On Monday 1st November I had the fantastic experience of singing in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall. Sitting in the choir stalls and looking out at an almost-full house before the concert began was surprisingly nerve-wracking, and I tried to think of other things to take my mind off the butterflies in my stomach. A suitable topic for my next blog post seemed like a useful subject to consider, and given the setting I began to wonder if many Fellows of the Royal Society had been interested in music, and what we might have in our collections to reflect this.

Back in the office the following morning I was delighted with the results of a catalogue search. Interestingly, the printed book collections  contain a fairly continuous stream of works about music from 1514 right through to 2010, whilst the archival material seems mainly to fall into groups in the late 1600s, mid 1700s and mid 1900s.

A quick skim through some of the Royal Society’s journals indicates that a significant number of the Fellows (122) are cited in their biographical memoirs as having been interested in music, and there is also quite a cluster of articles linking music and research into autism, as well as studies on matters such as pitch and acoustics. I learnt that Isaac Newton “never diverted himself with music and art”  whilst Charles Darwin apparently played music to earthworms to determine whether or not they could hear.

Probably my favourite article is this one, which was read to a meeting of the Society on March 12th 1746-7, and subsequently published in Philosophical Transactions:

Article title "A demonstration of the possibility of making a machine..."

Other notable Fellows who have been particularly interested in music include William Herschel, who worked as a professional musician, music teacher and composer for several years before committing himself fully to the astronomy for which he is largely remembered. More recently, Christopher Longuet-Higgins combined a distinguished scientific career with his lifelong interest in music, and gave a number of lectures on the subject.

Even the young Mozart came into the Royal Society’s sphere – during a visit to London in 1770 he was examined by Daines Barrington FRS, who tested the eight-year-old musician to determine the extent of his talents. (Navigate to 1770 on the Trailblazing site to learn more.)  Charles Burney also conducted his own research into young musical prodigies, as he describes in his article “Account of an Infant Musician. By Charles Burney, Doctor of Music and F.R.S.” published in Philosophical Transactions in 1779.

A couple of modern books in the Library’s loan collection look good, so I might have to borrow them to read myself – “John Birchensha: writings on music” by Christopher Field and Benjamin Wardhaugh, and the intriguingly-titled “Music, science and natural magic in seventeenth-century England” by Penelope Gouk. Birchensha is an especially interesting character as he had various links to early Fellows of the Royal Society, and taught musical composition to Samuel Pepys.

Quite by chance, whilst I was working on this post my colleague Jo asked me to help process some images for our Turning the Pages gallery, and the manuscript she asked me to work on was a paper submitted to the Society by Joshua Steele, entitled “The figure of the system of musical pipes, (according to their exact size) brought from the Isle of Amsterdam in the South Sea by Captain Fourneaux to London. Anno 1774” [L&P/6/76]. As well as a detailed description, the manuscript contains some lovely drawings of reed pipes and musical notation describing their pitches. You will be able to see the full paper when we launch the new set of manuscripts early next year, though here is a little snippet in the meantime:

Clipping of musical notation

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