In Praise of the First Piano Duets


It is summer: the best time of year to play evening duets at the piano. And so this tribute to those composed by Charles Burney in the 1770s; these charming pieces were, like his four-volume History of Music, the first of their sort ever published.


The triumphant opening of Johann Gottfried Müthel’s Duetto in E-Flat strides across a continent, from its native Riga on the Baltic Sea where it was published 1771 right into Charles Burney’s drawing room in 1775 in St. Martin’s Street in London, the one-time home of Isaac Newton. Burney brought the work back from his European travels of 1772, like the spoils of war reaped by a conquering general, or like the marbles Lord Elgin would relocate some thirty years later from the Parthenon to the British Isles (where they were admired by Burney’s daughter Sarah, who saw casts of the statues in the London house of William Richard Hamilton, Elgin’s personal secretary). That the mighty Duetto could be heard to reflect not only interior psychological dramas but also an ethos of colonial exploration and expansion is, I like to think, implicit in Burney’s treatment of Müthel at the end of his travel diaries, published in three volumes in the early 1770s as the Present State of Music in France, Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, and the United Provinces: “When a student upon keyed instruments,” wrote Burney, “has vanquished all the difficulties to be found in the lessons of Handel, Scarlatti, Schobert, Eckard, and C. P. E. Bach; and, like Alexander, laments that nothing more remains to conquer, I would recommend to him, as an exercise of patience and perseverance, the compositions of Müthel; which are so full of novelty, taste, grace, and contrivance, that I should not hesitate to rank them among the greatest productions of the present age.” Another of Burney’s daughters, the famous novelist Frances (called Fanny), updated the military metaphor in her own journal calling the fabulously popular piece the “big gun” of the 1775 season of the Burney salon: the duet’s cannonades and soliloquys sent thrills of pleasure through the attendees—diplomats, explorers, foreign princes, English lords and ladies.

Bringing home printed music may not be as difficult or as costly as transporting marble antiquities, but duets for two keyboards were not an altogether inexpensive proposition: until the mid-1770s in London you had to have two harpsichords or pianos to be able to play four-handed music as the genre was then practiced. The Müthel duet and lesser works of its ilk required means beyond those of many everyday middle-class musical consumers. Less lofty in technical ambition and less demanding of musical furniture, Burney’s Four Sonatas or Duets For two Performers on One Piano-Forte or Harpsichord were written the next year, the author proudly claiming at the outset of his preface to the volume published in 1777 that they were “the first that have appeared in print.”

To be sure, the market was potentially a good deal larger for this four-handed mode than for duets for two players at a pair of keyboards: anticipating robust demand, the set was sold, as the title page announced, “at all the Music Shops” of London. In his preface Burney enumerated the pedagogical merits of the new approach:  students could practice at the same time and far less tuning time was necessary. Owning and maintaining two harpsichords may have not been a problem for someone who had the Swiss-born inventor (of keyboards and other contrivances) John Joseph Merlin more-or-less on the family staff. But not everyone had such grand rooms, resident technicians, and the requisite instruments for musical entertainment of this sort: the single-keyboard duet avoided, as Burney put it, “the inconvenience of crowding a room”—a gracious way of praising the merits and defending the décor of the modest middle-class parlor.

The physical proximity of the players at a single keyboard could also be turned to advantage in teaching proper deportment: “And though, at first, the near approach of the hands of the different performers may seem awkward and embarrassing, a little use and contrivance with respect to the manner of placing them, and their choice of fingers, will soon remove that difficulty.” Burney signed his preface “St. Martin’s Street, January 1777”—thus placing his new duets in the most celebrated musical drawing room in London. Even on the home turf of the behemoth that was the Müthel, Burney’s own intimate duets offered an enticing four-handed alternative.

