As pandemic restrictions begin to be lifted and attending concerts is permitted, Dr Karen Attar celebrates with a book on music, Charles Burney’s ‘A General History of Music, from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period’.

The copy shown here belonged to the classicist and former University of London vice-chancellor George Grote (1794–1871), who 150 years ago this year bequeathed his books to the university as one of Senate House Library’s (SHL) founding collections.


More of SHL’s books about music, in its first catalogue of 1876, came from the mathematician Augustus de Morgan, a keen amateur flautist, than from George Grote. But we know that Grote enjoyed music. In his youth he attended concerts of the Philharmonic Society, learned the cello, and played Handel with his mother.

Later his wife wrote: ‘Mr Grote’s love of music was the source, all through his life, of some of the highest of his enjoyments.’ She mentions going to the opera and consorting with musicians, including Felix Mendelssohn, Frédéric Chopin, and the opera singer Jenny Lind. So Burney’s work, the closest approximation in its time to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, had a clear place in Grote’s library.

Until 1776, no history of music existed in the English language. Musicologist Charles Burney (1726–1814), father of the novelist Fanny Burney, noted this and started to gather material to rectify the situation by late May 1770, when he wrote to the poet William Mason: ‘Several Friends, who through partiality, perhaps overated [sic] my abilities, have been desirous that I should write a History of Music: & it is an undertaking upon which I have already spent much Meditation… It is somewhat extraordinary that nothing of this kind has been attempted in our language, which abounds with histories of almost every other art… Yet I see no reason why the life of an eminent musician should not afford as much entertainment to the Public as that of a Painter.’

To equip himself to fill the gap, he went to Italy, and later to Germany, to research in libraries and archives, speak to personalities in the musical world, and attend musical events, subsequently publishing accounts of both tours. In editions of these works from 1773 and 1775 he advertised for subscribers to finance the publication of his General History.

After a slow start, the public responded resoundingly, with 857 subscribers taking 1,047 copies between them. Members of the nobility, literary lions, musicians, other performing or visual artists, musical societies and academic institutions all supported the venture. Subscribers included the Prince of Wales, Warren Hastings, Diderot, Rousseau, Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds and C P E Bach.

With content and finances established, the remaining challenge was time to write. The task proceeded slowly. The scope of the work expanded, with Burney adding to his initial plan by including a chapter on Egyptian music and essays on musical criticism (Book 3) and on the ‘euphony or sweetness of languages and their fitness for music’ (Book 4) and increasing the number of volumes from the two projected to four.

Moreover, Burney was largely occupied in teaching music to the children of nobility – often for 12 hours a day – and performing. So writing time had to be snatched wherever possible on the side: when pupils cancelled the odd hour; in dinner hours instead of dining socially with his family or friends; during summer holidays; and instead of sleeping at night. When Burney was ill, he dictated to one or the other of his daughters. The first volume appeared in 1776, the second in 1782, and the fourth not until 1789, by which time Burney was 63 years old.

Within months after the publication of Burney’s first volume, on ancient music, Sir John Hawkins published in entirety his five-volume A General History of the Science and Practice of Music. The first edition and later ones are also held at Senate House Library; George Grote did not own a copy.

Burney was not above decrying the efforts of his rival. He need not have worried. The two men had different aims and wrote in different styles. Hawkins sought exclusively and impersonally to inform, Burney to interpret, to evaluate, to entertain, and to guide taste. And, whereas Hawkins focused on earlier centuries and ended with Handel’s death in 1759, Burney prioritised his own century and continued into the classical era, so that space existed for both works. Burney’s was the more popular.

A General History of Music is not a balanced work. A great deal of the fourth volume is devoted to opera, with the chapter on Italian opera in England (Ch. 6) occupying almost half of the volume. Within this, Handel and reviews of his operas receive an undue amount of detailed attention, reflecting the rich availability of source material.

Burney was most enthusiastic about contemporary music, and it showed. His achievement was groundbreaking. Not only pioneering as an English-language history of music, whatever its bias, he recovered the Renaissance composers Josquin des Prez, Antoine de Févin and Robert White from oblivion, and was the first person to collect Shakespearean musical references. Also, like Hawkins in this respect, he provided a source for much old music by reproducing complete musical compositions which at the time were unavailable in print elsewhere.

Burney wrote for a polite general audience that was not necessarily very knowledgeable about music. He wanted his personal review of music to be ‘so divested of Pedantry & Jargon that every Miss, who plays o’top o’ the Spinet should make it her manual’ and he succeeded. The style is vivid, flowing and beguiling, and his opinions carry the reader with him.

His history is no longer regarded as the first authority to which to turn to learn about music. It remains, however, a legacy as a window on to 18th-century culture. Whether in Grote’s copy in Senate House Library, online, or in a modern edition, try it!

Dr Karen Attar is curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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Cellini’s life: ‘riotous’ on paper, but spare in artworks
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Cover image: Charles Burney by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1781, Wikimedia Commons