Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burney, Charles (1726-1814)

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BURNEY, CHARLES (1726–1814), musician and author, was born at Shrewsbury on 12 April 1726. His grandfather, James MacBurney, lived at Great Hanwood, Shropshire, where (in the latter years of his life) he was land steward to the Earl of Ashburnham. Burney's father, James Burney, was born at Hanwood, and educated at Westminster under Dr. Busby. He subsequently eloped with an actress of the Goodman's Fields Theatre, by whom he had a large family. James MacBurney quarrelled with his son, and at a late age married a servant, by whom he had a son named Joseph, to whom he left all his property. Joseph Burney, however, soon squandered his estate, and afterwards gained his living as a dancing-master. James Burney was twice married, his second wife being a Miss Ann Cooper, an heiress and celebrated beauty. A year after this marriage James Burney adopted the profession of a portrait-painter, and some short time later left Shrewsbury and settled at Chester. Charles Burney and his twin sister Susanna were the youngest children by the second wife. On Burney's parents removing to Chester he was left behind at Shrewsbury under the care of an old nurse, but subsequently he was sent to Chester, and educated at the free school. About 1741 he returned to Shrewsbury and studied music under his eldest half-brother, James, who was organist of St. Mary's, Shrewsbury, from 1735 until his death in 1789. Burney also studied under Baker, the organist of Chester Cathedral, a pupil of Blow. In 1744 he met Arne, who was passing through Chester on his return from Ireland. Arne was so struck by his talent that he offered to take him as a pupil. Burney was accordingly articled to him, and went to live in London with an elder brother named Richard, who was already settled there. He remained under Arne for three years, during which period he contributed some music to Thomson's ‘Alfred’ (Drury Lane, 30 March 1745). In 1747 Burney published six sonatas for two violins and a bass, dedicated to the Earl of Holdernesse. Shortly after he was introduced by Kirkman, the harpsichord maker, to Fulke Greville, who was so charmed by his talent and vivacity that he paid Arne 300l. to cancel his articles, and took the young musician to live with him. During this period of his life Burney laid the foundation of his subsequent success both as a fashionable music-teacher and as a finished man of the world. He was so much favoured by his patron that on the private marriage of the latter he was deputed to give the bride away. Not long after Greville's marriage Burney fell in love with a Miss Esther Sleepe, whom he met at his brother Richard's house in Hatton garden, and to whom he was married in 1749. In the same year Burney was appointed organist of St. Dionis Backchurch, at a salary of 30l. a year, and was (3 Dec.) elected a member of the Royal Society of Musicians. He was also engaged as conductor at the ‘New Concerts’ held at the King's Arms, Cornhill. On 13 Dec. 1750 Mendez's ‘Robin Hood’ was produced at Drury Lane with music by Burney. This was a failure, but on the 26th of the same month it was retrieved by the success of the pantomime of ‘Queen Mab,’ to which Burney also wrote the music. A few songs in the latter work were published anonymously, ‘compos'd by the Society of the Temple of Apollo.’

But Burney's London career was suddenly cut short by a severe illness which confined him to his bed for thirteen weeks. On his recovery he was ordered to leave town, and accordingly accepted the post of organist at Lynn Regis, where his annual salary was 120l. Here he remained for upwards of nine years, occupied with much correspondence, plans for the ‘History of Music’ which was afterwards to make him famous, and riding about the country to his music lessons with a volume of Italian poetry in one pocket and a dictionary in the other. In 1759 he wrote music to an ode for St. Cecilia's day, which was performed in costume, with much success, at Ranelagh Gardens. In 1760, his health being completely restored, he returned to London and settled in Poland Street, where his time was soon fully taken up with teaching. In 1761 he sustained a severe loss in the death of his wife, who seems to have been fully his equal in intellect and culture. In Madame d'Arblay's ‘Memoirs’ there is a touching letter from Burney describing his loss in words which for once are not in his usual stilted manner.

