350 years ago today, the Great Fire broke out in London. Homes burned, livelihoods were destroyed, Londoners fled the fire with their most treasured possessions. The Great Fire of London being a favourite subject for school projects, it is always associated in my mind with scissors and glue and colouring-in, and the image that always comes to mind for me is that of Samuel Pepys burying his cheese; a scene I once enthusiastically illustrated in crayon and felt-tip with bits of orange wool for flames, if I remember rightly. It was not only cheese that people rushed to save, however. Pepys’ diary also lists musical instruments among the things that people chose to rescue from the flames:
River full of lighters and boats taking in goods, and good goods swimming in the water, and only I observed that hardly one lighter or boat in three that had the goods of a house in, but there was a pair of Virginalls in it.
It can’t have been easy getting a virginal into a boat, and it was probably even trickier if you were trying to sail your case of viols to safety. But at least these instruments were portable enough to have a chance of escape. Not so for the poor bells and organs in churches destroyed by the fire.
Near the bakery in Pudding Lane that was the source of the fire, St Magnus-the-Martyr was the first church to burn. Ironically the owner of the bakeshop was a former churchwarden. The bells melted in the blaze, but the metal was later recovered and 4 new bells were cast. In the absence of a tower, two of the bells were hung from a timber structure, while others awaited hanging pending Wren‘s restoration. There was no organ in the church at the time of the fire, but one was installed during the restoration, and the original Grinling Gibbons‘ organ case still stands in the church – a later organist, James Coward, was the grandfather of Noel Coward, and composer of the somewhat weird but beautifully illustrated Romah waltz (A1876.312). The hymn tune, St. Magnus, attributed to Jeremiah Clarke was first published in 1707, and dedicated to the church.
Nearby St. Michael’s, Cornhill, was almost completely destroyed in the Fire, only its tower was left standing. There had been an organ at St. Michael’s since at least 1459. The new instrument was built by Renatus Harris, and much of his pipework is still extant in the current organ. The opening concert in 1684 must have attracted music lovers from across the capital as it featured Henry Purcell, John Blow, and Giovanni Battista Draghi. The most likely reason for having three such prominent names in attendance was probably that this was a prelude (excuse the musical pun) to the infamous “Battle of the organs” – a turf war between renowned organ builder Bernard Smith and his young up-and-coming rival, Renatus Harris. Both of whom were determined to get the contract for building the new organ at Temple Church, which was won by “Father” Smith. The best surviving example of a Smith case, incidentally, is in Trinity College, Cambridge.
Perhaps the most memorable musical item, you might think, to come out of the Great Fire of London is the classic round – London’s burning. In fact the round predates the Great Fire by nearly a century. Under the name Scotland’s burning it appears on a roll of rounds (not dissimilar to the Trinity College carol roll) in King’s College, Cambridge – the “Lant” manuscript, MS KC 1. A fascinating article by Jill Vlasto on the subject can be found in Musical Quarterly, 1954, no. 40, pp. 222-234.
The appearance on the King’s roll dates the round to ca. 1580. It was popular through the late Tudor period even getting a mention in Act IV Scene 1 of The taming of the shrew. Of course there’s no way of knowing when exactly the song changed its geographical location from Scotland to London, but it would make sense that such a catastrophic event as the fire that ripped through the city would make a mark on musical consciousness.
Addendum: since posting there has been a “Watch it burn” event on the Thames which can be viewed below.
KC and MJ