“The thing of the world that I love most” – Samuel Pepys and ‘Musique’

Guest post by Jacky Colliss Harvey

If you had been standing in Buckingham Street (now York Buildings) off the westerly end of the Strand in London, on the evening of the 19th April 1687, looking out over the river and what had been the gardens of old York House, and with the York Watergate in front of you, you would have been privileged to overhear one of the finest voices in Europe coming from Number 12. The voice belonged to the castrato Siface (Giovanni Francesco Grossi) a man who according to the chronicler John Evelyn “disdained to show his talent to any but princes”; the house where he was performing belonged to Evelyn’s friend Mr Samuel Pepys, late Secretary to the Admiralty, one-time MP, and, from 1684 to 1686, President of the Royal Society. And of course creator, from 1660 to 1669, of the most famous diary in English history. It says all you need to know of Pepys’s reputation as a music-lover that here was Siface performing in his drawing room.


One of the great joys of researching Walking Pepys’s London were the insights it produced into the man himself, the chance to explore what you might call his inner geography. Alone with his Diary, Pepys was a man of strong passions, by no means all of them as admirable as his devotion to music, and of much ambition. He could be shamelessly calculating in his pursuit of women, professional and social advancement, and wealth; but when he speaks in his Diary of music and the effect it had on him, it is with the artless adoration of the truly besotted. “That which did please me beyond any thing in the whole world was the wind-musique when the angel comes down,” begins one of his most famous descriptions of how music could possess him, after witnessing a performance of Decker and Massinger’s The Virgin Martyr: “so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home, and at home, I was able to think of any thing, but remained all night transported…” I imagine every music-lover can recognise themselves in that experience. Then in the very next sentence Pepys the romantic is elbowed out the way by the bull-headed man of business, the ruler of his roost: the experience “makes me resolve to practice wind-musique, and to make my wife do the like.”

And when Pepys resolved to master a thing, he did exactly that. One of the secrets of his professional success was that he couldn’t see a system without wanting to better it. When teaching himself to play his recorder (purchased from Drumbleby the instrument-maker in the Strand), he notes how the getting of its fingering “is necessary for a man that would understand musique… though it be a ridiculous and troublesome way, and I know I shall be able hereafter to show the world a simpler”. October 1667 saw him investigating the workings of a ‘trump-marin’ (or tromba marina, a stringed instrument despite its name) of “one Monsieur Prin… it is most admirable and at first was a mystery to me that I should hear a whole concert of chords together at the end of a pause, but he showed me that it was only when the last notes were 5ths or 3rds, one to another, and then their sounds like an Echo did last so as they seemed to sound all together…. I was mightily pleased with it, and he did take great pains to shew me all he could do on it.”

As you might intuit from this, Pepys loved a new toy (he could go into ecstasies over a slide-rule); his library, now in Magdalene College, Cambridge, contains, alongside his 3,000 books and the manuscript Diary itself, an extraordinary relic of 17th-century ingenuity in the form of an ‘Arca Musarithmica’, a sort of wooden proto-computer, its movable slats as dry and fragile now as autumn leaves. By manipulating these, its inventor, Athanasius Kircher, had assured the world that “anyone, even the ἀμουσος [unmusical] may, through various applications of compositional instruments compose melodies according to a desired style.” Pepys was hardly unmusical (as his fortune increased he would eventually also own a flute, lute, viol, flageolet, lyra or bass viol, spinet, theorbo, violin and virginals), but he paid out 35 shillings, or about £200 today, simply for the accompanying book of instructions, making a trip to Duck Lane in Smithfield – now Little Britain; then one of London’s bookselling centres – to do so.

Pepys lived and wrote at a time of exceptional change and innovation in the arts, and was something of a conservative at heart; by no means all such novelties as the Arca Musarithmica met with his approval. He was, for example, initially scathing of the guitar, as opposed to the lute or viol. Visiting the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane on the 8th May 1663, the day after it had opened, Pepys noted how its innovative orchestra pit meant that “the musique being below, and most of it sounding under the very stage, there is no hearing of the bases at all, nor very well of the trebles, which sure must be mended.” Nicholas Lanier, the first man ever to hold the title ‘Master of the King’s Musick’ was a friend, as you might expect, as were a number of other notable musicians of the day, and Pepys was well aware of the friction between the older style of English music and the newer French style, favoured by the newly restored King Charles II. (The same kind of genteel battle was going on between the English fashion for dining, with all the dishes on the table at once, and the more Continental practise of one course succeeding another. Pepys’s wife Elizabeth was French – one wonders which system triumphed when they dined at home?) The Diary records how a night out in August 1661, at a tavern next to the Savoy, had ended very badly when the virtuoso Humphrey Madge took exception to the views of one Monsieur d’Esquier “discoursing of musique … so much against the English and in praise of the French that made him mad,” and Madge had left in a huff.

