Mar 26

[Anna Seward to Mrs Stokes, 26 March 1790.]


For my part, I acknowledge I feel no other real superiority but that which virtue and talents give.  Were Handel living, I should approach and address him with much more awe than any merely-good sort of body upon the throne of England.  People, who have themselves no intellectual superiorities, may be expected to contend for the idle claims of [398] accidental distinctions.  Chance may give them wealth enough to purchase titles, if they do not already possess them; but it is not in possibility to give them talents;[1]




[Mozart to Michael Puchberg, late March or early April 1790, Vienna]


Herewith, my dearest friend, I’m sending you the life of Handel. – When I got home after my last visit to see you, I found the enclosed [548] note from Baron Swieten. You’ll see from it, as I did, that my prospects are now better than ever. – I’m now standing on the very threshold of my own good fortune – but I’ll lose it for ever if I can’t take advantage of it this time. [...][2]




[review of Burney’s History, vols. III–IV.]


Some readers may think the criticisms on the operas rather tedious; but it was necessary to be full and particular.  We entirely agree with the author in the great superiority of Handel’s operas over all others of the same age, but it may justly be questioned whether either of them is really what the Italians understand by an opera: it is certain the Italians hate to perform his music.[3]




May 29

SATURDAY 29 MAY [1790].  I awaked sadly dejected and under such a fit of hypochondria as I had not experienced for a considerable time.  I despaired of doing any good myself, and timidly shrunk from the thought of little James being at Westminster School.  I however rose, and went in the coach with my guests and daughter and saw them into Westminster Abbey to be present at the Grand Music.

[editorial footnote:] The second day of the Handel Commemoration, devoted to the Messiah.  Temple and his party waited from eight in the morning to noon for the performance to begin.  Probably Boswell did not remain because he had vowed, after hearing the work in June 1784, not to efface that impression by listening to it ever again.[4]




Misfortunes of a Man who lives in a Musical Neighbourhood.

[… 358 …] [a gentleman of literary pursuits complains that] I have lately discovered that I am in the heart of a musical neighbourhood, and environed by instruments of music. […] Music would in my situation, be an interruption, whether I liked it or not; but the misfortune is, I am passionately fond of it; and as most of my neighbours, particularly the violinist and flute player, are really excellent ones; the first note they play is a signal for me to throw aside my own labour and listen to theirs. [...] Another mischief is, that the performers around me generally play for their own amusement, and without paying any attention to each other, so that often when I have a concerto of Handel’s before me, I have Poor Jack on the right hand, the Easter Hymn on the left, and the Grenadiers march behind me.  I have frequently the Early Horn salutes the Morn, at night, May day buds in August, and Nancy Dawson or Lango Lee after divine service on Sundays. [...] And when I am waked in the morning with God save the King, I proceed to breakfast to the Dead March in Saul, while Sweet Nan of Hampton Green assists me in putting on a clean shirt. [...]

Such is my unfortunate situation. [...] Indeed my family are now so infected with the neighbouring contagion. [...] the very rooms are washed to the Minuet in Ariadne, and the stairs scrubbed to the old hundredth psalm tune. [...]





Aug 29

[Anna Seward to Mrs Hayley, 29 August 1790.]


            A few days respite from violent oppression on my breath, induced me to venture one morning’s performance at Birmingham.  Perhaps a vaporish idea, that it might be the last time I should have an opportunity of hearing the sublime Messiah, increased the desire of this excursion.

            The thick air of Birmingham sat heavy on my lungs; but the dawn of a morning, fortunately cool, enabled me to enjoy the highest possible intellectual feast, with little alloy from corporal uneasiness.  The oratorio was finely performed, though I never can like to hear it opened by a woman, even when that woman is Mara.  The female tones want majesty for that solemn recitative.[6]










INSTANT the mortal stroke the warbler smote!

Eternal silence seals the tuneful throat!

Ah, NORRIS, thine! whom Albion heard so long

Pour in impressive tones the hallow’d song,

With all thy HANDEL’s glorious page inspires,

Pathos that melts, and energy that fires. [27]


    High o’er the numerous band we saw him late,

Saw choirs combin’d his graceful mandate wait;

And heard the too, too applicable lay

His drooping spirit’s mild complaint convey

Of that injurious, that ungrateful sound,

Which the shock’d ear with ruthless force could wound,

For that his trembling nerves, oppress’d with pain,

Whelm’d in resistless tears one tender strain.


    Oh, when that powerful voice, in peals of praise,

Led the loud chorus through the harmonic maze,

Breath’d the pathetic song, that on the breast

Religious awe, and contrite grief imprest,

How little we divin’d, who heard ere while

His full notes floating through the vaulted aisle,

That death’s dark clouds around the minstrel hung,

That the sweet Swan his own sad requiem sung![7]




Oct 27

[Anna Seward to Mrs Martin, 27 October 1790.]


            My health is considerably better since my excursion into Shropshire.  I ventured to one of the morning music festivals at Shrewsbury, and heard Mr Saville open the Messiah with a pathos, an energy, and a grace that none ever excelled, and which I never heard equalled.[8]




Nov 3

[Anna Seward to Mrs Roberts, 3 November 1790.]


