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Burney’s and Hawkins’ Johann Sebastian Bach

Who would have not heard of Johann Sebastian Bach? Bach has been very famous for his musical compositions in the baroque period. He has been one of the many prominent composers who have that distinct baroque style. Although not all musical masters acknowledge that Bach is the most outstanding of all composers of his time, no one can disagree that he almost won the hearts of all. Even some of those who disregard him as the most excellent of his contemporaries do not distaste the styles of his compositions. Rather, they would recognize his musical prodigy. Thus, he is either considered as the best if not one of the best in his field.

Two of the various writers who have accounts of Johann Sebastian Bach are Charles Burney in his book “A General History of Music” and Sir John Hawkins of “A General History of the Science and Practice of Music”. Both authors have tackled mainly on the life and works of Bach and yet, looking at the passages that each has written on Bach, one cannot ignore the differences of how Bach was examined. Taking note that the authors main topic which is quite obvious in their titles is about the history of Bach, one can conclude that they discuss the same subject matter.

And yet, studying closely the scope of coverage of the two authors, they differ much in the way they approached Bach. Burney’s account of Bach does not even resemble that of a biography of the composer; rather, the writer tries to personally convey to the reader that Bach was one of the best composers of his time. This was done by the enumeration of Bach’s major achievements such as his being the music-director of Leipzig and raising four sons who are also renowned figures in the field of music (Burney 595).

Furthermore, Burney’s technique of presenting Bach is that of comparison. He deliberately compared Bach to Handel in his passage for explaining the lesser popularity attained by Bach in first class cities and capitals. Thus, although he is in praise of Bach’s musical talent, he saw the flaw in Bach’s career choice wherein it is known to the public that he frequented churches rather than great musical theatres as Handel did. On the other hand, Hawkins took a more formal approach in presenting Bach to his readers.

He narrated in chronological order the life of Bach from his conception to his death. He also pursued Bach’s career path in detail even mentioning almost all the occupations that were undertaken by the composer. Comparing the two authors’ scope of coverage, one can actually conclude that Hawkins’ rendition was far more informative than that of Burney’s and is thus, denser in facts than the other. Turning our attention to the knowledge that the two authors have regarding Johann Sebastian Bach and his music, these two fields vary greatly.

The authors’ knowledge of Bach is actually enough for both passages although as have been concluded earlier, Hawkins’ version is more packed with knowledge than that of Burney. Moreover, Hawkins also included references from which his knowledge was obtained such as that of Mattheson and John Christian Bach, the composer’s son (Hawkins 853). Burney also cited other sources but this is in relation to the composer’s music. On the other hand, regarding the knowledge of the two authors concerning the music of Bach, one cannot apparently comment on both authors.

For, although the two authors described in passing the composer’s musical style, not one discussed his musical compositions. Further still, not one mentioned a composition of Bach such as his B minor Mass. This incident must be due to the fact that the two authors did not dwell much on Bach’s music since their subject matter is basically history. To further comprehend Bach’s music, it is better to refer to other sources that dwell mainly on music such as the book entitled “The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: The Sources, The Style, The Significance” by M. B. Bach and R. L. Marshall.

Such books mainly focus their discussion on Bach’s musical style. Thus, relying on the two authors discussed here, it would be insufficient as a reference material in studying the composer’s music. The authors’ attitudes towards Bach and his style were strikingly dissimilar as is substantially seen on the passages. In Burney’s article, the author was highly in praise of the composer. Such praise was not even a general comment but a personal comment of the author as can be seen in the line: “Of the illustrious musical family of Bach, I have frequently had occasion for panegyric” (Burney 594).

Burney evidently reveres not just Johann Sebastian Bach but also the composer’s whole family as portrayed in the emphasis he has made on Bach’s four sons. In contrast, Hawkins has a far more detached attitude on Bach. This is obvious in the way he plainly states facts about the author. His technique is much like an encyclopedic version of Bach’s life and music. Although he named persons who are in praise of Bach, he himself did not personally acclaim Bach’s reputation.

Differentiating the two authors, it is easy to conclude that Burney has a positive and admiring attitude towards Bach while Hawkins has a neutral and unbiased attitude towards Bach. Clearly from the previous discussions, one can conclude that although the subject matter of the two authors is similar, their approach and understanding toward Bach and his music were diverse. Unsurprisingly, paying attention to the year of publication of the two books, one can see that each came out from a different era in history. Burney’s book was printed almost two centuries earlier than Hawkins.

It may be assumed that during Burney’s time, the works of Bach were still fresh and his person is still very vivid while during Hawkins’ time, Bach is long past history and is thus studied by the majority for educational purposes. Therefore, by examining the two authors’ accounts on Bach, the significance of reception history is successfully conveyed. Works Cited Burney, Charles. A General History of Music. Vol. 4. London: Gale Group, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 1789. Hawkins, Sir John. A General History of the Science and Practice of Music. New York: Dover, 1963.

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