Sunday, 23 December 2012

Charles Burney on the Early Performance of J.S. Bach in the UK

I recently came across this short account by Charles Burney (1726-1814) the English music historian, of the earliest known performances of music by Johann Sebastian Bach.  The passage is taken from an essay on ‘Infant Prodigies’ in the musical world which was issued in 1779. Burney refers to events some thirty years previously. However, it is known that Johann Gottfried Wilhelm Palschau (pictured) gave recitals in London in 1754 – some four years after the composer’s death. Fortunately R. Kaiser has written about these concerts in an article in the 1993 Bach Jahrbuch:- ‘Palschaus Bach-Spiel in London: zur Bach-Pflege in England um 1750’. It is an avenue that I will follow up, once I have brushed up my German.  However, I understand that although this paper shows that a number of periodicals reported that Palschau did indeed play in London, no mention is made of the repertoire.

“Musical prodigies of this kind are not infrequent: there have been several in my own memory on the harpsichord. About thirty years ago I heard PALSCHAU, a German boy of nine or ten years old, then in London, perform with great accuracy many of the most difficult compositions that have been written for keyed instruments, particularly some lessons and double fugues by SEBASTIAN BACH, the father of the present eminent professor of that name, which, at that time, there were very few masters in Europe able to execute, as they contained difficulties of a particular kind; such as rapid divisions for each hand in a series of thirds, and in sixths, ascending and descending, besides those of full harmony and contrivance in nearly as many parts as fingers, such as abound in the lessons and organ fugues of HANDEL”.
Account of an Infant Musician. By Charles Burney Doctor of Music, FRS Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society of London 1779 Volume 69, 183-206 [with minor edits]

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