An Eighteenth-Century Musical Tour in Central Europe and the Netherlands: Being Dr. Charles Burney's Account of His Musical Experiences - Vol. 2

By Charles Burney; Percy A. Scholes | Go to book overview

I
St. Omer to Alost (6-14 JULY)

St. Omers

Monday 6 July 1772> I must confess, that my appetite for French music was not very keen when I now landed on the continent. However, being detained at St. Omers a day longer than I expected, I visited some of the churches there, as well as the theatre; but heard nothing in either which inclined me to change my sentiments concerning the national taste of France, for music.

A company of strolling players, from Dunkirk, acted, on the night of my arrival, a tragedy and a comedy. I went to the playhouse, which I found small and dirty; and though the tragedy was half over when I arrived, there was no other company in the boxes, than two or three English families, and a few of the officers of the garrison. It is impossible for Englishmen to judge, accurately, of French acting, and declamation; but these performers seemed much more at their ease, and appeared more like the characters they were to represent, than those on the English stage, who, except a few of the principal actors, are generally so aukward and unnatural, as to destroy all illusion.

At the cathedral of St. Omer there is a very fine sixteen feet organ,1 which is played in a masterly, but old style, by a priest, father Thomas, who teaches the harpsichord to many English people, as well as other inhabitants of that city. But the most considerable instrument there, in figure and grandeur, is the organ at the abbey of St. Bertin: it was built but five years ago, by a country mechanic, who could neither write, read, nor play on his instrument when it was made. I had, as yet, seen nothing so elegant and magnificent as the case and ornaments of this organ; the stops are numerous, and the movements light and tolerably quiet; there are pedals but there is no swell,2 or

____________________
1
Sixteen feet organ. The normal length of the pipe of the lowest manual note in an organ today is 8 feet, but an organ of any size at all will have (as this one did) one or more sets of pipes of which the lowest is of 16 feet (so giving 'body' to the tone), and others of which the lowest is of 4 feet (giving brightness), and so on.
2
Pedals but no swell. English organs in Burney's day (with a few possible exceptions) possessed no pedals, in this matter falling three centuries behind the organs of the Continent. As late as 1844 the London papers announced, 'The organ in the Hanover Square Rooms being found by Dr. Mendelssohn not to have the German pedals he is prevented from giving the Organ performance as previously announced.' (This organ appears to have had a few pedals but not the complete set.)

As for the swell device, it was an English invention, the first occurrence of it being in the organ of St. Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge, built by Jordan in 1712. We shall find that Burney in his whole tour met with only one continental organ with a swell (see p. 221)

-1-

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