Samuel Pepys and his experiences of music at Restoration theatres

Janine Wiesecke

Janine Wiesecke is a researcher at the music department of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main, Germany and, simultaneously, works on her PhD thesis on Listening to Music as Both Experience and Evaluation in Late Seventeenth-Century Urban England at the University of Potsdam, Germany.


Restoration London was replete with opportunities to listen to music, even before the first public concerts were established. The Restoration theatre was one of the venues where Londoners had ample opportunity to listen to the newest compositions performed by professionals. But how did listeners write about their experiences? What did listeners notice? What categories were chosen to describe a listening experience? On the basis of the diary of Samuel Pepys, an enthusiastic music lover, the complex issue of early modern writing about listening is approached and analysed in more detail.


Music was woven into everyday life in Restoration London. Even despite the absence of modern playback technologies and the resulting dependence on performing individuals in the moment of listening, early modern Londoners engaged in music listening at many different venues.1 While they did not necessarily produce music themselves, they nevertheless had ample opportunities to listen to others. The theatre was only one of many such places.

One of those Londoners, Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), a well-known figure of the Restoration period, left among his extensive library a diary (which spans the period between 1660 and mid-1669),2 containing numerous clues about his varied daily experiences.3 Himself a naval administration officer, he was an enthusiastic amateur musician rather than a professional. His enthusiasm for music infused many aspects of his daily routine and, as a result, is captured in his diary, which also coincides with the beginning of the Restoration period and the re-opening of public theatres.

Scholars have examined Restoration theatre from many different angles.4 As far as music is concerned, they have focused on identifying the music that has been performed, on theatre musicians (their role in society, their networks and additional occupations), on composers and on changes in musical style.5 To that end, listeners’ accounts have been used to illustrate the context of experiences and to serve as individual examples of these features. But they have not been subjected to an exhaustive analysis relating to listening habits, behaviours and verbalisation strategies. Therefore, the aim of this chapter is to examine the ways in which Pepys reconstructed his listening experiences at London theatres in writing. Questions asked pertain to Pepys’ relationship with the theatre and his attendance habits, as well as the degree to which music is represented in his records and how, that is by what categories. The goal is to show what Pepys determined necessary to write down in order to represent his experiences appropriately and, specifically, what he noticed about music and its performance. However, before the actual analysis, several aspects of Restoration theatre are briefly remarked upon to illustrate common situations and issues listeners were confronted with.

Background on Restoration theatre culture

1660 marks one of the far-reaching turning points of the seventeenth century. With the Restoration of the monarchy, English theatre culture was revived after lying more or less dormant since 1642.6 In the intervening period, actors (and musicians) had attempted several times to reinstate theatre performances in public, but these were shut down by the government nearly every time. For that reason, most performances were staged in private homes, accessible only to a select group of people. One of the exceptions shortly before 1660 was the staging of William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes,7 which was less likely to be interrupted because it contained a high percentage of music.8

Despite the various revival attempts during the Commonwealth, theatre houses went into disrepair or were used for other purposes, and no new actors or musicians were trained. Thus, the revival of public theatre performances was a strenuous task. It started up again with King Charles II’s Licensing Act, which allowed Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant to each form a theatre company (the former established the King’s Company, the latter the Duke’s Company). While Killigrew managed to engage a number of experienced actors who were already active before 1642, and to secure exclusive performance rights to most of the pre-Commonwealth repertoire, Davenant had to look for other competitive advantages.9 One of their more pressing tasks was to secure new performance spaces.

Theatre houses

Before the Commonwealth Londoners had a choice between large, public outdoor theatres and a number of smaller private indoor theatres (admission to the latter was more expensive than to the former,10 but after 1660 only a few indoor theatres were reopened).11 The search for appropriate performance spaces led Killigrew to the Red Bull Theatre in Clerkenwell, a pre-Commonwealth theatre building. But the company quickly moved on to a theatre in Vere Street on 8 November 1660, a building originally known as Gibbon’s Tennis Court.12 Because the Vere Street Theatre was not spacious enough and lacked appropriate stage equipment, Killigrew commissioned a new theatre called the Theatre Royal in Bridges Street near Drury Lane, which opened its doors in 1663. The King’s Company was based in that theatre for the rest of Pepys’ diary period, not moving on until 1672 after it accidentally burned to the ground. Davenant’s company, in turn, started out at Salisbury Court Theatre before settling in to Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre (also a former tennis court) in mid-1661. The company moved from there in 1671, two years after Pepys’ last diary entry, into the newly built Dorset Garden Theatre.13

Apart from the Theatre Royal and Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, Pepys briefly attended performances at the Red Bull Theatre in Clerkenwell and the old Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane between 1660 and 1662, and later on he occasionally attended performances at the Court Theatre in Whitehall.14 In 1667 Killigrew also established a Nursery, a training theatre for young actors and actresses. Out of curiosity, Pepys attended their performances twice in February 1668, but said afterwards he would refrain from doing so ever again because he found them lacking in skill.15

Stage design

Only very few specifics about the respective theatres and their stages have survived and can be stated with certainty. A feature that was already prominent with Renaissance theatres was the apron stage, which protruded into the audience and featured most of the action. The innovation with regard to Restoration theatres was that the stage was extended on both sides, so that performers accessed it through stage doors to either side and not so much from the back of the stage. The stage was lit by footlights and chandeliers. The stage featured a curtain which, once drawn, usually remained that way until the end of the play. One of the novelties introduced to the stage during the Restoration was painted, moveable scenery, which was placed behind the proscenium arch that framed the main stage. Davenant’s company was the first to employ this in a public theatre, continuously looking for a competitive advantage over the King’s Company.16 The scenery was painted on flats or wings that protruded on grooves from both sides onto the stage in vertical succession. This meant that, with scene changes, the front shutters could be moved out of the way to the sides of the stage.17 This novelty was quite a draw with the audience.18

Music and its role at Restoration theatre

Music took many forms and roles in Restoration theatre, meaning the music performed does not quite fit into a single category. Curtis Price describes the wide range of music used within the drama as follows:

Many plays included several songs, at least some of them with choruses and followed by dances; in tragedies one often finds full-blown masques, and music frequently accompanies religious processions or rituals and intensifies and foreshadows tragic events. In comedies, scenes are enhanced with a miscellany of musical entertainments, from miniature concerts to carefully choreographed entry dances.19

So musical performances did not just vary in style, but in scale as well. Music also had various functions to fulfil. Price distinguishes, for example, between incidental music and music used within the drama. Incidental music refers to mostly instrumental music that preceded the play (two pairs of contrasting pieces called ‘first’ and ‘second musick’)20 and was performed between the acts (called ‘act tunes’ or, towards the end of the century, ‘act songs’).21 Because incidental music was written specifically for each performance and thus offered listeners the newest fashions and styles, its link to the play (if there was any) depended to some extent on the amount of time composers had available to familiarise themselves with the play.22 In the beginning, the main function of the incidental music was ‘to provide contrast with and relief from spoken dialogue’,23 although the more music was used within the play the less it could fulfil this function. Additionally, music preceding the play functioned as entertainment while the audience arrived and the end of it simultaneously signalled the beginning of the performance.24 Pepys never mentions incidental music – perhaps an indicator that he did not consider it part of the actual performance and, by extension, of the experience.

As the quote from the beginning of this section suggests, music used within the drama cannot be subsumed under just one category, not just because it could be either vocal or instrumental, but also because various factors might have been responsible for its inclusion – for example, the plot or expectations inspired by individual actors/musicians. Regarding music within the play, Price attempts to distinguish between para-dramatic music (which is introduced for its own sake) and music that is integral to the development of the plot (and could either enhance the plot’s atmosphere or develop naturally through the plot).25


Different types of musicians were involved in a theatre performance: a group of instrumentalists, stage musicians (often referred to as ‘the musick’, which was ambiguously also used to denote music performed)26 and the actors themselves, who performed most of the singing parts and dances.

The group of instrumentalists varied in size depending on the budget. They performed mainly the first and second music and the overture, as well as the act tunes, but also became involved when more elaborate musical scenes were staged.27 The position of the group depended on the setting – wherever there was enough room, but that was not necessarily on stage. One option was the music room – a feature of Renaissance theatres which early Restoration theatres still used; depictions show it right above the stage, though in reality a side balcony might have been used instead.28 Pepys records not just the instrumentalists performing out of the music room, but singers as well.29 Another option was, at least at the newly built Theatre Royal in Bridges Street, in front of or under the apron stage – a position Pepys strongly criticises:

Only, above all, the Musique being below, and most of it sounding under the very stage, there is no hearing of the bases at all, nor very well of the trebles, which sure must be mended.30

The stage band often consisted of four or more musicians who performed different kinds of music (dances, serenades, accompaniment to songs, and so on), either on stage in costumes and in minor roles or off stage.31 Song accompaniment was usually done by a continuo-player (lutenist or later also a guitarist).32 While melody and lyrics of songs often survived in song anthologies, their accompaniment (that is, as it was actually performed on stage), as well as dance music, is more ephemeral.

The actors performed mostly on stage. Just as their instrumentalist counterparts were expected to possess a certain level of acting skill, so actors needed to have some skill in singing and dancing, although they mostly did not reach a professional level.33 Thus, demanding repertoire was performed by members of the stage band.


Due to a lack of sufficient source material such as subscription lists, the social composition of the Restoration audience has been the subject of some scholarly debate. The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarly misconception of the Restoration audience as a more or less homogeneous group of disinterested, rowdy aristocrats was re-evaluated in the late twentieth century. Javier García argued, for example, that plays were commonly referred to in non-theatre-related political publications that addressed diverse social groups, who consequently must have had knowledge of the plays’ content. This, he argues, is an indicator of a more diverse composition of the audience.34 He argues further that scholarly misconceptions might have stemmed from an inappropriate interpretation of characters, and from other contemporary publications that exaggerated the situation because of their targeted readership.35 As a result of these discussions, it is now widely accepted that the audience was composed of multiple social classes. Through an analysis of Pepys’ diary, Emmet Avery has shown, for instance, that the audience on these occasions when Pepys attended the theatre included members of the aristocracy (royalty included), parliament, the clergy, physicians, various family members and their servants, apprentices, public servants, and also playwrights or competing actors and actresses.36 Because ticket prices only rudimentarily regulated the seating arrangements, social groups were not strictly separated from each other.37 Despite the common occurrence of social variance, Pepys favoured a certain degree of balance between middling classes and the nobility, criticising the situation if in his opinion the audience was dominated too much by ‘citizens’.38

Another discussion point is theatre-goers’ degree of attention towards the stage (not only during the Restoration, but also in the eighteenth century).39 Theatre-going was a social act – that is well established – and the conditions favoured interaction among audience members: the auditorium remained lit by candles throughout the performance; and orange sellers walked around and sold snacks. From Pepys’ records of other people’s behaviour, it becomes clear that audience members were quite attentive, despite such distractions, and as part of their attentiveness offered immediate feedback, which they not only directed towards the stage, but exchanged with each other. Pepys records one of these instances:

[T]o the King’s playhouse, where The Heiress, notwithstanding Kinaston’s being beaten, is acted; and they say the King is very angry with Sir Ch. Sidly for his being beaten; but he doth deny it. But his part is done by Beeston, who is fain to read it out of a book all the while, and thereby spoils the part and almost the play, it being one of the best parts in it; […]. But it was pleasant to see Beeston come in with others, supposing it to be dark and yet he is forced to read his part by the light of the candles. And this I observing to a gentleman that sat by me, he was mightily pleased therewith and spread it up and down.40

On one occasion audience members hissed performers off the stage, because they disliked the singing so much.41 On other occasions it is the lack of reaction from them that supports Pepys’ low opinion of a performance.42

After pointing out some of the circumstances surrounding Restoration theatre-going, the analysis will turn to Pepys’ diary from three different perspectives, starting with the macro level, looking at the whole diary.

