Charles Burney by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1781
Charles Burney (April 7, 1726 – April 12, 1814) was an English music historian and father of author Frances Burney.
Charles Burney was born at Shrewsbury, and educated at Shrewsbury School. 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 1769 he married Mrs Stephen 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 opera 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 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 and United 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 Saggj sul Ristabilimento dell' Arte Armonica de' Greci e Romani Canton (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 Handel 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 Johann Joachim 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 young William 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 George Friedrich Handel in Westminster Abbey in the preceding year, with an excellent life of Handel. 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 and mathematics. In 1783, through the treasury infitience 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 Fox. 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 also appears in John Barry’s The Thames (also known as Victory of Navigation) that was painted in 1783 for the Society of the Arts and Manufactures. 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 the organ
- Six Concertos for the violin, etc., in eight parts
- Two Sonatas for pianoforte, violin and violoncello
- A Cantata, etc.
- Anthems, etc.
- XII. Canzonetti a due voci in Canone, poesia deli' Abate Metastasio.
- Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser -- a verse translation by Burney
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