Voices from the 18th Century: Charles Burney on ‘an accident that distressed me very much’



Charles Burney (pictured) is recognized as the most prominent music historian from 18th-century England. His books and other writings—a prolific array of keen observation, account of historical figures, translation of letters, personal memoir, and music criticism—were held in very high regard, then and now.

Burney was also a musician and composer with a modest catalog of vocal and instrumental works to his credit.

Although the Tours and General History of Music are among his best known books, it is his memoirs that I find fascinating. The dozens of fragments which survive give a kind of rough-and-ready picture of his daily life, experiences that are little different than diary entries of Samuel Pepys, yet without a clear sense of chronology.

Nevertheless, Burney does paint a lovely picture even if we don’t know exactly when the story took place.

In one scene, he’s off to have a violin lesson with Nicola Matteis when he finds himself distracted by a public event that ultimately leads to personal loss.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind before you read ahead:

  • It was poor etiquette to carry an exposed violin in public.
  • The sport of bear-baiting was very much an accepted entertainment in England at the time.

“In going to attend Matteis for my lesson on the Violin at his house a considerable distance from my brother’s, I met with an accident that distressed me very much. Being ashamed to carry my fiddle through the streets in an ostensible manner, I cut a slit in the lining of my coat, and carried it unperceived.

But in passing the Cross on market day, during a time when a poor bear was at the stake, and great [crowd] of Spectators assembled, I could not help stopping, to see how the bear defended himself; when Ursa Major breaking loose, put the mob to flight in such a panic, that they tumbled over each other, and over me among the rest; when smash went my instrument into shivers!”

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