In total, the diary includes 350 instances in which Pepys attended the theatre in person.43 Figure 1 shows the distribution of absolute counts for his attendance, sorted by year. After the newly-formed theatre companies tentatively started out in 1660, the following year Pepys suddenly found ample opportunity to visit them, eager as he was to attend plays. After that, the sudden drop in attendance marks the beginning of the effect of his vows44 – a means of self-control, by which he attempted to temper his pleasure-seeking nature and improve his reputation.45 Thus, during the following years (that is, 1662 to 1666) his attendance is rather moderate. Besides that, both catastrophes (the plague and Great Fire) that struck London during 1665 and 1666 show up clearly in the data.46 After that, not only did Pepys enjoy performances with higher frequency, but his entries become longer and more detailed.

Figure 1: Attendance of theatre performances in absolute numbers

Figure 1 also makes it clear that music in comparison is not a prominent feature in Pepys’ recollection of theatre experiences. Only in 48 out of the 350 cases does music come up. The incidences become more frequent in the latter years of his diary, suggesting that he might have needed time to build up an expertise in theatrical music first and only afterwards felt competent enough to have an opinion. As already mentioned, Pepys does not comment on incidental music, focusing only on music within the drama. But still, keeping in mind the prominent role music had within the drama suggests that Pepys perceived this kind of music as an integral part of the play, and as an aspect not easily separated from the whole theatrical performance. And because he did not appear to consider the music and play separate from each other, this could explain why, despite music’s quantitative presence, it is not mentioned more frequently in the diary. In such cases, music possibly did not outshine the rest of the play enough and, consequently, was left out of the description. This selectiveness is one of the disadvantages of the diary format. Due to the limitations dictated by the diary’s materiality, anything that is recorded has to constitute an indispensible part of the experience that is necessary to record in order to define the experience itself.

A closer examination of the nature of Pepys’ accounts shows that they vary to some extent in length. On average, over the whole of the diary, a description of a theatrical experience is 77 words long (accounts including music are on average 118 words long; accounts that do not comment on music are on average 70 words long). A glance at a higher resolution of the distribution over the years (see Figure 2) shows that entries including musical references are generally longer – the exception being around the year 1665, during which Pepys had less opportunity to witness performances in general because theatres were closed from mid-1665 until late in 1666 due to the plague and the Great Fire. Besides, when the King and court left London due to the situation, so did most musicians, which suggests that either the proportion of music included in theatrical performances was reduced or Pepys could also have been too distracted by current events, which might have resulted in shorter entries.

Figure 2: Average length of entries based on number of words

And at this point, on the macro level at least, it becomes peculiar because, on the one hand – looking back to Figure 1 – though performances included music, it is seldom mentioned, despite its quantitative presence. An explanation might be that it is perceived as an integral part of the whole performance and thus requires a specific degree of exceptionality to be noticed. However, on the other hand – turning now again to Figure 2 – the difference in entry length suggests that music is not as integrated into the experience as one might think, but comes to the experience on top of what usually determines it. Because the solution to this contradiction seems elusive on the macro level, a closer examination of the way Pepys reconstructs his experiences on paper might shed more light on this.

Pepys uses quite a formalised method of record-keeping. Entries featuring theatre-related experiences are all fairly similarly constructed. Figure 3 shows the categories Pepys creates and the way in which he connects them to reconstruct his experiences in writing.

Figure 3: Schematic representation of Pepys’ entries relating to theatrical experiences

First of all, Pepys constructs a frame for each experience with the categories venue and play – for instance: ‘I to the Duke of York’s playhouse, where a new play of Etheriges called She would if she could’.47 There are only six occasions for which Pepys neglects to set this frame.48 This frame is then continued by one or more evaluations that describe Pepys’ opinion about individual aspects of said frame and occasionally the effect the experience had on him – placing the third cornerstone. Because no evaluations are made in very abbreviated entries, the third cornerstone is not included in the frame itself, but is positioned as more of a continuation of it.

Depending on what a situation requires, any of the three cornerstones might be augmented with various details. Nearly all of these additional details can influence Pepys’ evaluations of the experience (see the dotted, curved lines in Figure 3). An exception to this is his immediate company, a detail he uses to expand on the category venue.49 Further details used to enrich the description are related to the audience50 – its social composition and the seating arrangements. To return to the example introduced in the last paragraph, it continues thus:

And though I was there by 2 a-clock, there was 1000 people put back that could not have room in the pit; and I at last, because my wife was there, made shift to get into the 18d box – and there saw; but Lord, how full was the house […]. The King was there; but I sat mightily behind, and could see but little and hear not all.51

While his immediate companions do not influence his evaluations (that is the reason why in Figure 3 no dotted curved line links his companions to the evaluation category), the composition and size of the audience did occasionally have an impact, especially considering an imbalance between gentlemen/-women and ‘citizens’ in the audience (see section on ‘Audience’). Apart from Pepys’ perception of social inappropriateness regarding the audience’s composition, the seating arrangement occasionally impaired his view or the acoustics (see the last quote), thus indirectly impacting the evaluation. Furthermore, from Pepys’ remarks on other incidents it becomes apparent that in Restoration London the number of theatre-goers did not suffice to fill both major theatres at the same time.52 Rather, Pepys notes how premieres, even performances on the second day and special events pulled the audience to one house, leaving the other almost empty. Novelty seems to have been ranked higher than quality among the deciding factors regarding the choice of venue.53

The second cornerstone of Pepys’ frame – the category play – is expanded by adding details that concern the person responsible for the textual material, be it the actual playwright, the translator or the editor. By mentioning these names Pepys implies expectations he had towards the performance, as in this example:

The play is a translation out of French, and the plot Spanish; but not anything extraordinary at all in it, though translated by Sir W Davenant.54

Further details create a context for the performance and include additional information about the play in the form of phrase-like labels, for example, that it is a new play, an old one newly adapted, the premiere of the play, the second or third day of its performance, and so on. All of these additional details that expand the frame constituted by venue and play are presented in a factual manner, despite their potential to influence following evaluations. They might have carried along expectations, but seldom carried any evaluation in their description.

The third cornerstone of Pepys’ experience reconstruction – evaluation – tells, among other things, about music heard. That music is not part of the frame is another discovery. It supports the hypothesis that music within the drama is not easily separated from the play and its performance, but perceived as an integral, yet not itself a defining part. Evaluations can be subdivided into three main subcategories: play, performance and music, the second of which can be subdivided again into acting, singing and dancing. These subcategories are not independent of each other in every case; for example acting might sometimes include a musical performance, because songs were mostly performed by actors (see the section on ‘Musicians’). Each of these subcategories can be applied as need be, whenever the situation requires it. A closer look at the whole of Pepys’ evaluations shows that he uses two different types of judgements for this category: type A – a very brief one (for exemplary quotes see Table 1), offering just a qualitative evaluation without stating reasons or being specific about what aspects are actually judged; and type B – a more detailed, often longer evaluation (for exemplary quotes see Tables 2 and 3). Both types follow a hierarchy with type A ranking higher, that is type A judgements are usually employed first and with higher frequency.

Table 1: Vocabulary used for brief evaluations (excerpts from accounts of those theatre experiences that include music only: Pepys, Diary, various vols.)







general level
  • (very) good
  • very pleasant
  • most innocent
  • one of the best plays for a stage
  • well acted / performed
  • actors most good in it
  • very pretty
  • good singing
  • sings finely
  • very properly
  • singing did please us
  • pretty
  • some good dancing
  • very good
  • most excellently done
  • dances finely
  • most admirable
  • mighty pretty
  • curious piece of music
  • very stately
  • better then we looked
  • bad one
  • little good in it
  • not anything extraordinary at all in it
  • no excellent
  • mean
  • ordinary
  • most insipid, ridiculous
  • (very) silly
  • silly, dull thing
  • so so
  • a play I could not make anything of by those two acts
  • not that the play is worth much
  • poorly done
  • indifferently done
  • ill acted
  • not singing it right
  • sings naughtily
  • sings meanly
  • voice not very good
  • never was worse music played; that is, worse things composed

Looking at the distribution of excerpts of type A judgements in Table 1, the most immediate conclusion is that Pepys uses a more varied vocabulary for the general evaluation of plays than for any other evaluated subcategory.55
Furthermore, while adjectives used for general, positive judgements do not discriminate between different subcategories and thus are quite similar, focusing heavily on variations of good, the picture looks different for general, negative judgements. Here adjectives used vary to a greater degree in the case of plays than those used for the execution subcategories (that is, acting, singing, and dancing). This level of evaluation does not offer many insights into Pepys’ thoughts, but rather just classifies individual parts that constitute the event. It is important to keep in mind at this point, that not all these different elements are necessarily classified for every event. Again, the diary format is probably the reason for this. But considering the function of these brief evaluations, it is interesting that Pepys distinguishes at all between not only material and execution, but also different kinds of executions.

Looking next at the type B evaluations – the more descriptive, often longer ones – it is noteworthy that especially after 1666 Pepys becomes more verbose, specifically when judging the play and the musical performance. On this evaluation level Pepys no longer just praises or discards various subcategories defining his experience, but on the one hand he names specific characteristics that are evaluated and on the other hand he more often deliberates about the quality, comparing it with his expectations, with preconceived ideals or past experiences.

Table 2: Vocabulary used for specific evaluations of ‘play’ (excerpts from accounts of those theatre experiences that include music only: Pepys, Diary, various vols.)


specific level

  • good action in it
  • full of variety
  • having many good humours in it
  • no great wit, but yet good, above ordinary
  • a most sad, melancholy play, and pretty good, but nothing eminent in it as some Tragedies are
  • a very good play, but only the fancy; most of it the same as in the rest of my Lord Orery’s plays
  • but his words are but silly
  • while all the rest did through the whole pit blame the play as a silly, dull thing, though there was something very roguish and witty; but the design of the play, and end, mighty insipid
  • though there was here and there a pretty saying, and that not very many neither, yet the whole of the play had nothing extraordinary in it at all, neither of language nor design
  • and though the design is in the first conception of it pretty good, yet it is but an indifferent play
  • he silliest for words and design, and everything, that ever I saw in my whole life, there being nothing in the world pleasing in it but a good martial dance of pike-men
  • but of all the plays that ever I did see, the worst, having neither plot, language, nor anything in the earth that is acceptable
  • a silly play, I think, only the spirit in it, that grows very Tall and then sinks again to nothing

An examination of the type B evaluations of the subcategory ‘play’ (see Table 2) shows that aspects such as ‘design’, ‘language’, ‘action’, ‘humour and wit’, as well as ‘variety’, are influential in the deliberate, qualitative evaluation. With regards to the content of the categories, Pepys does not create new subcategories. He also does not change the vocabulary used to assign qualitative value, but rather he attributes the same evaluative adjectives to more precise characteristics of the respective subcategory. Thus, type B judgements are not necessarily longer than type A ones, but more precise.

In contrast, type B evaluations of the ‘performance’ (see Table 3), more specifically those referring to acting and singing, leave out any characteristics of execution that might indicate what has influenced Pepys’ judgement, and instead focus on who performs what, followed by a preference judgement. Only in reference to dancing is ‘variety’ again identified as an influential factor. A possible explanation for the difference between type B evaluations of play and performance might be hidden in the distinction between material and performative action. The aspects Pepys identifies as the basis for his evaluation of plays are based on literary ideals – characteristics that Pepys might have learned at school or through private study, aspects readers outside the performance context would consider, too. On the other hand, Pepys’ evaluation of performative action lacks those preconceived ideals. This is not limited to performances in the theatre context, but applies, for example, to musical performances in domestic contexts as well. A possible explanation might be that Pepys knew the contemporary literary discourse on drama and extracted characteristics necessary to evaluate from it, but he did not possess the same theoretical knowledge with regard to the performance of drama and music. This would imply that he did not know what to listen and watch for. Because literature related to music that Pepys had access to rarely said much about music composition (it focused either on philosophy or performance practice) and music criticism had not been institutionalised yet, Pepys could also be missing role models on which he could model his own writings. This would mean that modes of writing or speaking about performances might not have been as differentiated as in the case of literature.