Many of Burney fifty-seven keyboard students—this daunting teaching load made it possible for him to live in the house in St. Martin’s Street—frequented his house concerts. For all their glamour, these events were part of his brand, and, though free of charge, indirectly contributed to his livelihood. Yet as his letters make clear these gatherings were not always his favorite way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Of lowly Shropshire origins, Burney was—notwithstanding his associations with Samuel Johnson, Thomas Boswell, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds and other luminaries—a working man among the fashionable and wealthy. Burney’s rise to become the fashionable set’s favorite music master and a metropolitan man of letters was inextricably linked to the history of the piano in England, the kind of instrument praised for its chiaroscuro effects in his preface to the 1777 duets; it was in this rapidly evolving keyboard culture of mid-century England that the young Burney made his steep ascent from servitude to self-made cosmopolitan— the good Dr. Burney consorting with famous artists, writers, and aristocrats.

Burney had come to London in the early 1740s as the indentured musical servant of the cruelly exploitative Thomas Arne, a major composer on the capital’s theatre scene. Burney also did odd jobs for the harpsichord maker Jacob Kirkman, whose sumptuous instruments were prized by the wealthy. According to Burney’s memoirs Fulke Greville— the rakish High Sheriff of Wiltshire, Member of Parliament, and high stakes gambler—went to Kirkman’s shop in 1746 in search of a musical servant and interlocutor who “had a mind and cultivation, as well as finger and ear.” Taking a dim view of the sociable and intellectual gifts of musicians in general, Greville maintained that no such person existed, but Kirkman immediately thought of the witty and companionable Burney.  In the event, Greville was swiftly taken by Burney’s musical gifts and humor, and promptly hired him as music master at his country residence, Wilbury House, where Burney lived in 1748-9.

One of the chief reasons Greville had gone to Kirkman’s shop in the first place was because he wanted help with, and lessons, on a prized fortepiano he had recently purchased from Samuel Crisp. Seventeen years older than Burney, Crisp would become a central figure in the great historian’s life and that of his family, especially dear to Burney’s most famous daughter, Fanny. Burney later described Crisp and Greville as the “travelled and heterodox gentlemen” who taught him to appreciate modern Italian music. Other than Neapolitan opera, Burney did not specify which proclivities—and/or debaucheries— this heterodoxy involved.

Crisp had inherited a substantial fortune that he then burned through at an impressive rate on his lengthy Grand Tour in Italy where he studied music and fine arts and collected antiquities, books, and musical instruments—including a pianoforte, perhaps the first such instrument of its kind to arrive in England, transported there by Crisp on his return to his family home west of London in 1740. Soon, however, the cash-strapped Crisp had begun selling off his collection of musical instruments including his prized pianoforte. We read about this instrument in the entry on the “harpsichord” that Burney wrote for the great British reference work of the early nineteenth century, Abraham Rees’s Cyclopædia:

“the first [pianoforte] that was brought to England was made by an English monk at Rome, Father Wood, for an English friend (the late Samuel Crisp, esq. of Chessington, … a man of learning, and of exquisite taste in all the fine arts. The tone of this instrument was so superior to that produced by quills, with the additional power of producing all the shades of piano and forte by the finger, that though the mechanism were so imperfect that nothing quick could be executed upon it, yet the dead march in [Handel’s] Saul, and other solemn and pathetic strains, when executed with taste and feeling by a master a little accustomed to the touch, excited equal wonder and delight to the hearers. Fulke Greville, esq. purchased this instrument of Mr. Crisp for 100 guineas, and it remained unique in this country for several.”

The price of 100 guineas was considerable—twice that of a top-quality two-manual harpsichord from Kirkman. This particular piano was of great historic and aesthetic value for Burney. It was at Greville’s country house that Burney met Crisp in the autumn of 1747.

Crisp continued living in his ancestral home outside of London through the performance of his verse tragedy Virginia mounted, rather reluctantly, by David Garrick at the Drury Lane Theatre 1754.  This venture contributed to the already catastrophic sapping of Crisp’s inheritance, forcing him finally to sell his house and the rest of his belongings. He then joined his ruined friend Christopher Hamilton in Surrey at Chessington Hall, a rambling and dilapidated mansion said to date from 1520, set among muddy fields and difficult of access. The two men shared household expenses and when, after Hamilton’s death in 1759, his unmarried sister Sarah set up a boarding-house in the house, Crisp became her first boarder. Crisp called himself Lem and professed to share Gulliver’s view that men are yahoos. Yet Crisp remained kindly and sociable, at least to the Burneys—though not to Fulke Greville, with whom he had become estranged, cantankerously refusing to give him directions to hard-to-find Chessington.

