Difficult? I wish to God it had been impossible!

9781108065252fc3dThus Dr Johnson, when asking a fellow concert-goer what the meaning was of the convoluted and briskly executed violin piece they had just heard. The embarrassed amateur could come up only with the comment that the work was ‘very difficult’…

The Handel commemoration of 1784, from Busby's book

The Handel commemoration of 1784, from Busby’s book

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘meaning’ of music is a debate into which I have no wish to get. Much more fun is Thomas Busby’s Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes (3 volumes, 1825), an endearing anthology of stories, some funny, other not, about ‘music and musicians, ancient and modern’.

Busby (1754–1838), writer, composer and organist, is better remembered by this work, and by his Grammar of Music and two-volume General History of Music than for his compositions. The Anecdotes are arranged in no perceptible order (though there is a comprehensive contents page at the beginning of each volume).

Dipping in and out, you can learn that a possible source of a notable German musical genre is in the convivial gatherings of the extended Bach family. Forced by lack of enough musical jobs from their native Thuringia, they met up on a regular basis, beginning their day with sacred music, but proceeding to popular songs and improvisations ‘which they called a quodlibet, and laughed at it themselves as heartily as any of their auditors. These facetiae are, by some, considered as the foundation of the German comic operettas.’

The immediate Bach family, as imaged by a later painter

The immediate Bach family, as imaged by a later painter

Elsewhere, you can read about the remarkable cure effected by the singing of the famous Italian castrato, Farinelli, on the depressive illness of King Philip V of Spain

The castrato Farinelli, superstar of his age

The castrato Farinelli, superstar of his age

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

or the melancholy end of Jeremiah Clark, composer of the ‘Trumpet Tune’ formerly ascribed to Purcell.

Carl Maria von Weber, who died in London in 1826 and was buried there until Richard Wagner arranged a massive exhumation and reburial saga in 1844, almost didn’t become a composer: his theoretical passion was lithography, but when he set to, with newly purchased kit, ‘the prolixity, and the merely mechanical and spiritless portions of the business, so little accorded with the warmth of his temperament and activity of his genius’, that he fell back on music after all.

Carl Maria von Weber, from Busby's book

Carl Maria von Weber, from Busby’s book

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Merlin (not the Arthurian magician but an eighteenth-century ‘ingenious mechanic, and musical instrument maker’) invented ‘a pair of Skaites, contrived to run on small metallic wheels’. His playing the violin on these skates at one of Mrs Teresa Cornelys’ famous/notorious masquerades led to a disaster involving a valuable mirror, a violin smashed to atoms, and a lot of blood.

Joseph Haydn, also according to Busby's engraver

Joseph Haydn, also according to Busby’s engraver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or consider Haydn, moved to tears at a concert where orphans performed Messiah (see the image at top); or the singer and composer John Abell, threatened by the king of Poland with being dropped into a bear pit if his performance didn’t match the royal expectations. I could go on … but I urge you to meander though the volumes for yourselves!

Caroline

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One Response to Difficult? I wish to God it had been impossible!

  1. Pingback: Winter Journey | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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