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Sir John Hawkins
A General History of the Science and Practice of Music

(London: T. Payne and Son, 1776)

Sir John Hawkins. A general history of the science and practice of music

John Hawkins (1719–1789) was a lawyer and magistrate who was knighted in 1772 for his services to the British judiciary. Also an amateur musician and poet, Hawkins is best known for his books, including A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, which was published in five large volumes in 1776 and dedicated to King George III. The General History was the first full-length history of music in English, but it did not hold a monopoly for long; the first volume of Charles Burney’s A General History of Music was published later the same year. The two historians were bitter rivals, and Burney gained the upper hand because of his more appealing prose style, his more modern taste, and his numerous friends in the press, who mocked the fustiness and pomposity of Hawkins. Many of the intellectual debates in the 18th century concerned the relative merits of the ancients (that is, the Greeks and Romans) and the moderns. Hawkins was nominally an advocate of the latter, but only in the broadest sense of the term; he disliked much of the music of his own time, and was more sympathetic than most of his contemporaries (including Burney) towards what we now call Renaissance and Baroque music.

Hawkins spent nearly two decades on the General History, conducting his research not only in major libraries such as those of the British Museum and Oxford University, but also in his impressive personal collection, much of which had formerly belonged to the composer Johann Christoph Pepusch (1667–1752). Today Pepusch is remembered chiefly for his role in the scandalously satirical The Beggar’s Opera, but he was the most historically erudite musician of his generation in England.

The book is liberally supplied with musical examples, diagrams, and illustrations. The image seen here depicts Guido of Arezzo, the 11th-century theorist who described a way of notating pitches by indicating them on the lines and spaces of a staff (more or less the system that has been used for the last thousand years) as well as a method for learning to sing melodies by associating the pitches with the syllables ut, re, mi, fa, and sol (the ancestor of the solfège still in use today). Hawkins identifies the Pope in this illustration as John XX, but in today’s prevailing papal enumeration, he is called John XIX.

Hawkins was also the author of a biography of his friend Samuel Johnson, but like the General History of the Science and Practice of Music, it was soon outshone by a more engagingly written book on the same subject: James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. It was Boswell who quoted Johnson’s famously disparaging remark about Hawkins’s less than congenial personality: “Sir John, sir, is a very unclubable man.”


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