Charles Burney: a Biography
(April 07, 1726 - April 12, 1814)
Charles Burney was an English
musical historian and father of author Fanny Burney.
Charles Burney was born at
Shrewsbury, and educated
at the free school there. He was later sent to the public school at Chester, where his first
music master was Edmund Baker, organist of the cathedral, and a pupil
of Dr. John Blow. Returning to Shrewsbury at the age of fifteen, Burney continued his
musical studies for three years under his half-brother, James Burney,
organist of St Mary's church, and was then sent to London as a pupil of the celebrated Dr. Thomas
Arne for three years.
Burney wrote some music for
Thomson's Alfred, which was produced at Drury Lane theatre on March 30
1745. In 1749 he was appointed
organist of St Dionis-Backchurch, Fenchurch Street, with a salary of £30
a year; and he was also engaged to take the harpsichord in the "New
Concerts" then recently established at the King's Arms, Cornhill.
In that year he married Esther Sleepe, who died in 1761; in 1767 he married
Mrs. Allen of Lynn.
It was for his health that
he went in 1751
to Lynn in Norfolk, where he was elected organist, with
an annual salary of £100, and lived for nine years. During that time he
began to entertain the idea of writing a general history of music. His
Ode for St. Cecilia's Day was performed at Ranelagh
Gardens in 1759; and in 1760
he returned to London
in good health and with a young family; the eldest child, a girl of eight,
surprised the public by her attainments as a harpsichord player. The concertos
for harpsichord which Burney published soon after his return to London were much admired.
In 1766 he produced, at Drury
Lane, a translation and adaptation of Jean-Jacques
Rousseau's operetta Le Devin du village, under the title
of The Cunning Man.
The University of Oxford
honoured Burney, on June 23, 1769, with the degrees of Bachelor and Doctor
of Music, and his own work was performed. This consisted of an anthem,
with an overture, solos, recitatives and choruses, accompanied by instruments,
besides a vocal anthem in eight parts, which was not performed. In 1769
he published An Essay towards a History of Comets. Amidst his
various professional avocations, Burney never lost sight of his main project
- his History of Music - and decided to travel abroad and collect
materials that could not be found in Great
Britain. Accordingly, he left London in June 1770, carrying numerous letters of introduction,
and travelled to Paris, Geneva, Turin, Milan, Padua, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples. The results of
his observations were published in The Present State of Music in France
and Italy (1771).
Dr. Johnson thought so well
of this that, alluding to his own Journey to the Western Islands of
Scotland, he said, "I had that clever dog Burney's Musical
Tour in my eye." In July 1772 Burney again visited the continent,
to do further research, and, after his return to London,
published his tour under the title of The Present
State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands
Provinces (1773). In 1773 he was
chosen as a fellow of the Royal Society.
In 1776 appeared the first
volume (in quarto) of his long-projected History of Music. In
1782 Burney published his second volume; and in 1789 the third and fourth.
Though criticized by Forkel in Germany
and by the Spanish ex-Jesuit, Requeno, who, in his Saggi sul Ristabilimento
dell’Arte Armonica de' Greci e Romani Cantori (Parma, 1798), attacks Burney's
account of ancient Greek music, and calls him lo scompigliato Burney,
the History of Music was generally well-received. The fourth
volume is considered the least successful, the treatment of Händel and
Bach being quite inadequate. Burney's first tour was translated into German
by Ebeling, and printed at Hamburg in
1772; and his second tour, translated into German by Bode, was published
at Hamburg in 1773. A Dutch translation
of his second tour, with notes by J.W. Lustig, organist at Groningen, was published there in 1786. The
Dissertation on the Music of the Ancients, in the first volume
of Burney's History, was translated
into German by J.J. Eschenburg, and printed at Leipzig, 1781.
Burney derived much aid from
the first two
volumes of Padre Martini's very learned Storia
della Musica (Bologna,
1757-1770). In 1774 he had written A Plan for a Music School.
In 1779 he wrote for the Royal Society an account of the infant Crotch,
whose remarkable musical talent excited so much attention at that time.
In 1784 he published, with an Italian title-page, the music annually performed
in the Pope's chapel at Rome
during Passion Week.
In 1785 he published, for the
benefit of the Musical Fund, an account of the first commemoration of
Georg Friedrich Händel in Westminster
Abbey in the preceding year, with an excellent life of Händel. In 1796
he published Memoirs and Letters of Metastasio.
Towards the close
of his life Burney was paid £1000 for contributing to Rees's Cyclopaedia
all the musical articles not belonging to the department of natural philosophy
In 1783, through the treasury
influence of his friend Edmund Burke, he was appointed organist
to the chapel of Chelsea Hospital, and moved from St.
Martin's Street, Leicester
Square, to live in the hospital for the rest
of his life. He was made a member of the Institute of France,
and nominated a correspondent in the class of the fine arts, in the year
1810. From 1806 until his death he enjoyed a pension of £300 granted by
He died at Chelsea College
on the 12th of April 1814, and was interred in the burying-ground of the
college. A tablet was erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey.
Burney's portrait was painted
by Reynolds in 1781 for Henry Thrale's library. His bust was cut
by Nollekens in 1805.
He had a wide circle of acquaintance
among the distinguished artists and literary men of his day. At one time
he thought of writing a life of his friend Dr. Samuel Johnson, but retired
before the crowd of biographers who rushed into that field.
His eldest son,
James, was a distinguished officer in the royal navy, who died a rear-admiral
in 1821; his second son was the Rev. Charles Burney; and his second daughter
was Frances or Fanny, the famous novelist, later Madame D'Arblay.
Her published diary and letters
contain many minute and interesting particulars of her father's public
and private life, and of his friends and contemporaries. A life of Burney
by Madame D'Arblay appeared in 1832.
Besides the operatic music
above mentioned, Burney's known compositions consist of :
Six Sonatas for the harpsichord
Two Sonatas for the harp or piano, with accompaniments
for violin and violoncello
Sonatas for two violins and a bass: two sets
Six Lessons for the harpsichord
Six Duets for two German flutes
Three Concertos for the harpsichord
Six concert pieces with an introduction and fugue for
Six Concertos for the violin, etc., in eight parts
Two Sonatas for pianoforte, violin and
A Cantata, etc.
Canzonette a due voci in Canone, poesia