Crisp and Burney had met again in London in 1763 and from then on kept in close contact, remaining dear friends until Crisp’s death in 1783; Chessington Hall became a regular country retreat in the summer holidays for Burney and members of his family. Fanny called Chessington “a place of peace, ease, freedom & cheerfulness, & all its inhabitants are good humoured & obliging—& my dear Mr Crisp alone would make it, to us, a Paradise.” (Crisp’s portrait was painted at Chessington in 1782 by Charles Burney’s nephew, the artist Edward Francisco Burney.)

Crisp had an especially close relationship to Fanny, who was forty-five years younger than he: Crisp became her dear second “Daddy,” while he referred to her as “Fannikin.” She regularly sent him installments of her brilliant journals, getting in return, as she put it, the “most delightful long, & incomparably clever Letters,  giving frank advice on her conduct, marriage prospects, and finances, as well as her writings. Aspects of Crisps’ character provided material for Mr. Villars in her break-out novel Evelina (1778) and later in Sir Jaspar Herrington in the darker baroque of The Wanderer (1814).

Among the many long letters Fanny sent to Daddy Crisp were two from 1775 describing in vivid detail the performances of and enthusiastic reactions to Müthel’s Duetto: “the Noblest Composition that was ever made” wrote Fanny to Crisp in November of that year. “Nothing could exceed the general applause. Mr. Harris was in extacy; Sr. James Lake who is silent & shy, broke forth into the warmest expressions of delight—Lady Lake, more prone to be pleased, was quite in raptures—the charming Baroness repeatedly declared she had never been at so agreeable a Concert before; & many said They had never heard music till then.” Fanny concluded: “It is not possible for Instrumental music to be more finished.”

Music was a vital mode of leisure and conviviality not just in Burney’s London residence but even more so during the summer weeks at Chessington. There appears to have been just one harpsichord in the Surrey house, so the heroics of Müthel duets were not possible—and likely not wanted. Affectation and display were better left in the big city, not packed up and taken with the holiday-makers to the countryside. In a letter dated August 1, 1779 to her elder half-sister Fanny, Sarah Burney recounted a trip with her father to stay with Crisp, concluding with news that Crisp “is fond of my father’s third duet of the second set which we play like anything.”

Burney’s friend, the musical enthusiast Thomas Twining, heir to the famous tea fortune, heard the new duets for one keyboard played in late 1776 just prior to their publication, and was enthusiastic in his response: “’twill be something new, as well as good, & run like wild fire,” Twining wrote to Burney in November of 1776, one year after the premier of Müthel’s Duet at the House in St. Martin’s Street (Twining’s had recently heard one of the many reprise performances of that huge piece, too, at the Burney salon).

For the Burneys the musical recreations with Crisp at Chessington offered an escape to provincial calm from the anxieties of metropolitan life and work; refuge in the real affection of friends versus the trying affectations of polite society. These duet sessions allowed for intimate, pleasantly physical music-making with beloved daughters of a dear friend—the highpoint of a country afternoon for this Lemuel inhabiting his own Island of Laputa, that place in Gulliver’s Travels dedicated to music and the arts.

Four years after that 1779 August of duets, Crisp died of gout; his death deeply affected Burney, who wrote a touching obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine and also supplied the verse eulogy for a plaque mounted in his friend’s memory in Chessington’s church—all that remains of the place as Crisp and the Burneys knew it. The house is gone, in its place suburban cul-de-sacs and a safari adventure park. But Burney’s duets survive, though they are not available in a modern edition: in these conversational, witty, endearing, and literally touching pieces the authentic dynamics of friendship and family can be heard and felt, and then heard and felt again.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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