Table 3: Vocabulary used for specific evaluations of the ‘performance’ (excerpts from accounts of those theatre experiences that include music only: Pepys, Diary, various vols.)





specific level

  • made the loveliest lady
  • giving us fresh reason never to think enough of Betterton
  • Knipp does the Widow well
  • Nelly, a most pretty woman, who acted the great part, Coelia, today very fine, and did it pretty well
  • finely Acted by Becke Marshall
  • sings a little song admirably
  • pretty to hear Knipp sing in the play very properly, All night I Weep, and sung it admirably
  • that we might hear the French Eunuch sing; which we did, to our great content
  • But such action and singing I could never have imagined to have heard
  • but that that pleased me most in the play is the first song that Knipp sings (she singing three or four); and indeed, it was very finely sung
  • the best variety of dancing and music that ever I saw
  • great variety of dances, and those most excellently done
  • In the dance, the Tall Devil’s actions was very pretty
  • Miss’ dancing in a shepherd’s clothes did please us mightily
  • I was pleased to see Knipp dance among the milkmaids
  • a most admirable dance at the end, of the ladies in a Military manner, which indeed did please me mightily
  • a good martial dance of pike-men, where Harris and another do handle their pikes in a dance to admiration
  • doth it rather better in all respects, for person, voice and judgment
  • ill acted to what it was heretofore in Clun’s time and when Lacy could dance
  • this being infinitely beyond the other
  • being most pleased to see the little girl dance in boy’s apparel, she having very fine legs; only, bends in the hams as I perceive all women do
  • there is no comparison between Nell’s dancing the other day at the King’s house in boy’s clothes and this, this being infinitely beyond the other
  • with much disorder
  • the acting not much worse, because I expected as bad as could: and I was not much mistaken, for it was so
  • But his part is done by Beeston, who is fain to read it out of a book all the while, and thereby spoils the part and almost the play, it being one of the best parts in it
  • fell out of key
  • [he] was so much out

Another observation that is evident in Table 3 is that for singing and dancing Pepys mixes in more personal statements about his preference – for example, he is ‘pleased’ to hear someone sing. While all of his evaluations are of course subjective, they are usually at least presented in a more objective manner; but, at this point his individual reaction starts to shine through.

Musical material unfortunately is not evaluated in detail. This, too, is not specific to the theatre context. Apart from these most frequently occurring subcategories, Pepys occasionally also evaluates actors’ or actresses’ outer appearance; he shows appreciation for painted scenery employed on stage and very rarely judges the architecture of the theatre, referring to the latter mostly when seating arrangements impair his view and/or the acoustics. His evaluations remain mostly constant over multiple viewings of the play, especially if he liked the experience from the beginning.56 Another discovery is that in the case of multiple viewings different things seem to become noteworthy to him. He does not usually mention things – apart from the type A judgements – twice.

Micro perspective: how music affected Pepys

On a micro level, the differences between quotes from either end of the diary mark changes in the way Pepys describes his listening experiences. While Pepys remains constant in his evaluation practice by stating preferences, rather than identifying and judging characteristics of music, in later years he increasingly adds details about emotional effects to his descriptions; for example, on 27 February 1668 Pepys writes:

[A]nd thence with my wife and Deb to the King’s House to see Virgin Martyr, the first time it hath been acted a great while, and it is mighty pleasant; not that the play is worth much, but it is finely Acted by Becke Marshall; but that which did please me beyond anything in the whole world was the wind-musique when the Angell comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me; and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home and at home, I was able to think of anything, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any music hath that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me.57

This quote on its own shows Pepys’ modular strategy of experience reconstruction in action: he starts with the frame constituted by venue (‘King’s House’, that is Theatre Royal in Bridges Street) and play (‘Virgin Martyr’), and expands the latter with details about the play’s performance history (‘first time it hath been acted a great while’), and the former with naming his companions (his wife and her maid). He goes on giving type A judgements of the ‘play’ and the acting (‘not that the play is worth much’; ‘it is mighty pleasant’). And then he continues with two type B evaluations, giving a little more detail on the ‘acting’ (‘it is finely Acted by Becke Marshall’) and culminating in the emphatic evaluation of the musical performance, describing how deeply and especially physically it affected him. Beyond naming the type of music (‘wind-musique’) and the visual description of the moment of its experience (‘when the Angell comes down’), he focuses on its effects. One could argue that ‘sweet’ is an auditory characteristic, but that is the only one tentatively going in that direction. The rest of the description is completely focused on the way it affected his mind and body.

But that quote is particular in two further ways: for one thing, it describes instrumental music that seemingly was not performed on stage, but could be linked to the supernatural being, the angel, coming from above. Instrumental music is usually something Pepys does not notice unless it is part of the plot and thus linked to a performer or intended target on stage, the visual link between action and sound being a determining factor.

Despite numerous plays including supernatural beings, Pepys rarely mentions them and an explanation for his curiously empathic exclamation about the physical effects might be due to the link to the supernatural whose power is transferred via the visual onto the acoustic and thus could explain the extreme reaction.58

In any case, lingering effects and strong physical reactions are rare in Pepys descriptions and occur only in the latter part of the diary. There are not enough of these quotes to constitute with certainty a change in writing strategy with regard to music, but its particularity stands out nonetheless.


So far, the analysis of Pepys’ diary from three different vantage points has shown that music listening cannot be easily extracted or separated from descriptions of theatre-related experiences. Pepys does not write about incidental music, but rather about music within the drama only. He focuses heavily on songs and dances that were mostly performed by actors visible to him during the experience. Thus, the music Pepys describes is, in most cases, an integral part of the theatrical performance. The sparseness with which Pepys includes music in his entries supports this, taking into account that the material limitations of the diary format required everything recorded to cross a certain threshold of exceptionality and importance first in order to warrant its incorporation into the account as part of the experience.

The possibility that Pepys perceived music as something extra rather than integral to the play, which the data represented in Figure 2 initially suggested (because diary entries including music in the theatre context on average are longer than those not referring to music), has been countered by the analysis of his systematic approach (see Figure 3). For each theatrical experience Pepys meticulously sets up a frame which is continued by evaluations. To enrich his report, he chooses from a set of categories (including play, music and performance, that is, acting, singing and dancing), all of which represent parts of the experience but are only mentioned if they are deemed indispensable for the definition of the experience as a whole. Therefore, the fact that Pepys’ accounts including music are longer could have another cause. One explanation might be that the length is a representation of his uncertainty, his ignorance with regard to common ideals of composition and sound. Commenting on his personal preferences and on the impact music had on him might be his way of hiding the fact. He does not reflect on why he considers it necessary to judge individual parts of his experience, including music. The evaluation of music he experiences is also not limited to the theatre context, which could mean that this habit was a defining component of Pepys’ music listening practice on a broader scale.

A closer analysis of vocabulary used to evaluate several different categories relating to performative action challenges the idea that music might be perceived separately from the play even further, because Pepys does not discriminate between individual categories. Instead, he uses the same vocabulary for them all on the general evaluative level. Furthermore, the analysis showed that Pepys employs two different types of evaluation, the difference between them pertaining to their level of specificity. While more elaborated judgements of the material basis for the performance remained brief, but became more distinct and precise, judgements of performative categories like acting, singing and dancing in contrast remained rather unspecific. Pepys added to them only circumstantial facts. The analysis thus has shown that during the 1660s at least Pepys’ verbalisation strategies differ in the cases of literature and performance. This difference could stem either from his ignorance with regard to respective contemporary discourses, that is from not knowing what to evaluate in more detail and how to describe it, or it could stem from differing natures of writing and speaking about both categories. In any case, Pepys’ evaluations of performance and music remain simple.

It is unfortunate that Pepys discontinued his diary in 1669. It would have been interesting to compare his descriptions of listening at the theatre with experiences he probably had at the first commercial concerts in the 1670s, to find out how his perception of music, and maybe even the strategy used to describe it, had developed by then.

Select bibliography

Avery, Emmett L. ‘The Restoration audience’, Philological Quarterly 45, pp. 54–61, 1966.

García, Javier Ortiz. ‘Restoration audience in England. A supporting approach’, The Grove: Working Papers on English Studies 5, pp. 103–115, 1998.

Lewcock, Dawn. ‘Converse with the audience in Restoration theatre’, Participations. Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 3, no. 1, 2006,, accessed 13 March 2017.

Lowerre, Kathryn. Music and Musicians on the London Stage, 1695–1705. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.

Major, Philip (ed.). Thomas Killigrew and the Seventeenth-Century English Stage. New Perspectives. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.

Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. A New and Complete Transcription, 11 vols., ed. by Robert Latham and William Matthews. London: Bell & Hyman, 1970–1983.

Price, Curtis. Music in the Restoration Theatre, with a Catalogue of Instrumental Music in the Plays 1665–1713. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1979.

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Eighteenth-century musical listeners as revealed in the papers of James Harris

Donald Burrows

Donald Burrows is an Emeritus Professor of Music at The Open University, Milton Keynes (UK), a Vice-President of the Händelgesellschaft, and Chairman of The Handel Institute. His books include the Master Musicians biography of Handel, and Handel and the English Chapel Royal, which has been recognised as the first full-scale study of Handel’s English church music. His published editions of Handel’s music include the oratorios Messiah, Samson and Belshazzar, the operas Imeneo and Ariodante, the complete violin sonatas and the suite for two harpsichords. Subjects of other publications include concert life in Britain and the music of Edward Elgar; subjects of recent articles have been Sir Malcolm Sargent and an introduction to the history of Bedford Choral Society.


James Harris (1709–80) was an author of philosophical books about the interpretation of language. He was based at the family home in Salisbury until 1761, when he was elected as a Member of Parliament and thereafter divided his time between Salisbury and London. He was also an active amateur musician, as co-director of Salisbury’s Musical Society and a harpsichord player who encouraged the musical talents of his family. During visits to London in the 1730s he attended Handel’s performances, and his correspondence with the 4th Earl of Shaftesbury includes some of the most well-informed descriptions of their experiences. Particularly valuable, also, is the record of the concerts that Harris and his family attended (and sometimes presented) during the 1760s and 1770s, mostly private events for which there is no public record. A summary of these concerts is presented in an analytical table, as an Appendix to this chapter.


James Harris (1709–80) came from a family of lawyers and land-agents, whose main family residence was in Salisbury Cathedral Close. He was known for his publications as a philosopher (as understood at the time); his most famous work, Hermes, received a somewhat controversial reception in England, but was influential in Germany during the second half of the eighteenth century.59 His life has two main phases: following undergraduate study at Oxford University (without proceeding to a degree) he was resident in Salisbury until 1761, when he was elected Member of Parliament for Christchurch (Hants.); thereafter he divided his years between Salisbury and London, moving to the latter with his family for the periods of the Parliamentary sittings. His son James followed a diplomatic career, serving in Madrid, Berlin and St Petersburg, receiving a knighthood in 1779 and created Earl of Malmesbury in 1800. Fortunately, the family archives have been carefully preserved by his successors and are now deposited at the Hampshire Record Office. They first came to my attention on account of an important collection of manuscript copies of Handel’s music and references to the composer in letters that were known from published extracts; further research revealed a rich collection of material on musical (as well as political and domestic) matters. With the generous co-operation of the sixth and seventh Earls of Malmesbury, Rosemary Dunhill and I were able to survey the archive for references to theatre and music during Harris’s lifetime, which came to publication in 2002.60

Music was a major interest of the elder James Harris, and the Malmesbury papers provide much evidence, mainly from letters and diaries, of his activity as both a listener and a participant. He gave domestic concerts in Salisbury and in London; in Salisbury he was co-director of the Musical Society and the annual St Cecilia Festival. Salisbury music-making involved performers from elsewhere – from Oxford and Bath for the fortnightly Society meetings, and from London for the festivals;61 the Harris papers provide invaluable material about the arrangements with performers and also incidentally about music-making in other places, including Durham and Hertford. Although his son had little interest in music, his daughters performed; his younger daughter Louisa in particular took the matter seriously, learning the harp and seeking singing lessons from the Italian opera stars (castrati) in London. In the last phase of his life Harris was appointed Secretary to Queen Charlotte and his diaries, as well as including reports of the royal family’s concerts, record an occasion when he played music by Handel on the harpsichord to King George III.62 Partly as a result of the employment of leading performers from London for the Salisbury Festival, Harris developed social relationships with professional musicians. Fanny Burney recorded that at a London concert in 1775:

We met Mr and Miss Louisa Harris there & while we were talking with them, most of the Performers in the Concert came up to them. They addressed us, & entered into conversation with the Harris’s, who seem never so pleased as when Engaged with the most eminent Singers & players.63

For the Salisbury Festival in 1773, the visiting musicians received hospitality from the Harris household, an occasion engagingly described by Elizabeth Harris (James’s wife):

Our orchestra was chiefly Germans save one Spaniard nam’d Ximenes, two Italians Grassi and Storace. They all lik’d our table; we had them three days and … your father was enabled to give them variety of good wines, to which the Germans shew’d no dislike. Fischer [oboe player] was so pleasd with your Tinto di Rota that I fear’d his head might have been disorder’d but that was my ignorance, for both him and [J. C.] Bach have heads as strong again as our squires. I must do them justice to say never people behav’d better.64

Listening experiences described in the Harris papers

Diaries and correspondence of this period typically reveal little about the reaction of listeners to the music they heard. More frequently it is social details of performances that are recorded, such as comments on the venue and the audience, and names of performers. While evaluations of performers are sometimes found, only rarely do the sources convey reactions to the music that was played and sung. However, one document among the Malmesbury papers clearly stands out from the rest for the detail that it contains about the musical experience. A letter from the Earl of Shaftesbury to James Harris on 18 January 1737, following his attendance at the first night of a Handel opera at Covent Garden theatre includes:

I was at Arminius last Saturday where I had the pleasure to meet many of our musical friends. Sir Wyndham Knatchbull was of the number & I think looks very well. Mr Handel has a much larger orquestre (I know not how to spell that word) than last year & the loss of Castrucio [violinist/leader] is abundantly supplied by Martini [oboe player] who plays immediately above Clegg where Castrucio us’d to sit. The overture is a very fine one & the fuge I think as far as I can tell at once hearing not unlike to that in Admetus; it (the overture) ends with a minuet strain. The first song is a duet between Annibali [castrato singer] & Strada [soprano] & is but short, but like the whole piece in every respect excellent & vastly pleasing.

To tell you my real opinion of Annibali I found him widely different from the idea I had conceiv’d of him but it was on the right side that I was mistaken for he prodigiously surpass’d my expectations. His voice it must be confess’d is not so good as some we have had; the lower noates of it are very weak & he has not the melowness of Senesino (nor as far as I can guess) the compass, but the middle part of it is clear strong & manly & very tunable. It must be owing to the songs in Porus being too low for him that my Couzin Hooper could imagine he sung out of tune, for though I did not hear him I will venture to contradict it, as he is by far a greater master of musick than any man I ever heard sing on a stage. He is as exact in his time as Caporali [cellist] who plays the base, though he sings with the greatest ease imaginable & his closes are superiour to them all (but Strada); he comes to them in the most natural rational way, always keeps within the air & scarce ever makes two alike throughout the opera. One is never in any pain about him, he enters so thoroughly into what he is about both as to action as well as the song. His action indeed is incomparable & he sings with all the passion his voice will admitt. – Upon the whole he pleases me the best of any singer I ever heard without exception.

I need but mention Strada’s name, you know her excellencies. She has a charming part. As for Conti [castrato singer] he sings I think better than last year in that he keeps more within his voice. Martini has a solo upon the hautboy with only Conti singing to it. Indeed Martini exerts himself mightily through the whole opera. Beard has but two, though two too many, songs for he is absolutely good for nothing: Bertolli’s & Negri’s songs are pleasing firm compositions & they perform them extremely well. The base has but one song.

The opera is rather grave[,] but correct & labour’d to the highest degree & is a favourite one with Handel. The bases & accompaniment if possible is better than usual. But I fear ’twill not be acted very long. The Town dont much admire it. But as my father says ‘Harmony is Harmony though all the world turn Goths’, & I add, or fine gentlemen. This delightfull peice of musick will come out by the middle of next month at the same price to subscribers as Atalanta was & under Mr Handel’s inspection. I am afraid I have tired you already but I cannot leave this agreable subject without repeating my commendations of the opera: I think there is rather more variety & spirit in it than in any of the preceeding ones & tis admirably perform’d. There is a life & vigour in Annibali I am sure you will like. ‘Experto credite quo turbine torqueat hastam?’65 may be applicable to him with regard to the vigour of his action. … Most people (not Sir Wyndham, Mr Jennens &c) are of a quite different opinion as to Annibali &c from myself but when you come you will determine it.66

This account reveals much about the listening skills and overall musical abilities of both the author and the recipient of the letter. Although there is little evidence that Shaftesbury was a practicing musician, he clearly had the experience, aural awareness and vocabulary to communicate his experience. At this stage Harris and Shaftesbury were young men for whom music was a topic of discussion; Harris sent drafts of his ‘Discourse on music, painting and poetry’ for Shaftesbury’s comments.67 Regrettably, little subsequent correspondence at this level survives from later years.

The context for listening in Harris’s London

Undoubtedly Shaftesbury was one of the most articulate members of the London opera audience in 1737, and it is rare to have an insight of this quality into a listening experience. The nature and quality of the experiences among the audience as a whole remain something of a puzzle. Some idea of the membership of the eighteenth-century London audience can be gained from the subscription lists to published music. It is possible to imagine the relevance of the lists for publications of keyboard suites; technically the music might be challenging, but there would have been some point to placing the music on the harpsichord for the purchaser’s family to attempt, and the practical function of the published collections of two-stave arrangements of arias (for which there were no subscription lists) can similarly be understood. More curious are the subscription lists for full-score publications of music from Handel’s operas and oratorios, with entries of names sometimes running to three figures. A handful of the names are of executant musicians or musical societies, but most are not. Even after vanity purchases (for personal libraries) and patronage (particularly to support the composer in difficult times) are taken into account, the puzzle remains: how did the purchasers understand or ‘use’ the musical notation printed in these expensive books, and how did they relate to the performances that they attended?

Beyond the rare records of musical experience, the Harris papers have some vivid reports of the circumstances in which listening took place, as for example Elizabeth Harris’s description of a high-profile benefit concert in March 1779:

Louisa and I last night were in [the] most desagreable croud I ever yett was in, at the Freemasons Hall. We went merely on principal to do creditt to Miss Harrupps benefitt: I not only admire her as one of the finest singers, but her behaviour is so decent and unaffected, that she ought to be encourag’d. There were a thousand people in the room, and by what I heard four hundred in the tea rooms, and two hundred sent away. Amidst this numerous meeting I saw very few people I had ever seen before. Such quarrelling among footmen and coachmen that it was impossible to gett away; it is a tavern with a long passage that was crouded by swearing footmen. The great room swarm’d with pick pockets; my neighbour Cox lost a fine gold snuff box, and many others had their different losses. The concert ended between ten and eleven, but it was one before we could gett away. We walk’d some way to the coach; no danger of pick pocketts in the street, they were all in the Freemasons Hall. There were fellows that cutt ladies pockets but we escap’d, though I was much alarm’d with the idea of having my pocket cutt, for fear they might cutt too deep. Never will I sett my foot again in Freemasons Hall. We never felt so happy as when we were clear of the coaches at the end of Long Acre. Miss Benson was if possible more alarm’d and fatigu’d than I was. We gott Mr Greenwood, and Mr Fulham by way of philanders, and brought them home in the coach with us.68

Clearly, in such a busy environment the listening experience was far removed from the ordered concert experience of modern audiences.

Other sections of this letter provide insights into the circumstances of private concerts of the period in London:

Tis said Miss Townshend was married to Mr Wilson at a fruit shop [unlicensed registry] in Town. … That this man should gett admitted a subscriber to our most vertuous concert you will be astonish’d at: our great Lady and Governess clears herself by saying he came recommended by Mr Agar. Assoon as Wilson’s character was known she most strictly desir’d all the young ladies not to speak to him; he will be expell’d as will Mr Agar.

Louisa has been greatly occupied in disposing of subscriptions for Rauzzini and Lamotte’s concert [series]; she will raise them near two hundred guineas. It begins this evening.

The private concerts are also referred to in one of Elizabeth’s letters from the previous year:

We never had so many private engagements as this year, so consequently we see little of the public diversions, except some times an opera. …

Lamotte and Rauzzini’s concert will begin Friday. I think they will have a good subscription, if all the books fill like Louisa’s[;] she wants only four to make up a hundred. Those we hope to gett before Friday. The Duchess of Ancaster has a tolerable book, so has Lady Clarges, but Louisa has the greatest number. The Duchess of Chandos, Lady Craven, are gone [out] of Town so their books will be very small if any at all.

We had some music here last Thursday. Miss Bulls sung duetts finely, Lamotte playd delightfull, Louisa & Rauzzini sung vastly well, though he had a cold, and she was in the rheumatism.69

More often, however, the Harris family’s activity in London concert-going is only recorded through brief references, such as these entries in James Harris’s diaries:

[1775] Paid Kemmeil his concert subscription for myself, wife and Louisa £9. 09. 0

Add Mr Ewer’s half subscription to Bach £2. 12. 6

Wednesday March 17 [1779] Went to the House [of Commons] – came home early – went to Bach’s concert;

Friday [19 March 1779] Went in the evening to our concert at Mrs Bohun’s, & thence to Lady Arundel’s assembly.70

As a record of listening experiences, most of the references are rather frustrating. They describe occasions and locations, and in diminishing quantity may note the names of the persons present and the performers (particularly if virtuosic or domineering), though rarely naming any of the music performed and virtually never providing any Shaftesbury-like appreciation of the quality or content of the music.71 As usual, there seems to be an inextricable mixture of musical and social motives involved in attendance, and there are complaints when the balance between them impaired the musical experience, as on one occasion in February 1779:

You should have a journal of our past actions, since last Tuesday. Wednesday we went to Baron Alvesleven’s. By the way that concert is much improv’d; there I left Louisa under Mrs Morrisons wing, and went myself to the Fields. … Friday was the Shab Rab, never was any thing so very shocking as [the way that] Kammell and the others accompanied Louisa’s song. The opera being that night … the best hands were oblig’d to be there, and a most sad concert we had. … Last night we were at a concert at Lady Neuhavens, moderate enough as to music, but the crime of company who talk’d all the time, but when ladies were singing; they were Lady Cranborn, Lady Margaret Fordyce, Miss Graham, and Louisa.72

The last phrase is a reminder that both professional and amateur performers were involved with the private concerts; indeed, they gave the ‘ladies’ a forum for musical performance that would not have been socially acceptable at public events.

Given competent leading performers and good management, the private concerts seem to have run quite successfully, in particular those concert series that were under the management of performers. Some of these met in regular venues, though not concert rooms, and some apparently rotated round the houses of a consortium of hosts. Occasions that passed without incident also passed without comment, but that was not always the case. Elizabeth anticipated trouble in February 1775:

We are going this evening to Lady Mary Forbes, where Louisa’s harp is invited. That said harp is much in fashion. Saturday she exhibited at Sir Charles Cocks’s, and Louisa and Gertrude sung duets, with great applause. I have no great expectation of much this evening, knowing the vivacity of the lady of the house to be too great, to attend herself, or lett any body else attend.73

Indeed her instinct was correct:

Lett me see, – I will recount our adventures from Teusday, when we attended the wildest meeting I ever assisted at before, at Lady Mary Forbes. It was design’d for a concert, one fiddle & a harpsicord composing the band; the good Lady herself, together with her green hat & candle screen, the strangest figure I ever saw, calling aloud for chorus’s with one voice, trios without a bass & the like impossibilitys. Madame Deiden on the harpsicord & Louisa on the harp were the only reasonable performance’s; the company was good, & were contented to spend four hours hearing this extraordinary concert. Wednesday we went to Bachs [concert] and Friday was kept in the usual way.74

On one occasion, also, Louisa Harris rescued a concert that was threatened by the unreliability of the principal performer:

We were all ask’d Sunday last to Lady Galways, to hear Tessier sing and play on the harp. We assembled soon after eight; a number of people of the highest fashion in Town were there. The harp was plac’d in the corner of the room and Tessier appear’d, but said he could not sing and went away imediately. There were performers enough for the purpose, and they made out something of a concert. Louisa went away in Sir Ralph Payne’s coach, to fetch two songs, and Lady Stormont sung. Mrs Sheridan sung four songs, a finer voice was never heard [but] the learned say she has been ill taught. We are ask’d again next Sunday to Lady Galways, when Tessier has promis’d to read, but he is such a puppy, I have no confidence in him.75

Performances in London attended by the Harris family

The Appendix lists the concerts attended by members of the Harris family in London from 1761 to 1780, derived from references in the Harris papers, principally family correspondence (especially between Elizabeth Harris and her son) and James Harris’s engagement diaries.76 The list inevitably gives an incomplete record on account of the uneven nature of the sources: family correspondence varied in frequency and content, and complete runs of James’s diaries survive only from the years 1770– 01 and 1775–79. Attention is also restricted to concerts, to the exclusion of other musical events such as operas and plays with incidental music; the annual concerts in support of the Fund for Decay’d Musicians (which took place in the opera house, and were based around the current opera singers) are included, but opera performances for the benefit of individual singers are not, since they were part of the annual opera programme.

Given the caveat about capricious survival of sources, the record nevertheless gives a good general idea of the family’s concert-going activity. In the case of public concerts (listed in the Appendix under A1 and A2), the references in the Harris papers can be matched up with advertisements in the London newspapers and other contemporary sources. It seems that, as their social activity in London developed, the Harris family attended all of the known major concert series (A1), in particular those of Bach/Abel and Rauzini/Lamotte, and indeed Louisa Harris was involved with gathering subscribers for the latter. In principle the family seem to have attended all the concerts that they could, taking family tickets (mainly for three people) for the regular series. When no attendance is recorded, this is usually for good reasons: the family’s arrival in London from Salisbury was delayed, James Harris’s activity was limited by gout or late sittings at the House of Commons, other family illness was involved, or there was a clash with some other event.

In the case of the individual public concerts (A2) the record shows that they attended most of London’s principal venues. Even allowing for the uneven survival of documentation, there appears to have been a change in 1775, with a big expansion in attendance at benefit concerts, supplemented by regular attendance at the Concerts of Antient Music. It is not clear whether this reflects a change in the range of concert activity available to Londoners, or a change in the family’s social programme. As to the occurrences of the events themselves, the Harris references generally confirm what is available from advertisements, which occasionally also give some details of the music to be performed. Only a couple of occasions are not matched from other sources, and even in these cases there is the possibility of some accidental misinformation, such as an incorrect date in a diary entry.

The private concerts (B), however, are a different matter. There were usually no public advertisements for these concerts and so the Harris papers provide important, sometimes unique, information; many of the concerts which are calendared there are otherwise undocumented. The references provide virtually no detailed or specific information about the programmes performed, but the entries give the date and time of day for the events, sometimes the names of people present and sometimes the names of performers. In some cases the fact of a concert series (B1) can be reconstructed by putting together successive references on the same day of the week or by a casual hint in correspondence. In view of this necessarily speculative element of reconstruction, B1 concentrates on series that apparently ran for several seasons. Some of these are already known from other sources, as for example Baron Alvensleben’s concerts. Even there, however, the Harris papers reveal a situation that illuminates the actions of the ‘listeners’: the Baron’s concerts on Wednesdays involved a clash with the Bach/Abel series, and James Harris had to attend them alternately.

Rather intriguing is one series of concerts that is referred to regularly but somewhat obliquely – as, for example, ‘our private concerts’. It appears that there were usually ten concerts per year in this series, hosted in turn in different people’s houses, running in a period through January to March. (This was also the usual season for public concert series.) They were probably managed, at least in the early years, by the violinist Antonin Kammell. Elizabeth Harris commented, half protestingly but also half smugly, that the tickets were not transferable. This was obviously a very exclusive social operation with mainly professional performers, though Louisa Harris also regularly took part.

The other private concerts (B2) were more miscellaneous, but there seem to be some patterns. Hosts fixed on regular times: Sir William Young on Sunday evenings in 1770, Mr Ward on Tuesday evenings in 1772 and Sir Charles Cocks (a Harris relative) on Saturday mornings, involving some overlapping with Mrs Chetwynd’s concerts at the same time. In this area there are some problems of definition – between concerts and assemblies, between professional and amateur participants – but exclusiveness by invitation was clearly of the essence. The Harrises made occasional excursions to the concerts by the Sharp family in Old Jewry, and their account of the first visit suggests some trepidation: the ‘Concert Spirituel’ programme was unusual and the venue was away from the comfort zone of the West End.

For some concerts there is evidence of only one or two events, from family (or extended-family) occasions. By far the best documented of these are the concerts given by James Harris himself at his successive London homes. For two concerts his daughter Gertrude listed the audience – 63 names in 1764 and 89 names in 1765.77 At that stage Harris was relatively new to London and had rising political prospects, so his concerts probably contributed to making his mark in society. Later his concerts seem to have been designed to give opportunities for Louisa and her friends to perform. Since Louisa was being taught by Italians, it is not surprising that the programmes included works by Pergolesi, Sacchini and Quirino Gasparini, but the repertory around settings of the Miserere and the Stabat Mater did not sit easily with the potential audience, as Elizabeth Harris noted in 1775:

Your father and I went Wednesday to the oratorio in the Haymarket[;] your sisters are too refin’d for old Handel. We were greatly entertain’d. Never was a finer band, the instrumental parts and the chorus’s went as well as in the days of Handel. I do not say much of the voices, though my country men Corfe, and Parry did their parts well.

Yesterday morning we had a different kind of music, viz Sacchinis Miserere which was rehearsd in this room. The voices were Rauzzini (the first opera man), Savoye, Passini, a base, and Louisa. Tis undoubtedly the finest composition imaginable and tis impossible it can be better sung. The great distress of Louisa and Mr Harris is to find out people worthy to hear it, nor can they make out more than five or six among all their acquaintance. We have thought of the Bench of Bishops, some of the Judges, and some Roman Catholics, but the Bishops though they must look grave like things more lively, the Judges are gone the Circuit, and the Papishes have enough of the penitential at this season. This day se’night is fixt for the grand performance. These said musical sett all din’d here yesterday after the Miserere and very entertaining they were; after we came up they play’d and sung a great deal.78

However, things turned out well enough, as Harris recorded in his diary:

March 17 [1775] A fine concert at my house – the Miserere of Sacchini performed by Rauzzini, Savoi, Passini, my daughter Louisa & Webb – the fortepiano playd by Sacchini, the violoncello by Cirri. After it was finished, each of the 3 principal singers (Rauzzini, Savoi & Passini the tenor) sung to the harpsicord – before they sung their songs, we had a glee of Webbs [sung] by himself, Corfe, Mrs Blosset, Miss Holford, & my daughter – and another glee to conclude the whole. My room was filled with the best company – the singers dined with me. Went in the evening to Mrs Pitt’s concert.79

The rise of the glee is one of the musical trends which is revealed by the reports of the Harris concerts, and it is interesting that (in this context) there was no convention of all-male performers.

Although the evidence needs to be interpreted with caution, the Harris papers seem to record a growth in the area of private concerts in London, particularly during the 1770s. This was not without its effect on other musical activities. In particular, the occurrence of regular concerts on Wednesdays and Fridays conflicted with the established nights for oratorio performances in the London theatres during the same period; although James Harris had been an enthusiast for Handel’s own performances in the 1730s and 1740s, he was rarely seen at the oratorios in the later period. Some aspects of the balances between various factors in the concerts (social/musical, public/private, amateur/professional) are difficult to determine, but my suspicion is that a change in social attitudes had been at work, towards more rigidity in social definitions and exclusions, than had been the case in the first half of the eighteenth century. This may, however, be a reflection simply of an extension in the range and nature of London’s musical performances, and even of a shift in the nature of Harris’s social circle.80


In many ways the reports on musical events that are found in the archive of James Harris’s papers are typical of the sources from the period. They provide considerable information about the contexts for listening: details of the venues, names of performers and names of members of the audience. There are occasional observations about, and evaluations of, the performers. Personal reactions to what was heard are rare, but the descriptions are extremely valuable on those occasions when the writer is providing an extended report to a like-minded correspondent, rather than simply noting an event in a diary or journal. Most valuable of all, however, is the detailed record that the Harris papers provide of where and when music could be heard in London during the 1760s and 1770s, particularly with regard to private concerts for which we inevitably have no record from contemporary advertisements. The Harris family obviously attended all the musical events that they could during the periods that they lived in London, and they moved in a social circle where a large proportion of the available musical experience was provided by privately-hosted concerts in domestic venues. Their listening experience often involved several musical events in the same week, at the theatres, concert rooms and private houses.


Select bibliography

Burrows, Donald and Dunhill, Rosemary. Music and Theatre in Handel’s World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Burrows, Donald. ‘Pomegranates and oranges: Jamas Harris’s philosophy and Handel’s music’, Händel-Jahrbuch, 63 Jg., 2017, pp. 35–47.

McVeigh, Simon. Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Wollenberg, Susan and McVeigh, Simon (eds). Concert Life in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.

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London’s art music and provincial listeners in England c.1700–1850

David Rowland

David Rowland is Director of Postgraduate Studies, Professor of Music at The Open University and Principal Investigator for the Listening Experience Database (LED) project. He is the author of three books and numerous chapters and articles on the performance history of the piano and early keyboard instruments. More recently, he edited the first scholarly edition of Clementi’s correspondence, which provided the impetus for a much broader investigation of the London music trade during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, on which he has published extensively. David is also a performer on early keyboard instruments and Director of Music at Christ’s College, Cambridge.


London dominated the English musical scene from 1700 to 1850, but provincial listeners were increasingly able to sample what the capital had to offer by hearing travelling musicians and by visiting the capital themselves. For most of the period provincial audiences were drawn from the wealthy ranks of society, but towards the middle of the nineteenth century initiatives were taken which opened the concert experience to lower-income listeners.

How did audiences listen? A growing literature suggests that towards the middle of the nineteenth century a new, intense model of listening came to the fore, in contrast to the more casual experience of the eighteenth century. In reality, however, there appears to have been a variety of listening modes in operation at any one time, depending on the context of the musical experience and the individual listener.

What many provincial listening accounts have in common is their description of a gulf in standards between performances by London musicians and their provincial counterparts. The opportunity to hear performers from the capital therefore provided provincial listeners with a distinctive experience.


