If the composer, writer and musician Thomas Busby had been alive today he would have been in his element delighting in the ability to get online and blog away to his heart’s content – hot competition though for us here at MusiCB3. What on earth, you may wonder, am I on about? Read on and find out…I’ll come straight to the point: Thomas Busby’s Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of 1825 [MR470.d.80.3-], three volumes packed with snippets, facts, eccentricities, gossip, conjecture and sheer delight covering the whole gamut of music and musicians of the time.
Born in Westminster in 1754, Busby showed early musical promise and in 1769 was articled for five years to the composer Jonathan Battishill, whose library he proceeded to work his way through systematically. He held various posts as organist and sang at the 1784 Handel Commemoration before receiving his MusDoc from Cambridge in 1801 (he applied to Magdalene) for which his Doctoral exercise was A Thanksgiving Ode on the Naval Victories, a setting of words by Mrs. Crespigny, performed in Great St. Mary’s in May or June 1801. His other compositions (many now lost) include, songs, theatre music, The Divine Harmonist (1788) and the oratorios The Prophecy (c.1790) and Britannia (1800). There is a splendid contemporary portrait of Busby in Alexander Stephens’ Public Characters of 1802-1803 (pp.371 – 394) which begins in the manner in which it continues: “The leading particulars of this gentleman’s life afford a striking and exemplary instance of self-acquired excellence…” (obviously all that reading paid off). His composing style is described as “…a happy mixture of the old and new school.” (H’mm, carefully neutral methinks) however, “…his execution as an organ or pianoforte performer is truly astonishing.”Throughout his working life he continued his literary activities, musical and otherwise, contributing to journals such as The Monthly Magazine and Public Characters, and publishing several monographs, amongst them A General History of Music (1819). However, it is the Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes that is the focus of this post. Published in 1825, in three volumes, it presents a wonderful panorama of contemporary musical life in no discernible order whatsoever which Busby himself describes as “a bee roving from flower to flower”.
The work was received enthusiastically with what we would now call “rave” reviews in the press. This from the Monthly Critical Gazette no.13, June 1825 (p.605) “…a work which will be read with unalloyed pleasure by every musical family, and by every intelligent amateur. The portraits and other engravings add to the fascinations of the book; while the autograph compositions of eminent musicians are a treat above all price.” The Monthly Review for September 1825 is equally enthusiastic, giving a long review (pp. 60 – 66), setting the work within what it describes as a passion for “gossip-mania” yet being careful to say that “…it has seldom been our good fortune to rise from the perusal of three volumes so much instructed and amused.” OK, let’s put it to the test:
Here’s a sample of the topics covered in just a few pages in volume 1 alone:
- Sense and sound (p.8): a fanciful account of how Haydn planned the thematic material of his works (see also p.125 for Haydn’s own explanation)
- The Acoucryptophone (p.10): a clever acoustic trick invented by the ever-resourceful Charles Wheatstone using an ornate lyre and piano soundboards
- The Diaphonic Orchestra (p.12): featuring, amongst other rarities, the aforementioned Acoucryptophone and the Invisible Girl (see Vol.1, p.21 for further mystification)
- Imperial patent grand square pianoforte (p.14): a long, informative piece about William Collard‘s invention of a mechanism to enhance the (usually) non-sounding sympathetic vibrations of strings beyond the bridge on a square piano:”harmonic swell” as the effect was called
- Handel born for all ages (p.17): on the continued popularity of the composer’s music (note especially the reference to a quote from Beethoven in the present tense)
- Origin and progress of the ‘Concert Spirituel’ (p.19): a useful short account
- The tarantula spider (p.24): on the legend that music cures the poisoned bite
- London music sellers (p.128): a vignette of Longman and Broderip
…and so on through volumes two and three with a similar mix of the bizarre, the fanciful, the factual, the informative and the curious all presented in Busby’s most engaging manner. So enjoy your particular flight from flower to flower.
Finally, I am delighted to report that the excellent people at CUP’s Cambridge Library Collection have recently republished Busby’s Anecdotes as well as his History of Music. Enjoy!