Michael's Blog

4 January 2022

Charles Burney – we think of him nowadays as the author of two very readable tours through Europe in the 1770s, and perhaps with less relish, as the author of a four-volume General History of Music, which cost him much effort, yet is often dull reading. Burney was also the author of the musical entries in Rees' Cyclopaedia, compiled about 1800, when he had more or less retired from his onerous teaching commitments. It is from this source that we have the anecdotes of Jacob Kirckman -- his speedy marriage with Tabel's widow, for example. But I was specially interested in what he had to say about the SPINET.

There is an echo of Burney himself as a youth, when he writes of the spinets made by Keene and Slade, from the time of Queen Anne (before 1715) because it was on such an instrument that he taught himself music around 1743. He practiced relentlessly, as noted in this Blog last year, but first he had to put the old spinet in order, replacing many quills in the jacks etc. He remarks that the bass had a short octave, and the long keys were black, with ivory for the sharps. How well we recall our teenage years! But it is his last sentence in the Cyclopaedia that is so relevant to this website: the small piano-forte has supplanted the spinet in public favour, and we believe that very few have been made since the middle of the last century.

The evidence that I have been collecting recently provides a very different narrative. Initially I was interested in investigating the period before 1740, from which at most 10 or 12 English harpsichords survive. Yet from the same period (1700-1740), using the same affirmative criteria, I find 57 surviving spinets, plus many more with incomplete records. The implications of this need to be considered carefully.

But, incidentally, I discovered something rather surprising: that Burney was greatly mistaken. As a very active music teacher you would think that he would have accurate information about the instruments in use in the 1770s and 1780s. Contrary to what he says, spinets were being made and sold in great numbers even after the advent of the square piano. The peak decades for production were in fact the 1760s and 1770s. The advent of the square piano did not of itself sound the death knell for the humble spinet. What we might infer from this is that many parents, presumably taking advice from a reputable music teacher, provided their daughters with a spinet. There is no cost implication. A new spinet or square piano came at roughly the same price.

It may be that Burney, with a select list of pupils, preferred to teach the more fashionable piano-forte, but other musicians chose to have their pupils learn the spinet. This continued right into the 1780s. Maybe, like Richard Wafer who taught Mary Marsh, they wanted to develop their pupils' touch and found the plucking action of a quilled instrument better for the purpose. Thomas Green, who gave music lessons up to 1785, taught his pupls at the harpsichord or spinet, but declined to teach piano. Richard Stevens, taking a new pupil in 1780, was instructed to have a spinet sent to the house.


24 December 2021

'Laugh out loud' moments are quite rare when researching old documents. But this was the result of my reading recently. My wife was surprised and puzzled when, after reading quietly for an hour by the fireside I burst out in laughter, which subsided into prolonged merriment for several minutes. A good joke? Well, not intentionally so.

The source was a passage in Charles Avison's 'Essay on Musical Expression' which I bought in a paperback reprint of the 1775 edition. You may have encountered his name in recordings of his compositions, or in the 'Avison Ensemble', named in his honour. I encountered him quite often when searching eighteenth-century newspapers to find information on concerts of that period. Charles Avison was a worthy composer, a concert promoter, and an organist in the thriving northern city of Newcastle-on-Tyne.

He was evidently a well-educated man, quoting from Latin authors, and advancing his arguments with well-constructed, if polemical prose. It was no great surprise to find that, like many musical men of the time, he was not very impressed with pieces in the newest style by Bach and Abel. [John Christian Bach, you understand.] He wanted interesting parts for all the instruments, and so found compositions in the new 'galant' style (as we now call it) rather tedious, depending as they so often do on melodic interest with repetitive accompaniments. He calls attention to the three essential parts of musical compositions: melody, harmony and expression. Then, through page after page he disparages many un-named composers for their reliance on melody, neglecting the second and third elements. He writes of 'vague and unmeaning pieces' in which he finds the composer 'struggling with the difficulties of an extraneous modulation', or tiring the listener with tedious repetitions of some simple melodiic idea. 'Harmonious accompaniments seem generally neglected or forgotten', he writes. And then we get a clue where he is going because he complains of 'extravaganzi, which the unskillful call invention'.

Then, after several more pages on similar lines, he names several modern composers of 'inferior genius' who will be consigned 'to that oblivion to which they are deservedly destined'.

'Of the first and lowest class [is] VIVALDI ... whose compositions, defective in harmony and true invention, are only fit amusement for children'. Oblivion? Vivaldi? .... A merry thought for Christmas !


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