A quick guide to Charles Burney

A brief look at the life and work of the great music historian

Published: April 12, 2019 at 8:46 am

One of music’s greatest historians, Charles Burney’s literary works and letters and give us an invaluable insight to the composers and performers of the era in which he lived. Here is our quick guide to this masterful mind…


When and where did Charles Burney live?

Burney was born on 7 April 1726 in Shrewsbury, and spent the majority of his early life either there or in Chester, where he received his musical education from the organist at the cathedral. He moved to London in the 1740s, though ill health meant that he had to move away from the capital for a number years, during which time he lived in Norfolk. He also travelled widely in Europe and rubbed shoulders with the great and good. He died in London on 12 April 1814.

‘Great and good’, as in…?

On moving to London, he was employed (not always happily) by composer Thomas Arne. He went on to play in Handel’s orchestra and, later on, worked closely with the actor David Garrick, writing and directing the music for his theatre productions. Haydn made a point of going to see him on his visits to England in the 1790s. The famous portrait of Burney that today hangs in the National Portrait Gallery is by Joshua Reynolds, another friend.

What were Burney’s most famous written works?

Written between 1776 and 1789, his four-volume A General History of Music was unprecedented in the depth of its research, and explored the artform from its earliest days to Burney’s own era. As a result of his travels, he also wrote The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771) and The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands and United Provinces (1773).

And he also composed…?

Yes, largely songs and chamber music. As for its quality, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians damns it with faint praise, describing Burney’s efforts as ‘competent’. Much of it has been recorded, however. To judge for yourself, try one of his six sonatas for solo keyboard, below…

What did his contemporaries make of him?

Though his scholarship didn’t go entirely without criticism, he was widely respected. Samuel Johnson wrote that ‘I much question if there is in the world such another man for mind, intelligence and manners.’

Anything else?


Burney was also a keen astronomer, and in 1769 published An essay towards a history of the principal comets that have appeared since 1742.


Jeremy PoundDeputy Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.

Sponsored content