From 1750 to 1850 London’s musical life flourished. Underpinning the city’s success were highly favourable economic and social conditions.81 The British economy had expanded steadily for some years and continued to grow more or less consistently in spite of the problems of war. During the period Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person increased by about 25%, exports grew and the richest 5% in society grew disproportionately wealthier. London was where many of these wealthy individuals were based and between 1700 and 1850 the capital’s population quadrupled; in 1851 it numbered 2,362,000, not far short of 15% of the population of England. With such a broad and affluent base of support, it is hardly surprising that London’s musical life flourished.

Evidence for the pre-eminence of London within the musical life of the country is found in the activities of its vibrant and extensive concert life, its opera houses, theatres and pleasure gardens. Some of the earliest of Britain’s most important musical institutions were founded there, such as the Philharmonic Society (1813) and the Royal Academy of Music (1822). Music publishing and musical instrument making were centred on London and the capital was the first port of call for most visiting musicians from the continent. The city was effectively the home of the British music profession. As Ehrlich noted, ‘by far the greatest number of [British] mid-eighteenth-century musicians, perhaps some 1500, were based in London. Apart from the university cities, no provincial centre, except Dublin, Bath, and, for a brief period, Edinburgh, could provide regular employment for more than a score of full-time practitioners; and even their complements never exceeded fifty’.82 Although provincial English centres became increasingly important, there was little change in London’s position as the main centre for music-making throughout the period.

How did London’s art-music culture spread to the English provinces and what was its impact outside of the capital? In this chapter we will consider how that culture was taken to audiences in the provinces, first by describing the mechanics by which that culture was disseminated, and then by considering how listeners reacted when they experienced it at first hand.

London’s music and the provinces

Musicians often left London for the provinces during the summer months, when the so-called ‘London season’ ended. The ‘London season’ was a well-known feature of social life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.83 It encompassed the colder parts of the year during which the aristocracy and some of the wealthier middle classes were in the capital. When the season was over they dispersed to their country homes. The dates of this annual rhythm were not fixed, but London’s concerts generally ran from around October to May, or a little later, and as temperatures increased the pleasure gardens provided entertainment. The important moment in this annual rhythm when London society emptied into the countryside is captured in a letter dated 25 July 1800, in which Charles Burney expresses his frustration to Longman, Clementi & Co. that the subscribers he had organised to Haydn’s Creation were ‘on the swing’ and would be out of the capital ‘in a few days’,84 causing him expense and trouble in delivering their copies of the work.

Wealthier society members who left the capital for their country estates in the summer months sometimes invited musicians to visit them to provide entertainment. For example, Handel visited the Salisbury home of James Harris in 1739.85 W. T. Parke’s Memoirs record a visit of the pianist Muzio Clementi and the cellist John Crosdill to Lord Pembroke’s estate at Wilton near Salisbury in 1796, where the musicians played at the request of the company.86 In 1791 Haydn went to stay with the banker Nathaniel Brassey, who had a country house in Hertfordshire.87 At the beginning of August 1794 he went to Bath with the flautist Ashe and the singing teacher and composer Cimador. They stayed at the home of the musician Rauzzini, going to Bristol afterwards, and then on to visit Lord Abingdon.88 The musician Sir George Smart was a favourite of the aristocracy and upper middle classes.89 Occasions on which he provided musical entertainment to the royal household included several visits to Weymouth in the two decades after 1804 and a number of visits to Brighton in the 1820s and 1830s. These seaside towns had become popular with the royals after Princess Amelia stayed in Weymouth in 1798 and after the Prince Regent (later King George IV) visited Brighton in 1783. Because of their royal connections these towns attracted others from London society who required musical entertainment. Smart also made visits into the country to other well-established figures, such as the piano maker James Broadwood, in 1811, at his country home near Worthing.90 Of course, most visits such as these by London musicians to the provinces were essentially private affairs; they had little impact on anyone outside the close circle of the patrons who invited them, although the presence of the royal family tended to be a magnet for other society members, so that the places they visited saw a growth in public entertainment.

Touring musicians from the capital were heard by wider public audiences in the provinces chiefly, but not exclusively, in the summer months. They took advantage of the opportunities presented by a developing provincial concert culture and the emergence of the festivals that were to be such an important feature of the musical life of the nation in the long nineteenth century.91

Concert-giving in Britain arose out of the new entrepreneurial spirit that developed from the second half of the seventeenth century. The idea of selling performances to a fee-paying audience emerged in 1670s London and then spread to the provinces, where the first concerts were established by 1700.92 These early provincial concerts generally took place in cathedral cities such as Gloucester, Hereford, Norwich, Salisbury, Wells, Worcester and York, and the role and enthusiasm of the local clergy were often crucial to their development. Some concerts were grouped into series, which were paid for by subscription and typically held every fortnight or so, but others were advertised as one-off events. At first, venues varied from a room in the local inn to the local church or cathedral, but assembly rooms also became an increasing feature of musical and social life during the latter part of the eighteenth century. Concert halls were built in increasing numbers towards the end of our period.

In the eighteenth century the musicians who played in concerts were usually a mix of the local gentry and professional musicians such as those employed by the church or, from towards the end of the eighteenth century, those employed as militia bandsmen. These professionals often played multiple instruments, strengthening the ensemble where necessary, and from time to time they were joined by visitors from London who took the role of soloist, or who led the orchestra, or various sections of it, for special occasions. In the course of the nineteenth century the number of professional musicians outside London increased rapidly, as did the numbers of London musicians who toured.

Touring musicians from London began to take part in provincial concerts and festivals not long after the events themselves became established. The musicians typically planned their visits to coincide with special summer events such as race week, or the visits of the assizes courts, when potential concert audiences were at their largest. Early examples of touring musicians include Charles and Nathaniel Love, evidently from London, who gave concerts in Sunderland and Newcastle in 1733.93 In the same year the Gloucester Journal reported that the Steward of the Festival ‘had collected, out of London, the first performers both vocal and instrumental’.94 London-based musicians who visited Norwich in the 1740s were the instrumentalists Andrea Caporale (1741) and Nicolò Pasquali (1741, 1743), along with the singers Filippo Palma (1742) and Leonardo Pescatore (1746–47).95 On 23 June 1746 Signora Avoglio, who had accompanied Handel to Dublin in 1741, was the main attraction at a concert in Salisbury96 and in 1751 the singer Galli, the violinist Giardini and the cellist Beneke played in concerts at York during race week.97 More rarely, musicians toured at other times of the year, such as the London horn player Mr Charles, who visited Stamford, York, Dublin, Bristol, Worcester, Hereford, Gloucester, Salisbury, Bath and Newcastle, mostly in the winter months between 1741 and 1754.98

Festivals provided opportunities for some of the largest provincial audiences to hear London musicians. Beginning in the second decade of the eighteenth century with the three-choirs event, and possibly around the same time in Salisbury, festivals grew throughout the eighteenth century in number and ambition.99 They typically took place in July, August, September and October, and lasted for two, three or, later, four days. Some towns and cities were able to support annual festivals, at least for a few consecutive years, but others opted for a more manageable three-year cycle, or a more irregular pattern. By the second half of the eighteenth century festivals were taking place, not only in the major cathedral cities, but also in smaller market towns such as Ashby de la Zouch, Framlingham, Knaresborough, in towns and villages of Lancashire and the west of Yorkshire, and in some of the developing industrial centres such as Birmingham and Sheffield. Following a lull during the Napoleonic Wars they gained momentum again from the 1820s. Frequently, a London musician would take responsibility for booking a number of professional colleagues from the capital.

Other special events that attracted groups of London musicians were the celebrations sometimes comprising one or more performances that accompanied the inauguration of new organs. On 10 August 1793, for example, the Norfolk Chronicle noted that:

Mr. SHARP … received a Letter from Messrs. Longman and Broderip, saying, they should send down Master FIELD, to Play a Concerto on the Grand Piano Forte, at the Evening Concert, who, tho’ only TEN YEARS of Age, is said to be as celebrated a Performer on that Instrument as any now in London.

A similarly grand opening of a new organ in Bury St Edmunds took place on 19 September 1826. The London violinist Franz Cramer led the orchestra and Robert Lindley played the cello, accompanying singers from the capital.100

Aside from festivals and concerts, many towns witnessed musical theatre performances which sometimes involved performers from London. Purpose-built theatre buildings became established in many towns from the middle of the eighteenth century, prior to which visiting troupes performed in inns or other temporary spaces.

An important factor in the support and development of touring, whether for concerts, festivals or other events, was the country’s transport infrastructure. At the beginning of our period the road network was in need of significant improvement, although the passing of the Turnpike Act in 1707 had ensured that a framework for development was in place. As the century progressed the pace of change quickened and the quality of the new turnpike roads increased both reliability and journey times; between the middle and end of the eighteenth century there was a three-fold increase in average stagecoach speeds.101

Increasingly good transport facilities and growing opportunities for audiences in some of the fast-developing industrial towns of the period inevitably led to more and more opportunities for London’s musicians to travel outside of the capital. While in the middle of the eighteenth century musicians may have visited a small number of provincial towns or cities on an occasional basis, by 1800 many were making regular visits around the country. George Smart noted in passing that in 1801 ‘I paid professional visits to Bristol, Bath and Trowbridge, and spent part of the summer on a tour through Hastings, Dover, Maidstone, etc’.102 Smart’s contemporary, the double-bass player Domenico Dragonetti, took particular advantage of the possibilities that touring offered. From the 1790s onwards he performed in Bath, Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Cheltenham Spa, Chester, Derby, Dublin, Edinburgh, Exeter, Gloucester, Hereford, Hull, Leeds, Leamington Spa, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Oxford, Reading, Shrewsbury, Southampton, Wakefield, Winchester, Worcester and York.103

London musicians increasingly found that they could put together a tour of several festivals in a row, but organisers were rightly fearful that over-full schedules would jeopardise the success of their events. In 1824 the Norwich Festival was directed by George Smart and the opening week began with heavy rain:

This gave rise to no little apprehension, which was increased by the late termination of the Worcester meeting, and the consequent difficulties in which several of the principal performers were placed. One or two arrived in Norwich on the Monday afternoon, but at the final rehearsal, which occupied the whole of the day, there were still several absentees.104

Touring reached new heights in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Within the course of a few months in 1831 Niccolò Paganini performed a total of 65 concerts in Ireland, Scotland and England.105 A similarly extravagant tour was undertaken a decade later by Liszt. By Liszt’s time the railway network, which expanded rapidly in the 1830s and 1840s, made parts of the journey faster and more reliable, although many legs of the tour were still undertaken by road. From the point of view of listening history these tours were significant, because they marked a change in audience experience; Paganini wrote to his friend Germi that ‘nowadays people do not ask each other whether they have heard Paganini, but whether they have seen him’.106

Provincial gentlemen and musicians in London

Visits of London musicians to the provinces were only one way in which the capital’s musical culture spread throughout the country, because many of those who were not ordinarily London residents visited the city from time to time, taking back to their home towns and cities their experience of musical performances, as well as some of the repertoire that they heard. Many of those visitors to London were the sons of wealthy families who were known among the city’s residents because they were related to them, or because they knew them through another network such as having been fellow students at one of the country’s historic universities – a particularly important means by which relationships were built and maintained among gentlemen.

