top of page
  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

A Satirical Conversation on the Obstruction of the ‘Free Course of the Voice’ (1774)

Updated: Nov 14, 2021

‘We discoursed upon the subject of Dr. Burney’s travels, of which he was a professed admirer; and mentioned with great approbation that curious operation which the Doctor was informed was performed frequently at Naples, of cutting the glands of the throat, when so inflated or big as to obstruct the free passage of the voice. This anecdote had given my friend a hint of greater improvements:

“We are too sparing,” says he, “of the knife - and when we are arrived at castration, think the voice is as perfect as art can make it, but we stop short of perfection. There are other superfluities besides the testes and glands of the throat which obstruct the free course of the voice. Believe me, Sir, the tongue itself might well be spared, which only serves to articulated sounds in speaking, but is an incumbrance to a fine singer. Do me the favour, Sir, to sing one air with this ivory bit in your mouth, to keep down your tongue, and you will be surprised at the difference it makes in the mellowness of the tone, and the roundness of the volume of voice.”

Saying this, he fetched an ivory instrument out of his drawer, which he fixed in my mouth, and fastened round my head. He then continued his discourse thus:

“There is in fact no difference betwixt vocal and instrumental music: for as the soul is rightly defined by an antient philosopher to be harmony, so is the body a natural musical instrument; of which the lungs form the bellows, and the wind-pipe a passage for the air, as in an organ; the use of this bit is to preserve the volume of voice entire, by pressing down the tongue; and, by the bye, if the teeth were pulled out too, it would leave the passage infinitely freer from obstruction.”

Here I endeavoured to interrupt him, for I found the bit very painful, but not being able to articulate, he thought I was attempting to sing, and cried out, “stay a moment, my dear friend, let me just put two plugs into your nostrils to prevent the air from issuing out at those apertures.” I was resolved not to endure this, and looked round for the door, in order to secure a retreat, while he thus went on: “I always wear plugs when I sing, but I have a great notion that if holes were bore at proper distances along the side of the nose, it would make no bad flute. Now, Sir, give me leave to shew you how much farther the jaws ought to be distended by the lancet, and where the glands should be cut.”

Saying this, he drew a pen-knife out of his side pocket; but as I had all this time been fiddling toward the door, (being now fully convinced he was rather more disturbed in his faculties than a good theorist ought to be) out I flew, and never once looked behind me till I was fairly out of sight of the house; when at my leisure I untied my jaws, which now began to ache confoundedly, and walked on very well pleased to find that I had not left my tongue behind me, reflecting upon the truth of the poet’s observation,

“Great wit to madness nearly is ally’d,

And thin partitions do the bounds divide.”’



This, presumably imagined, conversation takes place on the road between Carlisle and Liverpool between an unnamed young man and ‘Joel Collier,’ thought to be a pseudonym of the English barrister and writer John Bicknell. The entire book, entitled ‘Musical Travels through England’ is a satire on the publications of Charles Burney.

John Bicknell, Musical Travels through England by Joel Collier, 4th ed. (1774; repr., London: G. Kearsly, 1776). Inverted commas are inserted for the sake of clarity and readability.

The image below is the fourth in William Hogarth’s satyrical series of paintings entitled ‘Marriage a la mode.’ This particular instalment is entitled ‘The Toilette’ and was completed c.1743.

The National Gallery (London) provides the following description:

‘The fourth scene of Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode takes place in the wife’s bedroom. She is now Countess: an Earl’s coronet above the bed informs us that the Earl of Squander must have died and that the young couple have lost no time displaying their new rank.

The Countess is sitting at her dressing table, the mirror of which is also surmounted with a coronet. She is following the aristocratic French fashion of receiving visitors during the final stage of her toilette (morning grooming ritual). Her hairdresser tests the heat of his curling tongs on a piece of paper. A coral baby’s teether hangs from the back of the Countess’s chair, indicating that she is now a mother and that she sees her child occasionally, though it does not appear until the final scene. The Countess does not look at herself in the mirror – she only has eyes for her lover Silvertongue, who demonstrates his lack of manners and his privileged place in the house by putting his feet up on the sofa.

An opera singer, probably modelled on a famous Italian castrato singer, and his flautist entertain the Countess’s guests while a manservant offers them cups of chocolate. A painting after Michelangelo’s Rape of Ganymede above the man with horn-shaped curling papers in his hair may suggest his homosexuality – it shows Jupiter in the form of an eagle abducting the beautiful young hero Gandymede. A large portrait of Silvertongue is prominently displayed beside the Countess’s bed. On the other wall, above the Countess, are two paintings after Correggio. Io throws her head back in ecstasy in the embrace of Jupiter disguised as a cloud, and Lot’s daughters get him drunk so he will sleep with them and perpetuate the human race. A collection of visiting and playing cards lie scattered on the floor from new aristocratic acquaintances inviting the Countess to various events.

Turning her back on her visitors, the Countess listens only to Silvertongue, who offers her a ticket to a masquerade. He gestures with his other hand to a painted screen on which Hogarth has depicted a masquerade in progress. He points to a couple dressed as a friar and a nun, as though suggesting that he and the Countess should adopt those disguises. Masquerades had become increasingly popular from the early eighteenth century

As continuing evidence of her bad taste, the Countess’s recent purchases have been spread out before her, still bearing their auction lot numbers. She has purchased more items similar to those on the mantelpiece in Scene 2 and a dish decorated with Leda being seduced by Jupiter disguised as a swan. A little page boy holds a statue of Actaeon, whom the chaste goddess Diana transformed into a stag and then caused to be killed by his own hounds. The boy laughs as he points at Actaeon’s antlers, which represent the horns of a cuckold (the husband of a woman who commits adultery) as the Countess has proved her husband to be.’

21 views0 comments


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page