Charles Burney's Wunderkammer of ancient instruments in his General History of Music

TitoloCharles Burney's Wunderkammer of ancient instruments in his General History of Music
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsBlažeković, Z
EditorEisen, C, Davison, A
Book TitleLate Eighteenth-Century Music and Visual Culture
Series TitleMusic and Visual Cultures

In April 1773, Charles Burney advertised his forthcoming General history of music from the earliest ages to the present period, emphasizing that the book would be illustrated "with original drawings of ancient and modern instruments, engraved by the best artists". When the project was completed and all four volumes published between 1776 and 1789, only the first volume, discussing the music of antiquity, included engraved plates of instruments, while the later volumes had only mythological fantasies engraved by an Italian artist living in London, Francesco Bartolozzi (1727–1815). The three plates with instruments included in the first volume--produced by the French engraver Pierre Maleuvre (1740–1803) and the English-Italian engraver Charles Grignion (1745–1810), a specialist in representations of antiquity and the production of large historical compositions--show a variety of instruments mostly adapted from archaeological monuments that Burney had seen during his visit to Naples and Rome in 1770. Almost a third of the instruments included are based on wall paintings excavated at Herculaneum about twenty to thirty years before Burney’s visit, making him the first music historian to use this archaeological material as a source for ancient organology. Except for the two Greek red-figure vases from the collection of William Hamilton, Burney documented Greco-Roman organology exclusively with iconographic sources native to southern Italy, not realizing that his overview was unbalanced since he was missing Greek instruments dating to the Classical period. From Burney’s volume, drawings of instruments were in different ways adapted in later music histories, for example Jean-Benjamin de La Borde’s Essay sur la musique ancienne (1780) and Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik (1788), and images of six lyres became iconic through the broadly disseminated Encyclopaedia Britannica, where they appeared between its third edition of 1788–97 and the sixth edition of 1820–23. Although taken from Burney, each of these editions treated his images in different ways. In about half of drawings, Burney took only the instrument, showing it as an object unattached to the originally-shown musician. La Borde adapted Burney’s instruments by placing them back into hands of (fictional) musicians unrelated to the musicians on the original artworks. Forkel, in turn, again presented instruments only as isolated objects. In approaching visual sources of ancient instruments and music making, Burney mediated between the influences of recent archaeological research and discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii, which brought to the fore a renewed aspiration for historical accuracy in the presentation of ancient sources, and the centuries-old tradition relating ancient music to mythological stories, which is reflected in Bartolozzi’s engravings of mythological scenes related to music.



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Sito disegnato da Geoff Piersol a aggiornato da Stefan Hagel