Burney in Berkeley

By November of 1770 the English organist, traveler, and man of letters, Charles Burney had been on the road for five months, touring the Continent doing research for his General History of Music; the first of its four volumes would come out six years later. With winter looming and the Alps still to be crossed (or skirted by sea), Burney was making his way back towards London. Homeward bound, he swung once more through Rome. On Tuesday the 20th he reported to his diary, which would be published as The Present State of Music in France and Italy the following year, that:

“I went this morning to visit the famous Podini gallery, in the Verospi palace. All the accounts of Rome are full of the praises of this music gallery: or, as it is called, gallery of instruments; but nothing shews the necessity of seeing for one’s self, more than these accounts. The instruments in question cannot have been fit for use these many years; but, when a thing has once got into a book as curious, it is copied into others without examination, and without end. There is a very fine harpsichord, to look at, but not a key that will speak: it formerly had a communication with an organ in the same room, and with the two spinets and a virginal; under the frame is a violin, tenor, and base, which, by movement of the foot, used to be played upon by the harpsichord keys. The organ appears in the front of the room, but not on the side, where there seems to be pipes and machines enclosed; but there was no one to open or explain it, the old Cicerone[docent] being just dead.”

The day after this discouraging excursion Burney went to another famed collection, that of the seventeenth-century polymath, Athanasius Kircher—Egyptologist, music theorist and inventor, among other pursuits. “Ancient paintings, urns, vases, jewels, intaglios, cameos, and other antiquities, are here in such abundance,” wrote Burney, “but the curiosities which I chiefly went to see, were Father Kircher’s musical instruments and machines, described in his Musurgia [Kircher’s encyclopedic book on music, published in 1650]; they are now almost all out of order.”

With the longest history of any European capital, Rome had millennia’s worth of art and artifacts to be marveled at— and looked after. Every day, as more and more bits of the past were uncovered by ongoing excavations, the inventory grew. Though fascinated by sculpture and painting, Burney knew better than anyone that musical instruments made special demands on curatorship. A Stradivarius violin isn’t as durable as the marble head of an emperor unearthed in the Roman Forum.

In London, Burney was friends with John Joseph Merlin, an inventor of, and tinkerer with, all kinds of contraptions, musical and otherwise.  Merlin also looked after the harpsichords in Burney’s London house, itself a kind of museum in that it had once belonged to Isaac Newton.

Both Merlin and Burney recognized the constant attention instruments needed.  The signs of neglect are quick to accumulate: sour notes; dust on soundboards; broken strings; keys that stick; cracks in the wood; dents in the metal. A harpsichord needs constant tuning and other maintenance. The mechanical workings of an organ, that most complex of machines of the pre-industrial world, were the most demanding of vigilance and know-how. At the time of the Roman Empire organs had been heard in the Coliseum.  No sign of them remained.

Not just time, but wars and fires, like the recent one in Notre Dame (though it spared the organ, itself already savaged by twentieth-century “curatorial” interventions) culled the Kings of Instruments. Destruction is the most efficient form of deaccession. The aerial bombardments of World War II were the greatest destroyers of organs in the long history of the instrument.

Among the remnants of history, musical instruments are a special case: they are voices of the past that can be made to speak.  When broken and in disrepair they are silent, and once silent it becomes much easier to pitch them onto the rubbish heap. Merlin’s silver swan automaton was and is one of the great wonders of his or any age. He patented a compound harpsichord-piano in 1774. Burney ordered a harpsichord from him 1777.  Both instruments are lost. The swan swims and sings still.  (The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston does, however, have a harpsichord made by Jacob Kirkman—also a friend of Burney—to which was added Merlin’s piano pedal in 1779.)


Burney’s description of collecting  and neglect was in my mind yesterday when I spent the day at the University of California at Berkeley trying to get a snatch of practice time on the large organ in the music department’s concert hall. It is impossible to move an organ quickly when flames break out or bombs fall. You can’t tuck it under your arm and go to another other room or step outside when, as yesterday, an unscheduled class of one hundred students convenes in the same space.

Displaced, I wandered through the halls and back rooms of the music building, home to a remarkable collection of organs. Burney would have been fascinated by Berkeley’s holdings and certainly have commented on it in his diary.

In one dusty corner of the dank waiting room of the concert stood a lovely north German cabinet organ. Its bottom section housing the bellows was made to look like a chest of drawers. The upper part mimicked a wardrobe, but the doors opened to reveal not a lady’s finer but white and gilded pipes.

For me it was like greeting an aged relative locked in an isolated room in an old folk’s home. Nearly thirty years ago when I lived in the northwest corner of Germany for I’d spent many hours playing on an identical instrument made by the same builder. The ancient stone house where the organ and I lived was not far from the instrument’s place of origin—the city of Emden, which had been almost totally destroyed in the Allied bombing of 1944. The Berkeley organ (and its pendant still in Germany) are among the very few musical remnants of old Emden.

Ignored and ailing, the emigrant to Berkeley is at least safe, one assumes, in its Bay Area bunker. After admiring the case for some time, I scrabbled in the dust and junk behind the instrument and plugged in the electric blower added later to make it possible to play without aid of a human pumper. The instrument was out of tune and wheezing; some keys stuck. But parts of it still sang sweetly.

In a nearby corner another German house organ from around 1750 was even dustier. It looked as if it hadn’t been touched in decades.

In a second-floor landing another part of the music department complex I encountered an Italian organ from the mid-eighteenth century. It is about twelve feet high and five feet wide. Last time I visited the Berkeley organs nearly twenty years ago it had been on the concert hall stage.

This one has no motor so has to be pumped. I was able to get someone to spend a few minutes pulling the cords that raise the two bellows.  This rare and beautiful instrument with its classical architectural flourishes and the lush vocal quality of its sounds has survived for nearly fifty years in the New World.  Against the 1950s walls and institutional carpeted of the Berkeley music building, it looks sad, and sounds rather sad, too. One yearns to hear and see it in the church in Veron from which it was taken.

The acquisition of these instruments and some ten others based on old models, German and Spanish, was made possible thanks to the behest of a Berkeley professor of chemistry named Edmond O’Neill, who left $46,000 to the university for the purchase of an organ (later reinterpreted to mean “organs”) when he died in 1933. Nearly the same sum was given by his wife, Edith, when she died eight years later.

Berkeley has recently folded its university organist position. Uncurated and unloved, the instruments collected with the now-depleted O’Neill funds suffer the worst of musical fates: disuse. Silently they await an uncertain future.



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com