Instruments of Time and Truth: Musical Culture and Empire in 18th Century London. Back

With COVID-19 affecting live musical performances around the world, musicians have had to be imaginative in their response.  During August 2020 the Oxford-based Baroque orchestra Instruments of Time and Truth got together with Warwick University for a series of four concerts, exploring the theme of ‘Musical Culture and Empire in 18th Century London’. The series is funded by the Warwick University Humanities Research Fund and the Connecting Cultures Global Research Fund, also at the University of Warwick. The series reflects current historians’ interest in the links between Europe and the wider world, and each concert explores the lives of particular musicians and their patrons who were living in London during the 18th century. Generously, the orchestra have made their series available online ‘forever’, as they put it.

The series as a whole was introduced with a talk by Maxine Berg of the University of Warwick, the text of which can be found here. In the talk, Professor Berg begins by reflecting on the wide-ranging maritime links between Britain and its overseas colonies, and then focusses on its centre, London. The London ‘season’, when the aristocracy and gentry were present, was marked by a series of cultural events, including concert series and operas, which were available at such venues as theatres, Pleasure Gardens, and later (from the 1760s) the new concept of specialist concert rooms such as the Hanover Square Concert Room. London was, as a result, an important musical centre, and drew many international composers and performers. Berg quotes Johan Matteson:

He who in the present time wants to make a profit out of music betakes himself to England. The Italians exalt music: the French liven it; the Germans strive after it; the English pay for it well.

Professor Berg’s lecture also mentions the role of black musicians, such as Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), a former slave who became a composer and musician, and the virtuoso   violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower (1778-1860), who was supported by the Prince Regent.

The concert series as a whole is a feast of riches, and there is little space in this review to do justice to each one.  The first concert (4th August), covered music by Handel, Abel and J.C. Bach, and was performed by Christopher Bucknell on harpsichord and Jon Rees on viol. This began with a lively performance on harpsichord of William Babel’s arrangement of Handel’s overture to Rinaldo. The origin of the keyboard overture has been traced back to the later 17th century, but these arrangements cannot be described as transcriptions. They are ‘creative reworkings’ (1). This is especially evident in Babel’s work, which makes use of the interpolation of virtuoso runs and ornamentation to enrich the texture. The choice of this overture is pertinent to the theme of the series–links between Britain and the world– as the 1711 performance of Rinaldo itself marked the arrival of Handel in London. We tend to think of Handel as ‘British’, as he spent most of his musical career in England, however he was born in Germany.

The second concert was again performed by the harpsichordist Christopher Bucknell, and also featured Baroque violin, played by Bojan Cicic. Titled ‘musical journeys: portfolio careers’, it traces the lives of two musicians, composer and violinist Mane Jarnović (1747-1804), who used the Italian name Giovanni Giornovich for the London market, and who had escaped to England from France during the Revolution; and Ignatius Sancho (c 1789-1880) who had been mentioned in Maxine Berg’s talk. Sancho started life as a slave (one biography suggests he was actually born on a slave ship), before he came to England, and was supported in London by the Montagu family. Literary BSECS members will be familiar with Sancho’s published letters, including a correspondence with Laurence Sterne about slavery. In the concert, Bucknell performs minuets from Sancho’s volume of Minuets, printed in 1779, with the subtitle ‘composed by an African’ in the first edition. Aimed at the domestic market, they were to be played on the harpsichord alone, or accompanying flute, violin or even natural horn. BSECS members interested in eighteenth century dance may find Sancho’s Twelve Country Dances (1779) interesting as it includes simple descriptions of the dance steps. This inclusion also suggests the volume was aimed at the domestic market. Sancho’s minuets and country dances are simple in harmony, and rather generic in style, however, they are of curiosity value.

The second half of the concert explores the music of Giornovich, who had worked in Paris, and also Vienna and St Petersburg, working for Catherine the Great. The spoken introduction to this section, by the violinist Cicic, alludes to changing attitudes to the role of the musician in Europe, as a result of the French Revolution: in France performers had been regarded more as servants, although I would suggest this was not so true in entrepreneurial England. Giorovich had also taught the afro-European violinist George Bridgetower (1778-1860) mentioned in Berg’s introductory talk).

This concert includes a virtuoso performance of Giornovich’s ‘Air’ from Villageoises de Julie, a set of variations based on a theme from an opera by Dezede (1742-1792). Stylistically, it sounds like an improvisation and reflects the performance demands of the time, when violinist would improvise on themes shouted out by the audience.

The third concert explores wind and brass: the flautist Jonathan Slade performs pieces from A Gentleman’s Pocket Companion to the Flute; the oboist Mark Baigent explores how the use of the hautbois travelled form the court of Louis XIV to Handel’s water music; and Emily White looks at how the trombone was once ubiquitous in England, even in Cathedral music making.

Having had three concerts of solo music the final concert in the season ends with a socially distanced performance of music for strings, including works by Handel and Boyce, making one long for the return of live music making. The concert series produced another essay entitled Job (In)Security for musicians in eighteenth-century Britain. This is aimed at those interested in the idea of portfolio careers and how, like today, 18th century musicians generated income (or not) in a variety of contexts. Overall, the series forms an interesting combination of social history, empire, culture, and music, with the added benefit of excellent performances which enliven these academic concepts.

(1) G. Pont, ‘Handel’s Overtures for harpsichord or organ’, Early Music 11 (1983), p 309.