Daily Archives: October 6, 2005

Item of the Day: Burney’s History of Music (1782, 1789)

Full Title:A General History of Music, From the Earliest Ages to the Present Period. Volume the First (2nd ed.). Volume the Second, Volume the Third, and Volume the Fourth (1st eds.).

Written by Charles Burney, Mus.D. F.R.S., 1726-1814. Contains contents, notes, index, errata, illustrations, and folded plates. Engraved portrait of Burney as frontispiece in volume 1, engraved frontispiece in each of the remaining volumes, engraved music in text as part of pagination in each volume. The first volume of Burney’s History was out of print within a few weeks of publication, and Burney decided by April of 1776 to prepare a second edition of the volume. The second edition of volume 1 takes account of a number of suggestions made by Thomas Twining. The “Dissertation” no longer features on the title-page of the second edition and becomes part of the Preface, while the “Questions and Answers” are transmuted into “Definitions.” Many passages from the first edition are radically altered or omitted. When publication of the four volumes was completed in 1789, Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the reviewers for the Analytical Review in February 1790. Printed in London for the author; sold by Payne and Son, Robson and Clark, and G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1789.


Ancient writers upon science usually began with definitions; and as it is possible that this work may fall into the hands of persons wholly unacquainted with the elements of Music, a few preliminary explanations of such difficulties as are most likely to occur to them, may somewhat facilitate the perusal of the technical parts of my enquiries.

MUSIC is an innocent luxury, unnecessary, indeed, to our existence, but a great improvement and gratification of the sense of hearing. It consists, at present of MELODY, TIME, CONSONANCE, and DISSONANCE.

By MELODY is implied a series of sounds more fixed, and generally more lengthened, than those of common speech; arranged with grace, and, with respect to TIME, of proportional lengths, such as the mind can easily measure, and the voice express. These sounds are regulated by a scale, consisting of tones and semitones; but admit a variety of arrangement as unbounded as imagination.

CONSONANCE is derived from a coincidence of two or more sounds, which being heard together, by their agreement and union, afford to ears capable of judging and feeling, a delight of a most grateful kind. The combination and succession of Concords or Sounds in Consonance, constitute HARMONY; as the selection and texture of Single Sounds produce MELODY.

DISSONANCE is the want of that agreeable union between two or more sounds, which constitutes Consonance: in musical composition it is occasioned by the suspension or anticipation of some sound before, or after, it becomes a Concord. It is the DOLCE PICCANTE of Music, and operates on the ear as a poignant sauce on the palate: it is a zest, without which the auditory sense would be as much cloyed as the appetite, if it had nothing to feed on but sweets.

Of MUSICAL TONES the most grateful to the ear are such as produced by the vocal organ. And, next to singing, the most pleasing kinds are those which approach the nearest to vocal; such as can be sustained, swelled, and diminished, at pleasure. Of these, the first in rank are such as the most excellent performers produce from the Violin, Flute, and Hautbois. If it were to be asked what instrument is capable of affording the GREATEST EFFECTS? I should answer, the Organ; which can not only imitate a number of other instruments, but is so comprehensive as to possess the power of a numerous orchestra. It is, however, very remote from perfection, as it wants expression, and a more perfect intonation.

With respect to EXCELLENCE OF STYLE AND COMPOSITION, it may perhaps be said that to practised ears the most pleasing Music is such as has the merit of novelty, added to refinement, and ingenious contrivance; and to the ignorant, such as is most familiar and common.

Other terms used in Modern Music, as well as those peculiar to the Ancient, are generally defined, the first time they occur, in the course of the work.


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Filed under 1780's, Culture, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt