Eighteenth Century London Concerts: 8 – Performers

Wilhelm Cramer - leading London violinist of the 1780s and 1790s
Wilhelm Cramer

The previous article in this series looked at the composers featuring in eighteenth century London concerts. Also encoded within the “programme” field of the dataset is information on the performers at the concerts, and they are the subject of this article.

The procedure for extracting the data on performers is similar to that for composers. On the whole (with a few complications), the performers are the names listed after one of the “forces” abbreviations.1 In most cases, it is possible to identify both the performers and their instrument, although, again because of various complications, this is not always possible. These complications include the following…

  • The syntax of items does not always strictly follow the composer – genre – forces – performer ordering. The main exception is where a further explanation about the work is added after the performers are listed, which often includes reference to the composer. It is possible to filter out some of these, but nevertheless a few errors probably remain in what follows.
  • Some forces are implied by the genre and are not explicitly stated. The most common is “SG” (song), for which “V” (voice) is always omitted.
  • Other forces are implied by the name of the performer – particularly where the performer is a named group, such as an orchestra or choir.
  • Some forces are not stated, perhaps because they are not known. This often happens with the “CN” (concerto) or “SL” (solo) genres, for example.
  • There might be several performers listed after a single forces mark, which complicates the process slightly.
  • Some forces have several equivalent forms. For example “V”, “2V”, “3V” are all voices; “DIR” (director) and “COND” (conductor) are to some extent interchangeable; and “LEAD” is always a “VN” (violin).
  • Some performers appear with multiple roles (sometimes within the same concert) – for example “COND” and “LEAD”, or “DIR” and “HPD” (harpsichord).

Extracting the performers, taking account of these factors, reveals 1,359 names. Of these, about 70 were not mentioned in the dataset’s explanatory document – these were mostly self-explanatory, such as “BOYS_OF_WA”,2 “HANOVER_SQUARE_ORCH”, or “THREE_ITALIAN_MUSICIANS”.

Of over 22,000 performers credits, just over 11,000 (50%) were for singers. Next were violinists (11%), cellists (10%), conductors (5%) and oboists (4%). Of the 1,359 performers, 68% were only ever credited for one thing, but 50 or so had five or more different credits. J C Bach, for example, is variously listed as conductor, harpsichordist, pianist, organist, cellist and singer. Considering only their main instrument, 651 (48%) of performers were primarily singers, 7% violinists, 6% cellists, and 4% harpsichordists.3

Bearing in mind the possible errors in accurately identifying composers and performers, about 19% of performers also appeared in the list of composers. Those most likely to have been credited with both roles were conductors (70% of whom were also composers), keyboard players (53% of organists, 38% of pianists and 33% of harpsichordists), and violinists (38%). There are plenty of cases where singers or instrumentalists included one of their own works in a programme.

The following chart shows the top ten performers in each decade. The text size is proportional to the number of credits relative to the performer in first position. The forces with which each performer was most commonly associated in that decade are shown in parentheses, using the standard abbreviations (the colours also reflect the forces). Names with a “~” after them indicate females.

The names here are the abbreviations used in the dataset, as described in the explanatory notes. The top names in each decade, for example, were…

There was a lot of turnover, with nobody appearing in the top ten for more than three decades. The variation in text sizes is quite similar in each decade, suggesting a relatively stable pattern of relative popularity.

There are a few women represented among these top names (unlike in the similar chart of composers). All of them are singers, with the sole exception of Miss Marianne Davies (“DAVIES~M”, in 7th place in the 1760s), whose main instrument (“MGL”) was the “Musical / harmonic glasses”.

Marianne Davies (c.1743-c.1817) was a musical prodigy who appeared at a number of concerts during the 1750s and 1760s, most often playing the harpsichord, but also the organ, flute, horn, and as a singer. She gave the world’s first performance on Benjamin Franklin’s invention – the glass harmonica – in 1762, and went on to give several concerts on the instrument, mainly between 1762 and 1764, mostly early-afternoon concerts at taverns (sometimes halls), with relatively cheap tickets. She was invariably the headline act – being the first name mentioned in the advertisements (and the only name in most of them, although it is hard to be sure that she was the only performer). Notes accompanying a short series of similar concerts in 1767 state that she and her family were shortly due to leave England. Click here for a longer account of her story, including what happened after 1767.

A woman playing the glass harmonica (probably not Marianne Davies)
Claude Desrais, L’Harmonica, (1819)

This is a complex dataset, and there is a lot that could be done with it. For example, we could look at groups of performers who tended to play together. I have had a quick look at this, and there seems to have been quite a lot of mixing, especially among the top names, rather than stable groupings – although a more detailed analysis (perhaps for particular venues, periods, types of repertoire, etc) might reveal some significant clustering. It would also be possible to compare performers to other variables, such as venue types, ticket prices, or the time of day/week/year. One hypothesis might be that higher ticket prices could be charged for the bigger names, but plotting each performer’s average ticket prices against their number of appearances does not reveal any significant trends (there is a slight upward trend among violinists, but it is not very convincing).4

Cite this article as: Gustar, A.J. 'Eighteenth Century London Concerts: 8 – Performers' in Statistics in Historical Musicology, 18th December 2020, https://www.musichistorystats.com/eighteenth-century-london-concerts-8-performers/.
  1. “Forces” are musical forces – i.e. mainly instruments and voices, but also conductors and directors. The abbreviations are detailed in the explanatory notes to the dataset.
  2. Westminster Abbey.
  3. The main instrument was defined as the one for which they were credited most often. In some cases this changed over time.
  4. This seems to be the case overall, by decade, and for both top and bottom ticket prices.

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