            Yesterday morning, Sunday, Mr Inge preached in our choir, a sermon of great learning and ingenuity, composed on the arrival of our new and very fine organ.  The discourse was upon church-music, its pleasure and utility; it concluded with—”and in conviction of the benefit devotion receives from sacred music, let us say, Halelujah to the God Most High!—and again let us say Halelujah!”—Instantly, by previous appointment, and entirely unexpected by the audience, the organ poured in the grand chorus from the Messiah:

            “For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.”

Our glorious organ pealed along the aisles, and the choir put forth all her energies in the execution;—her minstrels sung with their heart and soul.  Surprised, affected, charmed—almost everybody wept with pleasure.  I wish you had been there.[9]




[“AMUSEMENTS, and PLACES worth a Stranger’s Notice, in LONDON.”]


            At the end of the month of May, there are three or four grand concerts of sacred music, from the compositions of Handal, in Westminster-abbey, where all the eminent performers in the kingdom play and sing, to the number of 700.  This is under the patronage of the King and Queen, who are present, and most of the nobility.  Admittance one guinea for each performance; the money given to charities.  On the rehearsal-days, the admittance is but half a guinea; and every thing is the same as on the other days, except that the Royal Family are not present, the company not so well dressed, and not so numerous.[10]




[...] Undoubtedly he [i.e. Nicholas Ferrar] was pre-eminent in his piety and acts of devotion, which seems to have given offence.  Yet in other instances, eminence in the virtuous exertions of the human faculties is attended with admiration, not censure.  Handell stands honourably distinguished for excellence in musical composition; Raphael for the superior grace of his pencil: Shakespear, Milton, and Cowper for eminence in poetic spirit: Lock, Newton, and Waring for peculiar excellence in their respective provinces of philosophic wisdom: why then, in the philosophy an practice of [254] Religion alone should peculiar eminence be stigmatized with sarcastic censure?[11]





    ‘Ay, gen’rous youth,’ said Adriano pleas’d,

‘’Tis noble to deserve the wise man’s praise.

‘Such is the man of honor.  Only he

‘Is great and hon’rable, who fears the breach

‘Of laws divine or human, and foregoes

‘E’en reputation rather than infringe

‘The christian’s duty.  ’Tis the devil’s art

‘To varnish folly, and give vice a mask [92]

‘To make her look like virtue.  Thus to fight,

‘To murder and be murder’d, tho’ the cause

‘Would hardly justify a moment’s wrath,

‘Is honor, glorious honor.  Vulgar eyes

‘Mistake the semblance, and the specious vice

‘Passes for sterling virtue.  But take heed,

‘Ingenuous youth, and let th’ impostor pass.

‘Scorn the applause of a misguided mob,

‘Despise their censures.  Can that ear be judge

‘Of the musician’s merit, whose base sense

‘Can scarce prefer immortal Handel’s notes

‘To the harsh brayings of a pester’d ass?

‘Can that eye judge of beauty and desert,

‘Which scarce distinguishes the sign-post daub

‘From the great painter, whose ingenious hand

‘Touches the canvass with a poet’s fire?

‘Then why permit them to prescribe the bounds

‘Of courage and of honor?  Be assur’d

‘The joint applause of twenty million such

‘Confers no dignity.  ’Tis nobler far [93]

‘To bear the lash of slander, and be stil’d

‘Scoundrel and coward with a mind at ease,

‘Sure to be honor’d by the great above,

‘Tho’ slighted by the little here.  Be first,

‘Ye men of place and fashion, on whose deeds

‘The vulgar eye for ever is intent

‘Their very garments modeling from you,

‘Be first to recommend a steady mind,

‘Serene and patient, by no wrongs provok’d

‘To thirst for blood.  An ornament it is

‘Shall give you greatness in an angel’s eyes,

‘Shall raise you all to thrones no pow’r can shake,

‘For ever honor’d and for ever lov’d.’





   “VII.  SYLPHS OF NICE EAR ! with beating wings you guide

The fine vibrations of the aerial tide;

Join in sweet cadences the measured words,

Or stretch and modulate the trembling cords.

You strung to melody the Grecian lyre,

Breathed the rapt song, and fan’d the thought of fire,

Or brought in combinations, deep and clear,

Immortal harmony to Handel’s ear.—






    If such the texture luxury has thrown

O’er scenes confin’d to ruder man alone,

What shall we find them when the gentler fair

Mix with the band and every pleasure share?—

[… 18 …]

The splendid theatre’s refulgent round,—

With pomp, with elegance, with beauty crown’d.—

Not that I mean whose homelier scenes invite

To tales of grief, of humour, of delight, [19]

Where SHAKESPEAR’s honied style enthralls the ear,

Wakes the loud laugh, or draws the heart-felt tear—


SHAKESPEAR! ador’d in these degenerate days,

To whom we hymns inscribe, and temples raise,

Worship his image, and neglect his plays.—

Ah! who the evening’s festal hours will quit

For scenes of tragic woe or comic wit?—

Scenes of a purer polish must engage

The loose attention of a courtly age;

Scenes where satiric point ne’er gives offence,

Or verse disturbs its placid stream with sense;

Where from HESPERIAN fields the eunuch train

Trill with soft voice the unimpassion’d strain,

In measur’d cadence while the dancers art

Wakes without words the feelings of the heart. [20]

Delightful joys! of universal power,

Suited to every taste and every hour,

Since the loose drama no connexion ties,

And all may judge who trust their ears and eyes.—

See in majestic swell yon festive dome,

Like the PANTHEON of imperial ROME,

And where as many fabled forms unite,

Visions of bliss or demons of affright.

