feftivals. It is a grand concert performed in the great hall of the Louvre, in which the vocal confifts of detached pieces of church mufic in Latin. I fhall name the feveral performances of this concert, and fairly fay what effect. each had upon myfelf, and upon the audience, as far as a ftander-by could difcover. . .’
21 July 1770
‘It did not feem foreign to my bufinefs in Italy to vifit the Palazzo Simonetto, a mile or two from Milan, to hear the famous echo, about which travellers have faid fo much, that I rather fufpected exaggeration. This is not the place to enter deeply into the doctrine of reverberation; I fhall referve the attempt for another work; as to the matter of fact, this echo is very wonderful. The Simonetto palace is near no other building; the country all around is a dead flat, and no mountains are nearer than thofe of Swifferland, which are upwards of thirty miles off. This palace is now uninhabited and in ruin, but has been pretty; the front is open, and fupported by very light double Ionic pillars, but the echo is only to be heard behind the houfe, which, next to the garden has two wings. [Illustration . . .]
Now, though it is natural to fuppofe that the oppofite wails reflect the found, it is not eafy to fay in what manner; as the form of the building is a very common one, and no other of the fame confruction, that I have ever heard of, produces the fame effects. I made experiments of all kinds, and in every fituation, with the voice, flow, quick; with a trumpet, which a fervant who was with me founded; with a piftol, and a mufquet, and always found agreeable to the doctrine of echos, that the more quick and violent the percuffion of the air, the more numerous were the repetitions; which, upon firing the mufquet, amounted to upwards of fifty, of which the ftrength feemed regularly to diminifh, and the diftance to become more remote. Such a mufical canon might be contrived for one fine voice here, according to father Kircher’s method, as would have all the eifect of two, three, and even four voices. One blow of a hammer produced a very good imitation of an ingenious and practifed footman’s knock at a London door, on a vifiting night. A fingle ha! became a long horfe-laugh; and a forced note, or a found overblown in tire trumpet, became the moft ridiculous and laughable noife imaginable.’