Edward Finch (1663–1738) was the fifth surviving son of the first Earl of Nottingham, the Lord Chancellor, who studied at Christ’s College, Cambridge and became a prebendary of York Minster.107 Finch was a keen amateur musician who spent much of his life in Yorkshire, but who frequently visited London and knew many of the most prominent musicians of his day, from whom he seems to have received lessons. John Courtney (1737–1806) was the son of a senior administrator in the East India Trading Company. His father became Governor of Surat, but spent his later years in Yorkshire. Courtney, a student at Trinity College, Cambridge and another keen amateur musician, travelled widely to towns and cities where London musicians often performed and he spent time in the capital, where he attended musical events. Thomas Twining (1735–1804) was the grandson of the founder of the tea and coffee business that bears the family name. He declined to work for the company and instead attended Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and then went into the church, working in three parishes in Essex. There were many more like Finch, Courtney and Twining, but these are singled out as examples of well-connected gentlemen who had a keen interest in music.

It was not only country gentlemen who made visits to London; many musicians who spent most of their time in the provinces were either trained in London, employed there for short periods, or visited on occasion. Traffic also flowed in the opposite direction; some musicians who were normally employed in London spent short periods of their professional lives in the provinces.

Edward Miller (1735–1807) started life in Norwich, was taught by Charles Burney, spent time in London, but settled in Doncaster, where he took up a post as an organist. He retained his London connections and was later unsuccessfully recommended to the post of Master of the King’s Music. 108 Charles Avison (1709–1795) was born in Newcastle, spent time in London and returned to an organist’s post in his home town. Michael Sharp (1750/1–1800), an oboist who played in Covent Garden and in other London venues, visited Norwich as a soloist and then led the theatre orchestra in Norwich in 1783/4.109 The Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral sent their singing men to London for their ‘improvement’ in the early eighteenth century, as did the Corporation of Newcastle later in the century.110

Taking all this evidence together we may safely conclude that there were multiple means by which provincial listeners could become acquainted with London’s music and musicians in the period c.1700–1850. At first, opportunities to hear the capital’s music were limited, but as infrastructure developed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it became increasingly common for London’s performers and repertoire to be heard around the country, both in private and in public; the latter became particularly important as concerts and festivals became more frequent. But how uniform was the picture across the country and who, exactly, had the opportunity to interact with London’s musical culture?

Provincial musical development, ‘hotspots’ and listeners

The trajectory of musical development was not uniformly upwards in every town or city. Some who had enjoyed the presence of visiting musicians in one decade might be starved of their presence for years afterwards, because the local infrastructure that supported provincial music-making was fragile. Festivals came and went because of the risk or war, political uncertainty at home or some other reason, as Pritchard notes:

Even well-established meetings were not immune from the change which was sweeping the country. The failure of the long-continued festivals at Salisbury, Ashby de la Zouch and Manchester in 1789, 1790 and 1793 respectively, and the falling receipts and possible collapse of the Three Choirs meeting in the 1790s underlined the fact that ‘… the minds of men were agitated to an unexampled degree by the opening scenes in the political world, which soon left them but little leisure to cultivate the peaceful delights arising from choral music …’111

Concert series thrived or waned according to local enthusiasm. For example, a local newspaper reported something approaching a musical famine prior to the visit of a number of London performers for the inauguration of a new organ in 1826:

It is now above twenty years since a performance of music on an extended scale has been attempted in the town of Bury … It is true that, in the long space which has elapsed, the cultivation of music has been widely extended [in Britain]; but we question whether Bury has felt the influence of that extension to any considerable degree. At all events, there has been no communication of harmony between its inhabitants; no society of amateurs – we doubt if even a Glee Club has ever attained any sort of ‘form or combination’.112

But amid the rise and fall of local musical fortunes it is still possible to identify significant ‘hotspots’, where London’s art-music culture could usually be experienced regularly. The old cathedral cities were particularly important and it was to these that the wealthiest in society gravitated for their concerts and festivals, and where London’s musicians were most likely to be found in the eighteenth century. The university towns of Oxford and Cambridge were also major provincial destinations for London musicians, as were spa towns and seaside resorts, particularly from the latter part of the century. As urban growth became a major factor in the nineteenth century, new opportunities presented themselves in the rapidly-growing industrial areas.

The extent of the musical activities in ‘hotspots’ was reflected in the presence of the music trade – instrument makers, music shops, booksellers who sold music, and engravers. In York, for example, which acted as a hub for musical activity in the region, there were more than a dozen music sellers, music printers and musical instrument makers during the eighteenth century.113 In stark contrast were some of the major industrial cities, where there was little evidence of the music trade prior to 1800. Despite Manchester’s rapid growth in the late eighteenth century and the formation of its ‘Gentleman’s Concert’ in 1777, the extent of its pre-1800 music trade appears to be one early eighteenth-century bookseller who also sold music, a single music shop which functioned in the 1780s and 1790s, and two instrument makers.114 Strikingly, the population of York was much smaller than that of Manchester at the 1801 census, so it was not simply size that prompted musical activity, but rather the presence of the right sort of people.

So who listened to art music in the ‘hotspots’? The answer is relatively simple; throughout most of the period it was predominantly the gentry and the aristocracy. Concert fees and entrance tickets for performances in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were well above anything that could be afforded by the lower orders and the subscription system, when it was in operation, ensured that only a certain class of listener attended. And aside from festival gatherings, which were usually numbered in the hundreds and included attenders from several miles around, audiences for local concerts were often small – the numbers of the performers and the audience on some occasions were roughly equal and concerts often seem to have been given as much for the pleasure of the performers as for the audience.115 Since private performances took place in the homes of the wealthy, their audiences were selected by the patrons.

It is well-documented that the profile of audiences began to change in the nineteenth century.116 Elite events continued, but from c.1830 a number of ventures were established which enabled the poorer in society to encounter art music of various kinds. These events ranged from choral concerts to promenade events, at which the admission charge was within the financial reach of audiences who had not previously been able to attend these sorts of events. Many of these initiatives were developed in London, but the idea of opening musical events to wider audiences rapidly spread to the provinces.

An early attempt to broaden the composition of audiences outside of London was reported on 28 March 1835 in the Norwich Mercury, which commented on an ultimately unsuccessful ‘attempt to establish an elegant and intellectual entertainment upon a scale and at a rate of admission which should open them to the numbers of the people’. The concerts seem to have been organised by a similar group to that which organised the Norwich Festival, with significant input from C. H. Mueller, who previously played in the Haymarket Theatre Orchestra.117 However, although these concerts probably attracted some of the local artisans, the one-shilling ‘cheap’ tickets would still have been beyond the reach of most of the labouring classes. In the 1840s the flamboyant conductor Jullien conducted populist concerts for which a similar entrance fee was charged. He put on events in London, but then toured the provinces with his promenade concerts. Cheap concerts were also given in Birmingham and Leeds.118 With all of these concerts, however, the low-price tickets remained too expensive for most of the lowest-paid, whose disposable incomes generally enabled attendance only at events costing a few pence. In the next decade Hallé put on mass concerts in Manchester as part of the Art Treasures Exhibition, following initiatives such as the performances of Manchester’s Mechanics’ Institution to attract lower-paid listeners to musical events.119 Further cheap series occurred in Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Oldham, Sheffield and probably many other places.120 Hallé’s aim was to make music available to a wide audience and he commented that ‘thousands and thousands of people from the northern counties there heard a symphony for the first time, and it was interesting to watch how the appreciation of such works grew keener and keener almost with every week’.121 His claims may have been exaggerated, but the venture nevertheless seems to have attracted a wider audience than attended many previous events.

Although these ventures attempted to bring music to a wider audience, for most of our period art music was listened to by an elite audience. Among that audience were some for whom listening to musicians from London was commonplace, but there were also many for whom any opportunity of experiencing London’s musical culture remained a special event, perhaps not duplicated on more than an annual basis, if that. These are important factors in interpreting the reaction of listeners and the way in which they record their listening experiences, as we will see. In addition, the wider context of audience behaviour also determined the nature and extent of the information that they recorded in their diaries, correspondence and other documents.

Listening practice

In the first half of the nineteenth century there was a general trend away from a concert environment in which audience members might arrive and leave during performances, move around, talk to each other and comment on the performance, towards a model more closely representing our present-day audiences, who sit in silence, sometimes in semi-darkness, engaging in what James Johnson has termed ‘absorbed listening’.122 From this shift in audience habits some have drawn the conclusion that eighteenth-century audiences did not really listen at all, a position dismissed by William Weber, who argues that:

music was more closely linked to other social activities than is true at least in classical-music contexts today. But that does not necessarily mean that people did not, or could not, listen to the music or take it seriously … The discovery that not everyone was absorbed in listening at every moment seems disturbing to us, given the idealistic aesthetic that defines our approach to musical experience. But this should not lure us into thinking that one could not listen in the earlier period, or, indeed, that people in general did not.123

How general the nineteenth-century change was in the listening environment is not yet clear; the studies that discuss the subject have concentrated on the wealthy, fee-paying audiences at public concerts and operas in capital cities, rather than a more comprehensive set of listening environments. But it has at least been shown that many who attended these sorts of events in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries behaved differently from their later counterparts. From their own accounts we learn that their preoccupations tended to include the surroundings, other audience members, organisational and other matters; descriptions of the music or its performance are often surprisingly rare by comparison.

John Courtney of Beverley in Yorkshire illustrates the point. As described above, he was a gentleman musician who attended many concerts in his home town, noting them in his private diaries, the musical references of which have been transcribed recently by Christopher Roberts.124 Two typical entries describing musical events in Courtney’s home town of Beverley are as follows:

29 March 1759: ‘This evening Mr Enter had his concert at assembly room, where was a very splendid show of ladies and gentlemen, and a very agreeable ball. There were about 100 people at the concert ‘tis imagined’.

8 January 1761: ‘This evening had a little concert at our house. Ten performers vizt: First fiddle – Mr Smith; Second Fiddles – Master Raguenaue, Master E Raguenau, Mr Enter; German Flutes – Mr Feanside, Mr Cox, Mr Tong; Violoncello – Mr De Montet; Harpsichord, Thor Bass – J. Courtney; Voice – Mr Raines. My uncle and Mr Pearson and Mr Groves drank tea with us’.

These brief extracts resemble many other diary entries by John Courtney and his contemporaries; they say nothing about the music, or the way in which listeners responded to it, concentrating on details of context instead. Typically, in accounts such as these, mention is made of the venue, the promoter, the extent and composition of the audience, the type of event (whether a concert, a ball, a theatre performance, or something else) and the details of the performers (names, instruments and voices, but little else). That Courtney enjoyed these events is not in question; he went frequently and sometimes performed at them. Presumably because they were a fundamental part of the social fabric of life in Beverley he chose to record the social aspects of the experiences. We cannot tell to what extent he enjoyed them as musical experiences.

Outside of the tightly-knit community of Beverley, however, Courtney was much more inclined to record details of the music and performances, often making evaluative remarks about both. For example, on 21 April 1762 Courtney attended a concert in London:

I was at the oratorio of Judas Maccabeus (Frazi’s Benefit) at the Great Room in Dean Street Soho, twas very grand but the Messiah is finer, Frazi, Miss Young, Beard and Champness, etc, etc, sung; and Stanley played a concerto on the organ; very fine.

A week later he was at Ranelagh Gardens: ‘Heard Miss Brent sing – fine voice and manner – Miss Thomas, Signor Tenducci, and Mr Hudson sang very well’. Do these more musically-oriented accounts suggest that Courtney listened differently when he was outside of the orbit of his familiar Beverley surroundings, hearing musicians from the capital? We cannot be sure, but there are several reasons why this may have been so. It could be that the repertoire he heard away from Beverley particularly attracted his attention, whereas the local concerts repeated works that he knew well already; the evidence of some local music societies suggests that they repeated an ageing repertoire, rather than engaging in more recent music. Or perhaps the familiarity of Beverley’s social environment meant that the ‘company’ was more interesting than the music. Maybe the standard of the Beverley performances was sufficiently low (see below) that his attention strayed elsewhere. But perhaps there was no real difference in the quality of Courtney’s listening experience when he was away from home; rather, in the absence of his wider Beverley associates, he chose to concentrate on the music when he wrote his diary.