After his wife's death Burney took his daughters Esther and Susanna to Paris, where he left them at school. On his return, at Garrick's suggestion, he adapted Rousseau's opera ‘Le Devin du Village,’ which was produced at Drury Lane in 1766 (21 Nov.) as ‘The Cunning Man,’ without, however, achieving any great success. Shortly afterwards he was married privately to Mrs. Stephen Allen of Lynn, a widow with two children. In 1769 he undertook to set to music the ode for the Duke of Grafton's installation at Cambridge as chancellor, but was prevented from accomplishing his purpose by the means at his disposal being so limited. He took the degree of Mus. Doc. at Oxford in June, and his exercise was performed on the 23rd of that month, Miss Barsanti being the principal soloist. The work was so successful that it was repeated at the three subsequent Oxford festivals, and was also performed at the Katharinenkirche at Hamburg under C. P. E. Bach. In the same year he published an ‘Essay towards the History of Comets,’ a work which included a translation by his first wife of a letter by Maupertuis. His astronomical pursuits brought on an attack of rheumatic fever, on his recovery from which Burney began once more seriously to collect materials for his ‘History of Music.’ For this purpose he left England in June 1770, well provided with influential letters of introduction, and proceeded to Italy by way of France and Switzerland. He visited all the principal Italian towns, and returned by way of Genoa, Lyons, and Paris. During his absence Mrs. Burney had bought a new house in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, and Burney retired to the house of his friend Crispe, Chessington Hall, near Ewell, Surrey, where he prepared for the press his account of his foreign tour, which appeared in 1771. The book was a great success, and is still amusing and interesting, though much of the information contained in it was subsequently incorporated in the ‘History of Music.’ In the same year he published a translation of a letter on bowing by the great violinist Tartini. At the beginning of July 1772 he left England again, and travelled across Belgium to Germany, making his way as far as Vienna, and returning by Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg, Bremen, and the Netherlands. He arrived at Calais in December, and for nine days attempted to cross the Channel, but was prevented by bad weather. When he eventually reached London he was laid up with another severe illness, brought on by the hardships of the journey. During his illness the house in Queen Square had to be relinquished owing to some difficulty about the title, but Mrs. Burney bought another one (which had formerly belonged to Newton), 36 St. Martin's Street, Leicester Square. In 1773 Burney published the account of his German tour (in 2 vols.), a very successful work. In the same year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Three years later, and six years after the issue of his original plan, he published the first volume of his ‘History of Music,’ which was dedicated to Queen Charlotte. A second edition of this volume appeared in 1789; the second volume was published in 1782, and the third and fourth in 1789. The work was from the outset very successful, and was generally pronounced superior to the similar undertaking of Sir John Hawkins, which saw the light in 1776. ‘Posterity, however, has reversed the decision. … Burney, possessed of far greater knowledge than Hawkins, better judgment, and a better style, frequently wrote about things which he had not sufficiently examined. Hawkins, on the other hand, more industrious than Burney, was deficient in technical skill, and often inaccurate.’ Both works are of the highest value, and form the foundation of nearly every English work on musical history which has appeared since; but Burney's is disfigured by the undue prominence he gives to the fashionable music of his own day, and the lack of appreciation he displays towards the compositions of the English schools of the preceding centuries.

