Charles Burney

Biography

Born: April 7, 1726   Died: April 12, 1814; Chelsea, London, England  
Charles Burney was a minor composer whose music is forgotten today. However, he is indispensable to eighteenth century music history as a writer about music and the music scene of his time.

April 12 is the commonly given, although likely incorrect, birth date of Charles Burney and his twin sister, the last of the 20 children of painter, dancer, and violinist James Macburney. Charles learned to play organ and violin and at the age of 16,
Read more he could substitute when needed for the organist of the Cathedral in Chester, where they lived. He apprenticed with John Arne and had several jobs as a keyboard player and violinist. In 1746, the wealthy Fulke Greville hired him as a music teacher and paid companion, enabling the young man to acquire manners allowing him to move in the highest circles. This made it easier to get jobs as music teacher to upper-class children, particularly important after 1749 when his first child was born and he married her mother (in that order). When his wife died in 1762, he decided to take his daughters to Paris for their education. He taught there, finding that he enjoyed reading through music libraries, conversing with musicians and composers, and joining musical discussion societies. His second marriage, in 1767, was to a widow, Mrs. Allen. He published a notable article on comets. Finding that he enjoyed research and writing, he undertook a series of travels to get material he needed for a large-scale history of music. He went to every important location, gathering documents, hearing church and concert music, and meeting everyone important. In 1771, he published an interim work, The Present State of Music in France and Italy, followed by a similar volume about Germany and the Netherlands. These books are engaging journals of his explorations in preparation for his General History of Music, published in four volumes from 1776 to 1788. All were very popular. (A competing history of music in five volumes, by Hawkins, and Burney's work complement each other well.) Burney continued to publish, and he established one of London's finest musical soirées, taught as many as 50 pupils a week, and became the most respected writer on music of his age. When Haydn visited London in the 1790s, Burney was the first person on whom he called. The collection of music materials in his library went to the British Museum. Read less

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