Burney and the Living Sense of History

London Gatwick Airport – I allowed myself one heady self-indulgence in England: I bought facsimile editions of Dr. Charles Burney’s travel books, The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771) and The Present State of Music in Germany, The Netherlands, and United Provinces (1773). I not only found them at Travis and Emery, the delightfully overcrowded little used-music-book store on Cecil Court near Leicester Square, they are published by Travis and Emery in the last few months, in the store’s move to branch out into reprint publishing.

It might seem odd that a critic of postclassical music is so excited about Burney (1726-1814), but I’ve always felt a special kinship for the paripatetic old music scholar. Burney was a composer of sonatas and theater music whose career pressures pushed him into writing music history – in itself, this description does not distinguish him from me. Moreover, as a composer-historian Burney projects a delightful sense that history was being made all around him, and that the most worthwhile thing a scholar could do was chronicle his own time – deficient and superlative, the ephemeral along with the enduring. Had the Village Voice existed in 1770, Burney would have written for it. Aside from Gretry, Traetta, and other relatively trivial theater composers of his day, he reported on military bands and pipe organs in each new town, visited C.P.E. Bach, and chronicled the beginnings of the symphony in the hands of Wagenseil, Canabich, and the celebrated Mannheim Orchestra. One has to remember that these two books appeared before either Haydn or Mozart had written the works for which they are now remembered, during one of music history’s most forgettable lulls, yet one does not get the feeling that Burney is disappointed with his era, nor considers it inferior to music of the past – another point of resemblence.

The only problem with the edition is, being a facsimile, it follows the the 18th-century English practice of using for every “s” not at the end of a word the character that looks like an “f” but with the right half of its cross-line missing. So “founding” and “sounding,” “finger” and “singer,” “foul” and “soul” are difficult to distinguish quickly, “bassoon” turns into “baffoon,” and one does a series of double-takes in sentences that look like, “all was fo diffonant and falfe, that notwithftanding the building is immenfe, and not very favorable to found,… in fpite of two or three fweet and powerful voices among the boys, the whole was intolerable to me….” Like reading someone with a speech impediment. Aside from that, Burney is as entertaining as his reputation suggests, if quite a complainer about travel conditions, and as 18th-century musicology goes, it’s a quick read.

Today, when the musicological community has almost totally turned their backs on recent creative music, deciding en masse that music history ended in 1976 with Einstein on the Beach, we need more of Burney’s spirit, his conviction that searching libraries for old manuscripts was fine but not nearly as exciting as visiting living composers and documenting their activities. It reminds me of a remark composer Larry Polansky once made to me. Polansky and I were comparing notes, talking about his work on manuscripts by Harry Partch and Johanna Beyer, and mine on Conlon Nancarrow and Mikel Rouse. Finally he said, “Composers today are doing what musicologists used to do, while all the musicologists are off doing gender studies.” Perhaps that was true for old Burney as well. So I toasted him in the most English way I could think of, reading him in a London pub over beef-and-ale pie and a few pints of Theakston’s Old Peculier.