THIS England loved great music, but could not produce it.
Appreciation abounded. In Zoffany’s picture The Cowper and Gore Families we see the part that music played in cultivated homes. We hear of the hundreds of singers and performers that were brought together for the Handel Commemoration Concert in 1784. The Morning Chronicle of December 30, 1790, announced, for the ensuing months, a series of “Professional Concerts,” another of “Ancient Concerts,” “Ladies’ Subscription Concerts” for Sunday evenings, oratorios twice a week, and six symphony concerts to be conducted by the composer himself—Joseph Haydn;1 this rivaled the musical wealth of London today. Just as Venice made choirs from orphans, so the “Charity Children” of St. Paul’s Cathedral gave annual performances, of which Haydn wrote, “No music has ever moved me so much in my life.”2 Concerts and light operas were presented in the Ranelagh Rotunda and the Marylebone Gardens. A dozen societies of amateur musicians gave public performances. The English predilection for music was so widely known that a score of virtuosos and composers came to the island—Geminiani, Mozart, Haydn, Johann Christian Bach; and Bach remained.
The taste for serious opera declined in England after Handel’s surfeit. Some enthusiasm returned when Giovanni Manzuoli opened the 1764 season in Ezio; Burney described his voice as “the most powerful and voluminous soprano that has been heard on our stage since Farinelli.”3 This was apparently the last triumph of Italian opera in England in that century. When the Italian opera house in London was burned down (1789), Horace Walpole rejoiced, and hoped it would never be rebuilt.4
If there were now no memorable British composers, there were two eminent historians of music, whose works appeared in the same year, 1776—the annus mirabile of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and The Wealth of Nations, not to speak of the American Declaration of Independence. Sir John Hawkins’ five-volume General History of the Science and Practise of Music was a work of careful scholarship, and though he himself—attorney and magistrate—was not a musician, his appraisals have stood well amid the flux of critical opinion. Charles Burney was organist at St. Paul’s and the most sought-for musical teacher in England. His handsome face and amiable personality, added to his accomplishments, won him the friendship of Johnson, Garrick, Burke, Sheridan, Gibbon, and Reynolds—who made an attractive portrait of him gratis.5 He traveled through France, Germany, Austria, and Italy to get materials for his General History of Music, and spoke with firsthand knowledge of the leading composers who were then alive. About 1780 he reported that “old musicians complain of the extravagance of the young, and these again of the dryness and inelegance of the old.”6