In the 1820s Burney executed four large water-colour paintings satirising contemporary musical and social life: The Waltz (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), The Elegant Establishment for Young Ladies (Victoria and Albert Museum), Amateurs of Tye-Wig Music (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut) and The Glee Club; or, The Triumph of Music (Yale Center for British Art). Burney may have intended to publish prints of the paintings and to sell both originals and prints, in the manner of Hogarth's 'Progresses'. There was a substantial market for satirical prints during this period. The four pictures were, however, never published.

This is a version of the third-named painting, the only one, apparently, which Burney reworked as an oil painting. Its theme is the battle between 'modern' and 'traditional' taste in the music world. The modern is represented by references to Beethoven, Mozart and others in the foreground, while traditional taste is epitomised by Handel, whose bust looks down upon a group of musicians, appropriately dressed, who are playing (discordantly) music by his great contemporary Arcangelo Corelli. The concert takes place in a room whose decorations are predominantly Gothick in style, a further indication of the revival of ancient tastes. Burney includes many apparent and traditional amusing details such as the howling dog, noisy children, striking clocks, a careless servant, and a sneezing, coughing, snoring and throat-clearing audience.

Burney's picture is full of clever and subtle allusions to the battle between the Ancients and Moderns at a time when a revival of interest in the work of old composers such as Handel was beginning to challenge the accepted supremacy of contemporaries such as Beethoven. Burney came from a family prominent in the arts. His uncle, Dr Charles Burney, was a noted musicologist who was at the centre of a lively debate about the respective merits of 'old' and 'new' music, and his writings undoubtedly provided Edward with much of the inspiration for this picture. An intense rivalry existed between Dr Burney and Sir John Hawkins, a traditionalist, and Hawkins was inevitably the target of satirisation by Burney's many friends. Dr Burney wrote a long satiric poem about Hawkins in 1777, entitled The Trial of Midas the Second, naming numerous musicians associated with Hawkins and Burney. Edward must have been familiar with the work, for the same musicians appear in his painting, and a statuary group on the mantelpiece depicts the 'Judgement' with Midas (Hawkins's alter-ego in the poem) wearing a tye-wig, symbol of old-fashioned music.

Further reading:
Patricia Crown, 'Visual Music: E.F. Burney and a Hogarth Revival', Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, vol.83, no.4, winter 1980, pp.435-72

Terry Riggs
December 1997