- The Journals and Letters of Susan Burney: Music and Society in Late Eighteenth-Century England by Philip Olleson
England’s musical landscape once teemed with Burneys. Today the family’s patriarch looms largest: Charles Burney transformed his station as a promising provincial musician to Doctor of Music and the foremost music historian of his day. Many still turn to his four-volume History of Music (1776–89), a historiographical landmark and a chronicle of musical life in the late eighteenth century. Music-literary aptitude was not limited to Dr. Burney, however. Daughters Frances (“Fanny”) and Sarah prospered as novelists, while Susan, between them in age, captured in journals and letters a London music scene satiated on pasticcio and overrun by continental musicians. In a volume of fine craftsman-ship, Philip Olleson delivers Susan’s letters and journals from manuscript sources.
The Journals and Letters of Susan Burney opens with a lengthy biographical introduction. Susan was born in 1755. She was regarded as a lively child and a talented student in schools in Paris and London. She circulated in London’s musical scene during her adolescence and young adulthood. An engagement, marriage, and family followed, although her journals also record chronic marital tension.
The volume is largely concerned with Susan’s accounts of musical activities. Olleson picks up at the opening of the King’s Theatre’s 1779–80 opera season, when Susan recounts in considerable detail works by Antonio Sacchini, Ferdinando Bertoni, and Niccolò Piccinni as well as several pasticcios. She also chronicled encounters with the theater’s colorful personalities. Castrato Gasparo Pacchierotti receives the most attention. The space he occupies in Susan’s journals may be disproportionate even to his station as primo uomo. Susan’s words admit a possible infatuation: “[he] was so perfectly in tune, & so touching in his Expression that I c[ould] have woship’d him” (p. 107). Apart from this, these passages are remarkable also in the way they traverse private life and the public sphere. For instance, Pacchierotti at once projected on stage a celebrity persona while revealing in intimate conversation modesty and even self-doubt.
Self-doubt consumes Susan as well, especially when she is called on to play. She managed works of Ignace Joseph Pleyel but stressed over the music of Leopold Kozeluch and Joseph Haydn. She wrote about one such occasion: “Forcing myself to attempt what I knew I c[ould] not execute, it ended as I had foreseen in general disappointment” (p. 210). Her repertoire was almost exclusively modern. Susan rarely encountered ancient works (i.e., compositions older than a decade or two) or the leading composers of the previous generation (e.g., Corelli and Handel).
Although not oriented toward musical activities, the journals and letters also capture the anti-Catholic furor of June 1780. During this time, Lord George Gordon challenged the Papist Act of 1778, which discouraged discrimination against Britain’s Catholic population. The rioting that erupted following a Gordon-led march on Parliament on 2 June 1780 prompted Susan to fear for her family’s safety and their home, as flames consumed the property and possessions of the neighbors. Despite several sleepless nights, her initial fear—“our House w[ould] be burnt & Pillaged in all probability” (p. 176)—gave way to confidence of peace when rioting subsided by 8 June.
There are few entries from 1780–87, when Susan was in close proximity to her sister Fanny, the recipient of her letters. Susan resumed regular visits to London in 1787, and attended numerous musical performances over the next four years, although her presence was not as regular as it had been a decade earlier. She also resumed [End Page 760] her role as documentarian of musical activity during this period. She met Johann Peter Salomon. While Salomon figures most prominently in music history as the impresario who enticed Joseph Haydn to visit London in the 1790s, Susan knew him as a violinist. “He is a most charming player,” she remarked...