Or, sought in vernal hours, that ampler space

Where beauty’s steps the eternal circle trace,

And midnight revelry delights her soul

With breezes redolent of tea and roll,

In fragrant steam while thro’ the crouded room

The ARABIAN berry yields its rich perfume, [21]

And ’mid the murmurs of the mingled throng

Unheeded music swells the slighted song;

Or, Lent’s delight, the ORATORIO dull,

Of yawning connoisseurs and coxcombs full;

When, plays profane deny’d, our ears explore

The pious freaks of ALEXANDER’s whore;

The rout repeated with incessant call,

The formal concert, and the mirthless ball.—

Say is this joy?—Yes, to the virgin’s heart

First stung by potent love’s resistless smart;

Who ’mid the empty croud of silken beaux

Her glance on one distinguish’d fav’rite throws;

Yes, to the insidious wretch whose guilty care

Hunts artless virtue into vice’s snare, [22]

Whose every thought and action is address’d

To wound a parent’s or a husband’s breast,

Or that more gross tho’ less pernicious tribe

Who venal beauty’s joyless favors bribe;

Yes, to the rural nymph of distant plains

Who three sweet months of charming LONDON gains;

Yes, to the youth escap’d from smoke and trade

To shew the western town his stol’n cockade:—

To these, where passion gently soothes the breast,

Or vice affords their joys a guilty zest;

Or novelty, fair pleasure’s youthful queen,

Gives fresh allurements to each splendid scene,

To these, in fancy’s varying mirror shown,

AMUSEMENT charms with beauties not its own.— [23]


Of these our joys how transient then the state,

Since still disgust must on possession wait!

Pleasure we all pursue with eager pace,

Yet lose the quarry when we lose the chace;

Thro’ fancy’s medium when our view we bend,

Ten thousand charms the ideal form attend;

Shewn plainly to our disappointed eyes

The enchantment breaks, and every beauty flies.—





[1] Letters of Anna Seward: written between the Years 1784 and 1807, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: A. Constable, 1811), 2:397–98.

[2] Mozart: A Life in Letters, ed. Cliff Eisen, trans. Stewart Spencer (London: Penguin, 2006), 547–48.

[3] The Critical Review 70 (July–December 1790): 627.

[4] James Boswell, Boswell: The Great Biographer: 1789–1795, edited by Marlies K. Danziger and Frank Brady (New York et al.: McGraw-Hill, 1989), 55.

[5] Walker’s Hibernial Magazine (1790): 357–58.

[6] Letters of Anna Seward: written between the Years 1784 and 1807, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: A. Constable, 1811), 3:33.

* [Scott:] He died September the 3d, 1790, the week after he had conducted the Musical Festival, at Birmingham.  He sung in the New Church in that town, “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart,” from the MESSIAH, with great feeling, after he had been treated with cruel disrespect by a part of his audience the preceding evening, who hissed, on a mistaken supposition that he was intoxicated, when they saw him so much oppressed by a song of parental woe, in JEPTHA, that he was unable to finish it.

[7] The Poetical Works of Anna Seward; with Extracts from her Literary Correspondence, edited by Walter Scott, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Co., 1810), 3:26–27.

[8] Letters of Anna Seward: written between the Years 1784 and 1807, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: A. Constable, 1811), 3:37.

[9] Letters of Anna Seward: written between the Years 1784 and 1807, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: A. Constable, 1811), 3:40.

[10] [John Trusler], The London Adviser and Guide: Containing every Instruction and Information useful and necessary to Persons living in London and coming to reside there; in order to enable them to enjoy Security and Tranquility, and conduct their Domestic Affairs with Prudence and Economy, second edition (London: the author, 1790), 174.

[11] P[eter]. Peckard, Memoirs of the Life of Mr. Nicholas Ferrar (Cambridge: J. Archdeacon, 1790), 253–54.

[12] [James Hurdis], Adriano; Or, The First of June, A Poem (London: J. Johnson, 1790), 91–93.

[13] [Erasmus Darwin], The Botanic Garden.  Part I.  Containing The Economy of Vegetation.  A Poem.  With Philosophical Notes, 2nd edition (London: J. Johnson, 1791; original edition, 1790), 181.

[14] Henry James Pye, Amusement.  A Poetical Essay (London: John Stockdale, 1790), 17–23.