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Caught in the Act (1) : Young Thomas Arne goes to extreme lengths to conceal his musical talent from his family.
Caught in the Act
Part one

Abridged from ‘A general history of music, from the earliest ages to the present period (1789)’, by Charles Burney (1726-1814).

Thomas Arne (1710-1778) remains one of England’s greatest composers, though overshadowed now by his contemporary George Frideric Handel. He wrote the music for the National Anthem and ‘Rule Britannia!’ and composed dozens of popular songs and operas, but if his father had had his way, Thomas would have been a bored London attorney.

HIS love for Music operated upon him too powerfully, even while he was at Eton, for his own peace or that of his companions; for with a miserable cracked common-flute, he used to torment them night and day. When he left Eton he used to avail himself of the privilege of a servant, by borrowing a livery and going into the upper gallery of the opera, which was then appropriated to domestics.

At home he had contrived to secrete a spinet in his room, upon which, after muffling the strings with a handkerchief, he used to practise in the night while the rest of the family were asleep;* for had his father discovered how he spent his time, he would, probably, have thrown the instrument out of the window, if not the player.

This young votary of Apollo was at length obliged to serve a three years’ clerkship to the law;* but he contrived during his clerkship to acquire some instructions on the violin.

* A spinet is properly speaking a small harpsichord of broadly triangular shape. The design was intended to make it cheaper, quieter, and better suited to domestic spaces. In a harpsichord, the strings stretch directly away from the player; in a virginals, they run left-to-right; in a spinet, they run left-to-right and also away at an angle of about 30°, hence the triangular shape and the name ‘bentside spinet’.

* According to Greek mythology, Apollo was the musician among the gods, famous for his lyre. Apollo taught Orpheus to play so beautifully that he charmed his way through the Underworld. See Orpheus and Eurydice.

Abridged from ‘A general history of music, from the earliest ages to the present period (1789)’, by Charles Burney (1726-1814).

Minuet and Variations

Arne’s Keyboard Sonata No. 8 in G major is the last of a set of ‘sonatas or lessons’ for the harpsichord, published in 1756. It begins with a tuneful Minuet, not by Arne himself, which is followed by four Variations of increasing (but never extreme) difficulty, in which the left hand often crosses over the right. Arne uses the sonata to demonstrate figured bass, ornaments and improvisation. It is played here by Ewald Demeyere.

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Thomas Arne (1) Music and Musicians (35) Georgian Era (112)

Picture: © ruth and johnny, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0. View original
A spinet by Thomas Hitchcock & Sons, prolific makers of spinets for over a century, from about 1660 onwards. This one stands in Haddon hall in Derbyshire. Thomas Arne would not simply be practising scales and memorising music: he would also study harmony and improvisation, learning how to accompany singers and chamber music groups at sight. The most essential skill was reading ‘figured bass’, which provides one line of notes only, the lowest ones, and expects the rest to be invented on the spot with the help of a few numbers.
Music by Samuel Coleridge Taylor
Part Two
By Charles Burney

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