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

Full Title: A General History of Music, From the Earliest Ages to the Present Period. By Charles Burney, Mus. D. F. R. S.  Volume the Third. London, Printed For the Author: And sold by Payne and Son, at the Mews-Gate; Robson and Clark, Bond-Street; and G. G. J. and J. Robinson, Paternoster-Row. MDCCLXXXIX.

Essay on Musical Criticism.

As Music may be defined as the art of pleasing by the succession and combination of agreeable sounds, every hearer has a right to give way to his feelings, and be pleased or dissatisfied without knowledge, experience, or the fiat of critics; but then he has certainly no right to insist on others being pleased or dissatisfied in the same degree. I can very readily forgive the man who admires a different Music from that which pleases me, provided he does not extend his hatred or contempt of my favourite Music to myself, and imagine that on the exclusive admiration of any one style of Music, and a close adherence to it, all wisdom, taste, and virtue depend.

Criticism in this art would be better taught by specimens of good composition and performance that by reasoning and speculation. But there is a certain portion of enthusiasm connected with a love of the fine arts, which bids defiance to every curb of criticism; and the poetry, painting, or Music that leaves us on the ground, and does not transport us into the regions of imagination beyond the reach of cold criticism, may be correct, but is devoid of genius and passion. There is, however, a tranquil pleasure, short of rapture, to be acquired from Music, in which intellect and sensation are equally concerned; the analysis of this pleasure is, therefore, the subject of the present short Essay; which it is hoped, will explain and apologize for the critical marks which have been made in the course of this History, on the works of great masters, and prevent their being construed into pedantry and arrogance.

Indeed, musical criticism has been so little cultivated in our country, that its first elements are hardly known. In justice to the late Mr. Avison, it must be owned, that he was the first, and almost the only writer, who attempted it. But his judgment was warped by many prejudices. He exalted Rameau and Geminiani at the expense of Handel, and was a declared foe to modern German symphonies. There have been many treatises published on the art of musical composition and performance, but none to instruct ignorant lovers of Music how to listen, or to judge for themselves. So various are musical styles, that it requires not only extensive knowledge, and long experience, but a liberal, enlarged and candid mind, to discriminate and allow to each its due praise:

Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri.

A critic should have none of the contractions and narrow partialities of such as can see but a small angle of the art; of whom there are some so bewildered in fugues and complicated contrivances that they can receive pleasure from nothing but canonical answers, imitations, inversions, and counter-subjects; while others are equally partial to light, simple, frivolous melody, regarding every species of artificial composition as mere pedantry and jargon. A chorus of Handel and a graceful opera song should not preclude each other: each had its peculiar merit; and no one musical production can comprise the beauties of every species of composition. It is not unusual for disputants, in all the arts, to reason without principles; but this, I believe, happens more frequently in musical debates than any other. By principles, I mean having a clear and precise idea of the constituent parts of a good composition, and of the principle excellencies of perfect execution. And it seems, as if the merit of musical productions, both as to composition and performance, might be estimated according to De Piles’ steel-yard, or test of merit among painters. If a complete musical composition of different movements were analysied [sic], it would perhaps be found to consist of some of the following ingredients: melody, harmony, modulation, invention, grandeur, fire, pathos, taste, grace, and expression; while the executive part would require neatness, accent, energy, spirit, and feeling; and, in a vocal performer, or instrumental, where the tone depends on the player, power, clearness, sweetness; brilliancy of execution in quick movements, and touching expression in slow.

But as all these qualities are seldom united in one composer or player, the piece or performer that comprises the greatest number of these excellences, and in the most perfect degree, is entitled to pre-eminence: though the production or performer that can boast of anyof these constituent qualities cannot be pronounced totally devoid of merit. In this manner, a composition, by a kind of chemical precess, may be decompounded as well as any other production of art or nature. 

Prudent critics, without science, seldom venture to pronounce their opinion of a composition, decisively, till they have heard the name of the matter, or discovered the sentiments of a professor; but here the poor author is often at the mercy of prejudice, or envy. Yet the opinion of professors of the greatest integrity is not equally infallible concerning every species of musical merit. To judge minutely of singing for instance, requires study and experience in that particular art. Indeed, I have long suspected, some very great instrumental performers of not sufficiently feeling or respecting real good singing. Rapid passages neatly executed seem to please them infinitely more than the finest messa di voce, or tender expression of slow notes, which the sweetest voice, the greatest art, and most exquisite sensibility can produce. They frequently refer all excellence so much to their own performance and perfections, that the adventitious qualities of singers who imitate a hautbois, a flute, or violin, are rated higher than the colouring and refinements that are peculiar to vocal expression; which instrumental performer ought to feel, respect, and try to imitate, however impossible it may be to equal them: approximation would be something, when more cannot be obtained. Of Composition and the genius of particular instruments, whose opinion, but that of composers and performers, who are likewise possessed of probity and candour, can be trusted? There are, alas! but too many professors who approve of nothing which they themselves have not produced or performed. Old musicians complain of the extravagance of the young; and these again of the dryness and inelegance of the old…  

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Filed under 1780's, Criticism, Music, Posted by Matthew Williams

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