In 1774 Burney issued a plan for the establishment of a music school in England upon the system he had seen in full success in Italy. In 1779 he drew up an account of the musical precocity of William Crotch, which appeared in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of the Royal Society. At this period of his career Burney was a member of nearly every literary coterie of the day. He was on intimate terms of friendship with Johnson, the Thrales, Burke, Reynolds, Garrick, Mrs. Vesey, Mrs. Montagu, Mrs. Chapone, and Mrs. Delany, many interesting particulars as to whom are recorded in Mme. d'Arblay's memoirs of her father. In 1783 Burke gave him the post of organist at Chelsea Hospital, the salary of which was raised for his benefit from 30l. to 50l. In 1784 he became a member of the Literary Club, and in 1785 published his account of the Handel commemoration which took place at Westminster Abbey in the preceding year. In May 1786, on the death of Stanley, Burney applied for the post of master of the royal music, and though he had a personal interview with George III, the post was given to Parsons. Probably the appointment of his daughter Frances (Madame d'Arblay) as keeper of the robes was made in order to compensate him for this disappointment. After the completion of his ‘History of Music’ he was much engaged in writing criticisms in the ‘Monthly Review,’ but in 1793 he began to be subject to attacks of a nervous feverish character, and when suffering from these used only to write dry fugues and canons. His ill-health culminated in an attack of acute rheumatism, which was only cured after some time by a course of Bath waters. In 1796 the indefatigable musician published a life of Metastasio (in 3 vols.), after which he began to collect materials for a ‘Dictionary of Music,’ a work in which he was interrupted by his wife's death, which took place in October at Chelsea Hospital, where the Burneys were now living in rooms on the top story. To distract him from the state of depression which ensued, Madame d'Arblay persuaded her father to resume a poem on astronomy which he had begun several years previously, and this occupied him for some time, though it was ultimately destroyed unfinished. In 1800 he received another severe blow in the death of his daughter Susanna (the wife of Major Phillips). She died on 6 Jan., and was buried in Neston churchyard, where Burney placed an epitaph to her memory. During the next few years he was occupied in writing the musical biographies of Rees's ‘Encyclopædia,’ for which work he received the large sum of 1,000l. In 1806 Fox bestowed upon him a pension of 300l. Towards the end of the following year Burney was seized with a paralytic stroke. From this, however, he recovered sufficiently to set about collecting materials for his ‘Memoirs,’ a work he had already begun in 1782. After his death these were considered by his daughter too prolix and discursive for publication, but part of them is incorporated in the biography she published in 1832. In 1810 he was made a foreign member of the Institut de France. After 1805 Burney almost retired from the world, spending most of his time in reading in his bedroom. He had survived most of his contemporaries, and had lived to see his own descendants to the fourth generation. He died at Chelsea on 12 April 1814, and was buried on the 20th in the hospital burial-ground. A tablet to his memory, bearing an inscription by his daughter, was erected in Westminster Abbey. In person Burney was short and slight, with prominent eyes and expressive features. All his biographies testify to the charm of his manner and brilliancy of his conversation. His portrait was painted (1) by Reynolds's sister Frances; (2) by Reynolds for Mrs. Thrale, at whose sale it was bought by Charles Burney (1757–1817) [q. v.] (it now belongs to Archdeacon Burney; a replica is in the Music School, Oxford); (3) by Barry, as one of the renowned dead in the ‘Triumph of Thames’ in the large room of the Society of Arts. His bust was executed by Nollekens in 1805. There is also a caricature of him in a print entitled ‘A Sunday Concert,’ published 4 June 1785. The Reynolds picture was engraved by Bartolozzi (1 April 1784), in the ‘European Magazine’ (1 April 1785), in outline in ‘Public Characters’ (1798–9), and by H. Adlard in Busby's ‘Concert-room Anecdotes’ (vol. ii.) In addition to the works already mentioned, Burney published an edition of the music sung in the Sistine Chapel in Holy week, and several concertos, sonatas, &c., for harpsichord, organ, and stringed instruments, as well as a few songs and cantatas.

[Madame d'Arblay's Memoirs of Dr. Burney, 3 vols. 1832; Genest's History of the Stage; Parke's Musical Memoirs, ii. 91; Harmonicon for 1832, pp. 215, 239; Quarterly Musical Review, iv. 29; Add. MS. 29905; Registers of St. Dionis Backchurch (Harleian Society, 1879); Gent. Mag. 1814, i. 421, ii. 93; Brit. Mus. Cat. of Printed Books; Grove's Dict. of Music, i. 700 a; Pohl's Mozart and Haydn in London, i. 16.]

W. B. S.