Performance standards

All of the above may have been true for Courtney, but one of the suggested factors – the higher standard of London musicians’ performances – is a common refrain in sources of the period, suggesting that performances by these musicians would have been more eagerly anticipated and more carefully observed than the routine local equivalents. An early example is found in a report of the Gloucester Festival of 1733, which noted that ‘the performances were the best that had ever been known’, as a result of the presence of London musicians.125 A report on the Newcastle Festival of 1791, directed by John Ashley, who brought with him several musicians from London, similarly reported that ‘the performances have been so infinitely superior to whatever we have witnessed here, that the audience, enraptured by the heavenly sounds, seemed lost in admiration and astonishment.126 The 1815 Halifax Festival, also organised by the Ashley family and including several musicians from London, was described in the press as ‘a feast of harmony beyond any musical treat before given in this country’.127 On 25 October 1834 the Norwich Mercury reported on a performance in the city of Haydn’s Creation eight days previously, noting that ‘the music went very creditably to a provincial hand, for accompaniment so difficult as Haydn’s is rarely encountered by instrumentalists unaided by the musicians of the metropolis’ (p. 3).

But Norwich performances had not always been so good. The clergyman John Edmund Cox, born in 1812 and brought up in the city, included in his Recollections accounts of the relatively poor standard of performances in his home town. His remarks include accounts of concerts there around 1820, where the works of Corelli, Haydn and Mozart:

were practised weekly by amateurs in a private concert-room, with two first and second violins, one viola, one violoncello, and a double-bass – the violoncello being scraped by an ambitious plasterer, with such an absence of tone and taste as would have made dear old Bob Lindley’s hair stand on end; and the double bass rasped at a frightful rate by an eccentric clergyman, with so small an idea of the nature of a nuance, that it would have made Dragonetti swear, ‘She! Dirty blackguard!’ The wind instruments were of the like proportion as to number and quality …128

Similarly, in 1841 the singer John Barnett wrote to Dragonetti from Cheltenham:

I should very much like to come to London for a few days to shake you by the hand, & to hear an orchestra … here, there is not the ghost of a Band, nor the least approach to musical feeling.129

When Charles Hallé encountered the very well-funded orchestra of the Gentleman’s Concert in Manchester in the late 1840s his reaction was:

The orchestra! oh, the orchestra! I was fresh from the ‘Concerts du Conservatoire’, from Hector Berlioz’s orchestra, and I seriously thought of packing up and leaving Manchester, so that I might not have to endure a second of these wretched performances130

At the end of the year 1849 the conductorship of the ‘Gentleman’s Concerts’ was offered to me, and I accepted it on the condition that the band should be dismissed and its reorganisation left entirely in my hands.131

Looking back over his life in 1872 John Edmund Cox provided a historical perspective when he addressed the gulf in standards that often existed between London and the provinces:

Where fifty years ago executants [in the provinces] could be numbered scarcely by tens, they may now be computed by thousands. Nor does the metropolis alone supply the best-instructed musicians of the day. Time was when the oratorios of Handel and Haydn could not be given in any of the country cities or provincial towns, not even in the “grand’ – as they were called – “triennial meetings of Birmingham, York and Norwich’ without aid being had from the London Ancient Concerts, the Lenten oratorios held in Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatres and the Opera House, for leading “the attack,’ and keeping the local choristers together … Such is no longer the case.132

In light of these comments it is perhaps no wonder that John Courtney tended to comment more specifically on the music and its performance when it included London musicians. But the qualities of the music and the musicians may not have been the only factors that contributed to the impact music had on him outside of Beverley. In a number of accounts from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it is also clear that the splendour of the surroundings – typically cathedrals – also made a significant impression. The clergyman James Woodford, who lived a few miles outside of Norwich, recorded in his diary for 2 August 1792 a description of a performance of music from Handel’s oratorios, including London musicians in the city’s cathedral; it is ‘not only delightful but seemed heavenly and gave us Ideas of divine Musick.’133 And at rehearsal for an annual charity concert in the same cathedral during Assizes Week around 1820 two London trumpeters (Harper and Hyde) performed:

the first notes of whose instruments, as they echoed through the vaulted roof of that sacred building at the rehearsal of Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum, caused not only the boys, but the whole orchestra and the few strangers who were admitted, to stare at them in astonishment. The band on the instant stopped.134

Performances such as these were doubly noteworthy because of the quality of the musicians and the splendour of the surroundings.135 Such a combination would have been relatively rare for many provincial listeners – perhaps a once-every-year experience, or rarer still, for many of them.

Thomas Twining’s listening experiences

The kind of listening that we have been considering gives a lie to the notion that eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century audiences did not really listen at public musical events. They clearly did, even if it was, for some of them, only on special occasions when the best musicians were heard in splendid surroundings. But it was not only at big public events that music was capable of making a deep impression on provincial listeners in the period. One individual who was deeply affected when he encountered the best that the capital’s culture could offer in a domestic setting was Thomas Twining, referred to above. Although Twining experienced music on a fairly regular basis in and around Colchester, he only occasionally travelled to London, or had other opportunities to listen to the country’s finest musicians. When he did so the result was often intense and his accounts provide strong evidence against those who imagine that ‘absorbed listening’ did not occur prior to the nineteenth century. On 24 February 1780 Twining wrote to his friend John Hey expressing his reaction to hearing Sarah Harrop in London, who was shortly to be married to Joah Bates, the conductor of the Concerts of Ancient Music:

… we dined with Bates one day, & heard Miss Harrop sing from tea-time till ten o’clock … One of the greatest musical treats I ever had. I had, as Sir Hugh Evans says, “great dispositions to cry”; nay, the tears actually came out … She sung Pergolesi, Leo, Hasse — things I know, & that nobody sings. It gave me some faint idea of meeting one’s departed friends in Heaven.136

The intensity of this London experience was part of a larger picture for Twining. Being starved of high-level culture at home in Essex made him hungry to experience the best the capital could offer, as he had explained to his friend Charles Jenner eleven years earlier. On 20 February 1769 Twining wrote to Jenner:

I fully intended writing to you from the great city; but you know what a place the great city is; especially to a man who comes & stays there, staring with his mouth open, for five weeks only, once in two years. On one rainy morning I actually sat down to write to you, but was interrupted before I had finish’d the first sentence: & had I not been, I never cou’d have gone on, with such an unsettled dissipated brain, full of [the singer] Lovattini, & [the actor] Garrick, & [the opera composer] Picini, & [the artist] Reynolds, &c., vibrating, & quivering like a jelly.137

Changing performance styles

Aside from the issues of the quality of listeners’ experiences and the impact of London’s musicians heard in impressive surroundings, the period’s literature sometimes comments on the way in which London musical fashions were received around the country. It is clear that repertoire could travel very quickly, but how in touch with London performance styles were provincial listeners? An answer to this question would be an extensive study in itself, and only a small amount of evidence can be presented here.

One of the most noticeable shifts in performance styles that became noticeable at larger musical events, especially festivals, concerned singing. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, London audiences had become accustomed to a new, more powerful delivery, especially in opera (and, of course, it was London’s operatic singers who travelled to the provinces in the summer months).138 Provincial audiences took positions on the issue. The bass singer Henry Phillips was engaged to sing in the Messiah in Huddersfield Parish Church in the mid-1820s. Having discussed the general trend towards more powerful singing that was becoming normal in London in an earlier part of his Recollections, he included an account of the audience’s reaction to his own performance. His comments not only speak of the preferences of some of the amateur Yorkshire choral singers who took part in the performance, but judging by the language in which the account is couched they also provide rare evidence of lower-class listening experiences:

when the morning arrived for the performance of ‘The Messiah’, all eyes and ears were fixed on me, and I believe I sang my solos steadily and well, no stop being made till after the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, when some twenty minutes were allowed, during which time the chorus and orchestra assembled in the church-yard, discussing the merits of the performance. Observing a group of sturdy, robust men in one corner of the yard, and fancying they were, from their appearance, bass singers, and talking about me, I sidled up near them unobserved, and found I was correct; one saying to the other, – “What dost think o’ this chap Phillips?’ The general response to which was – “Noute!!’ “Why, he beant but oth lad”, said one. “And haven’t power loike,’ said another.139

The opera composer John Barnett, who had previously worked in London, found an entirely different attitude in Cheltenham. He wrote to Dragonetti in 1841, complaining of the town’s conservative taste, commenting that ‘singing must be soft and lady-like, no energy, no passion[,] these are vulgar & the Master who attempts to bring them out, is dismissed.’140 Evidently singing styles were a subject of debate, at least in some places.


In such a short space it is impossible to give anything like a full account of the impact of London’s art-music culture on listening in the provinces. However, what may be said in general terms is that those who encountered this culture were generally of the higher social classes and that the extent to which they engaged with it depended on their proximity to provincial musical ‘hotspots’ and the extent to which they were able to travel. Some provincial listeners not only heard the capital’s musicians relatively frequently in those ‘hotspots’, but also when the listeners themselves spent time in London. Others were relatively starved of opportunities, living in parts of the country usually bypassed by London’s musicians. As the period progressed and the country’s transport infrastructure developed, there can be no doubt that many more provincial listeners were able to experience the best that London had to offer and by the middle of the nineteenth century a number of promotors had taken it upon themselves to engage a much wider public in hearing the best musicians in the land.

What is clear from many listening sources of the period is the gulf in standards that very often existed between the standard of performance achieved by London’s musicians and those in the provinces; this is probably to be expected, because provincial music-making depended to such a large extent on amateur musicians, who were seldom to be compared with their professional counterparts. By the middle of the nineteenth century the gulf was narrowing, but it still existed in many, if not most, places.

Listening experiences of all sorts are recorded by provincial listeners, from listening as part of the social fabric of a community to much more intense experiences. They depended on many factors, including the social context, the physical environment, the quality of performances and the frequency with which listeners heard the best musicians. The variety of listening experiences that existed has not previously been recognised adequately and its existence prompts a re-evaluation of listening cultures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Select bibliography

Bashford, Christina. ‘Learning to listen: audiences for chamber music in early-Victorian London’, Journal of Victorian culture 4/1 (1999), pp. 25–51.

Chevill, Elizabeth. ‘Music societies and musical life in old foundation cathedral cities 1700–1760’, PhD dissertation, King’s College, London, 1993.

Drummond, Pippa. The Provincial Music Festival in England, 1784–1914. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.

Fawcett, Trevor. Music in Eighteenth-Century Norwich and Norfolk. Norwich: University of East Anglia, 1979.

Gick, Rachel C. ‘Concert life in Manchester, 1800–40’, PhD dissertation, University of Manchester, 2003.

Holman, Peter and Cowgill, Rachel (eds). Music in the British Provinces, 1690–1914. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.

Johnson, James H. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley, London: University of California Press, 1995.

McVeigh, Simon. Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Pritchard, Brian W. ‘The music festival and the choral society in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth century’, PhD dissertation, University of Birmingham, 1968.

Pritchard, Brian W. ‘The provincial festivals of the Ashley family’, The Galpin Society Journal, vol. 22, pp. 58–77, 1969.

Roberts, Christopher. ‘Music and society in eighteenth-century Yorkshire’, PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2014.

Russell, Dave. Popular Music in England, 1840–1914. Guildford and King’s Lynn: Biddles Ltd., 2/1997.

Southey, Roz. Music-Making in North-East England During the Eighteenth Century. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

Weber, William. ‘Did people listen in the 18th century?’, Early Music 25/4, pp. 678–691, 1997.

Weber, William. Music and the Middle Classes. The Social Structure of Concert Life in London, Paris and Vienna. London: Crook Helm, 1975.

Wollenberg, Susan and McVeigh, Simon (eds). Concert Life in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.

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