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Celebrating the Musical World of Dr Charles Burney
09 May 2023

A remarkable concert will celebrate the musical world of Dr Charles Burney at St Mary's Church on Friday, May 12th. John Moore gives this introduction to the music and world of a truly great Salopian. Pictured: Charles Burney by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1781 (National Portrait Gallery). 

A new concert from Shropshire Music Trust this week invites audiences to become reacquainted with possibly one of the least-acknowledged great sons of Shrewsbury, Dr Charles Burney.

A concert featuring Charles' music and the music of composers he knew and had met (Haydn and Mozart amongst others), is being given in St Mary's Church, Shrewsbury on Friday (May 12th, 7.30pm) by the Classical Piano Trio. Led by Steven Devine, Artistic Director of the Bridgnorth English Haydn festival, they will perform on instruments of the 18th century period, and it promises to be a wonderful evening of words and music bringing this eminent Salopian to life once again. Steven is joined by Andrew Skidmore on cello and Caroline Balding on Violin.

Charles Burney was born in 1726, in Shrewsbury, to James MacBurney, a fine portrait painter, who also loved his violin playing and dancing. Charles was educated at Shrewsbury School in the town from around 1737 till 1739, and afterwards at the Free School in Chester returning to Shrewsbury in 1742. He studied here with his half-brother James, organist at St Mary's Church, where Friday night's concert will take place.

Charles wrote of this time: "Besides writing, teaching, tuning and playing for my Brother, at my moments perdu, I was educating myself in every way I was able....I tried at least to keep up the little Latin I had learned, practised both the spinet and violin many hours a day, which with reading, transcribing music and poetry, attempts at composition, and my brother's affairs, filled up every hour of the longest day."

This determination to be well-versed in so much characterised Burney's entire life. He returns eventually to Chester, and from there is taken under the tutelage of Dr Thomas Arne in London as a jobbing apprentice musician. This led to him playing and working in the theatres in London, particularly Drury Lane, where he learnt his craft - often under exacting circumstances - but was brought into contact with the greatest composers of the day such as Handel and others.

Burney's life subsequently takes many turns. He lives and works for several years in King's Lynn a a church musician, going on to become a well-respected musical figure, and where the organ in the Minster in Lynn that he commissioned still survives (a Charles Burney Early Music Festival takes place there annually).

On returning to London, Burney then embarks upon the great work of his life, that is to compile and author a definitive history of music in English. He undertakes several journeys throughout France, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, all of which he chronicles in his diaries, and obtains the contemporary information on the state of Music in Europe. This allows him to write his great history in several volumes, as well as publishing the accounts of his travels. All of these were well received, and placed Burney into the intellectual circle he so desired to be part of.

Burney became a correspondent with Haydn, the great composer who had been at Esterházy court in Hungary for so many years, but who came at the invitation of the impresario Salomon to London in the 1790s. It is then that he and Burney are finally to meet and cement their friendship. Indeed, Burney achieves more subscribers than anyone else for the publication of Haydn's oratorio, 'The Creation', and even persuades Haydn to delay publishing for a year. He also introduced Haydn to the composer and astronomer Herschel, and even facilitates Haydn being able to gaze at the heavens though Herschel's great telescope. One can only imagine how that must have influenced his writing when it came to the creation itself and its opening Sinfonia "The Representation of Chaos".

Burney still returned from time to time to his native Shrewsbury, and indeed visited the newly built St Chad's Church, pronouncing after his visit that "...methinks 'tis more like a theatre than a church!"

His daughter, Francis, or Fanny as she was known, became one of the great authors of her age, and she too gives us an insight into life in the late eighteenth century both in England and France, being a Lady in Waiting at court in England and, after marrying a French officer, living in revolutionary France with all its attendant dramas and terrors. One of Charles' sons James also pursues an interesting life joining Captain Cook on one of his great voyages of discovery.

Charles Burney is certainly a son of Shrewsbury who deserves to be far better known than he has been until now, and the concert on May 12th will, through words and music, bring this great man to life once more.

Charles really was the Musical Mirror of the eighteenth century, the Pepys of his age and more, and someone who for too long has languished in the shadows of history despite being acclaimed in his own time by eminent figures such as Dr Johnson and others. Hopefully his time will come again soon.

  • The Musical World of Dr Charles Burney - with The Classical Piano Trio is on Friday, May 12th at St Mary's Church Shrewsbury, 7.30pm. The concert is organised by The Shropshire Music Trust and forms part of its concert season 2022-2023. For tickets (£19/£9.50) book HERE