Category Archives: Music

Item of the Day: On Vocal Music (1787)

Found In: A Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings. On Moral, Historical, Political and Literary Subjects. By Noah Webster, Jun. Attorney at Law. Pronted at Boston, for the author, by I. Thomas and E. T. Andrews . . . MDCCXC. [1790]

[pp. 229-230]






The establishment of schools for teaching psalmody in this city is a pleasing institution; but people seem not to understand the design, or rather are not properly conducted and encouraged. Most people consider music merely as a source of pleasure; not attending to its influence on the human mind, and its consequent effects on society. But it should be regarded as an article of education, useful as well as ornamental.

The human mind is formed for activity; and will ever be employed in business or diversions. Children are prepetually in motion, and all the ingenuity of their parents and guardians should be exerted to devise methods for restraining this activ principle, and directing it to some useful object, or to harmeless trifles. If this is not done, their propensity to action, even without a vicious motiv, will hurry them into follies and crimes. Every thing innocent, that attracts the attention of children, and will employ their minds in leisure hours, when idleness might otherwise open the way to vice, must be considered as a valuable employment. Of this kind is vocal music. There were instances of youth, the last winter, who voluntarily attended a singing school in preference to theatre. It is but reasonable to suppose, that if they would neglect a theatre for singing, they would neglect a thousand amusements, less engaging, and more pernicious.

Instrumental music is generally prefered to vocal, and considered as an elegant accomplishment. It is indeed a pleasing accomplishment; but the preference given to it, is a species of the same false taste, which places a son under the tuition of a drunken clown, to make him a gentleman of strict morals.

Instrumental music may exceed vocal in some nice touches and distinctions of sound; but when regarded as to its effects upn the mind and upon society, it is as inferior to vocal, as sound is inferior to sense. It is very easy for a spruce beau to display a contempt for vocal music, and to say that human invention has gone beyond the works of God almighty. But till the system of creation shall be new modelled, the human voice properly cultivated will be capable of making he most perfect music. It is neglected; sol saing is unfashionable, and that is enough to damn it: But people who have not been acquainted with the perfection of psalmody, are incapable of making a suitable comparison between vocal and instrumental music. I have often heard the best vocal concerts in America, and the best instrumental concerts; and can declare, that the music of the latter is as inferior to that of the former, as the merit of a band box macaroni is to that of a Cato.

Instrumental music affords an agreeable amusement; and as an amusement it ought to be cultivated. But the advantage is private and limited; it pleases the ear, but leaves no impression upon the heart.

The design of music is to awaken the passions, to soften the heart for the reception of sentiment. To awaken passion is within the power of instruments, and this may afford a temporary pleasure; but society derives no advantage from it, unless some useful sentiment is left upon the heart. . . .



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Filed under 1790's, Culture, Early Republic, Education, Music, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

Item of the Day: The Lives of Haydn and Mozart (1818)

Full Title: The Lives of Haydn and Mozart, with Observations on Metastasio, and on the Present State of Music in France and Italy. Translated from the French of L. A. C. Bombet. With Notes, by the Author of The Sacred Melodies. Second Edition. London: John Murray, Albemarle-Street, 1818.


Salzburg, April 5, 1808.

At length, my dear friend, you have received my letters. The war, which surrounds me here on all sides, gave me some anxiety respecting them. My walks in the woods are disturbed by the sound of arms: at this moment, I distinctly hear the cannon firing, at the distance of a league and a half from hence, in the direction of Munich. Nevertheless, after some melancholy reflections on the circumstances which have deprived me of my company of grenadiers, and which , for twenty years past, have banished me from my country, I have seated myself upon the trunk of a large fallen oak. I find myself under the shade of a beautiful lime-tree; I see around me nothing but a delightful verdure, beautifully set off by the deep blue of the heavens; I take my little port-folio, and my pencil, and after a long silence, proceed with my account of our friend Haydn.

Do you know that I am almost ready to charge you with being schismatic? You seem to prefer him to the divine masters of the Ausonian lyre. Ah! my friend, the Pergoleses and Cimarosas have excelled in that department of our favourite art, which is at once the noblest, and the most affecting. You say that one reason why you prefer Haydn, is, that one may hear him at London, or at Paris, as well as at Vienna, while, for want of voices, France will never enjoy the Olimpiade of the divine Pergolese. In this respect, I am of your opinion. The rough organization of the English, and of our dear countrymen, may allow of their being good performers on instruments, but prevents them from ever excelling in singing. Here, on the contrary, in traversing the faubourg Leopoldstadt, I have just heard a very sweet voice singing, in a very pleasing style, the air

Nach dem tode jeh bin ich dein,

Even after death, I still am thine.

As for what concerns myself, I clearly see your malicious criticism through all your compliments. You still reproach me with that inconsistency, which was formerly the constant theme of your lectures. You say that I pretend to write to you about Haydn, and I forget only one thing, –that is, fairly to enter upon the style of this great master, and, as an inhabitant of Germany, to explain to you, as one of the unlearned, how it pleases, and why it pleases. In the first place, you are not one of the unlearned: you are passionately fond of music: and in the fine arts, this attachment is sufficient. You say that you can scarcely read an air. Are you not ashamed of this miserable objection? Do you take for an artist the antiquated mechanic, who, for twenty years, has given lessons on the piano, as his equal in genius has made clothes at the neighbouring tailor’s? Do you consider as an art, a mere trade, in which, as in others, success is obtained by a little address, and a great deal of patience?

Do yourself more justice. If your love for music continue, a year’s travelling in Italy will render you more learned than your savans of Paris. . . .


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Filed under 1660's, 1810's, Art, Culture, Eighteenth century, Music, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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