Thus 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 ‘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.’
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
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.
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.
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!