But by 1661 English music had a lot of ground to make up. The cultural black hole of the Protectorate stood between Pepys’s childhood and his manhood. He had been born in 1631, in in the shadow of the old St Pauls and right next door to St Bride’s church, so the music of the Anglican liturgy might have run through his youth. But when Pepys was 9, in 1642, church music in London ceased to be, by order of Parliament. Public music-making such as Morris dancing was also forbidden, and London’s theatres were dark – a state of affairs with which we are more familiar now than we might ever have supposed possible before 2020. So the music Pepys grew up with was either domestic (his father, John, a tailor, owned a pair of virginals), or it would have been the traditional melodies of London’s streets: the whistled songs of tradesmen going about their business, the cries of the street-sellers plying their wares door to door, joined perhaps by the ranting of the gloriously named ‘PraiseGod Barebones’, a Parliamentarian militant, yelling his disapproval of everything from his spot close by the Pepyses’ own front door.

We might intuit that Samuel retained his fondness for these songs and this music of the everyday from the fact that he had over 1700 ballads and ditties in that carefully curated library, many of them purchased from the publisher John Playford, a Fleet Street neighbour. Music was how he began his days, practising popular songs in his study before he went to work – “Up betimes and to my vyall [viol] and song book a pretty while,” is how he starts a typical day in April 1663. We can imagine him singing as he was rowed up and down the Thames on his business for the Navy Board; or trying out harmonies under his breath as he bustled back and forth across London, much as a writer will take a promising passage for a walk, working it back and forth, and if Pepys had a passion to rival his love of music, it was words. ‘Musique’ was how many of his days concluded, too, with a supper-time impromptu in a tavern, or in fine weather with friends ‘on the leads’, that is on the rooftop of his house in Seething Lane. “So home Sir William and I,” begins his account of one of the first such merry evenings in June 1661, with his patron Sir William Penn, “it being very hot weather I took my flageolette and played upon the leads in the garden….. and there we staid talking and singing, and drinking great drafts of claret, and eating botargo [a sort of 17th-century taramasalata] and bread and butter till 12 at night, it being moonshine; and so to bed, very near fuddled.” Music, a warm night, moonlight, food, friends and wine – what could be better than that?

The companionship that music brings was another reason for Pepys, that most clubbable of men, to treasure it. “Most excellent company with Mr. Hill and discourse of musique,” he writes in September 1665, as the entire country boiled and bubbled with plague and the war with the Dutch threatened to bankrupt the City. (The same Mr Thomas Hill, a London merchant, would later introduce Pepys to the musician Cesare Morelli, who would become an essential member of his household in the 1670s). It was the mark of a gentleman to be able to discourse upon music; it was the mark of a gentleman’s wife to be able to play and hold a tune, and at his behest Pepys’s wife, Elizabeth, put in many hours’ practise at her keyboard or with her singing-master. She sounds to have been a far more confident dancer than her husband (Pepys was consequently ferociously jealous of her dancing-master, even though he himself had hired the man), but you get the strong impression from the Diary that Elizabeth’s feel for music, and its role in her life, was much below her husband’s.

Pepys loved to sing, and loved to listen to a fine voice singing; his admiration for the actress Mrs Knepp, which frequently raised Elizabeth’s jealousy in turn, was as much about Knepp’s fine singing voice as it was about her feistiness and her person. “Here the best company for musique I ever was in, in my life,” he writes in December 1665, “and wish I could live and die in it, both for musique and the face of Mrs. Pierce, and my wife and Knipp [sic], who is pretty enough; but the most excellent, mad-humoured thing, and sings the noblest that ever I heard in my life.” To hear Knepp sing his own composition (laboured over for months), a setting of ‘Beauty Retire’ from William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes – perhaps the first English opera – was one of the highlights of their relationship.

There were not many times when Pepys could claim innocence in his dealings with other women, as he was fully aware, but when Elizabeth upbraided him for the hours he spent with Mary Mercer, Elizabeth’s own paid companion, “teaching her to sing and could never take the pains with her [i.e., with Elizabeth herself]”, he could for once answer quite truthfully, “It is because that the girl do take musique mighty readily, and she do not, and musique is the thing of the world that I love most.” For Samuel Pepys, ‘Musique’ as a mistress, trumped them all.

walking-pepyss-london-web-copy-768x1176-1Jacky Colliss Harvey’s Walking Pepys’s London is published by Haus Publishing (£12.99, Hardback)

There is a very useful virtual exhibition, to be found here, with illustrates Pepys’s Arca Musarithmica and includes a brief excerpt from ‘Beauty Retire’

And for a deeper dive, this excellent documentary, from Radio 4, first broadcast in 2017

Jacky Colliss Harvey is a writer and editor. She has eight_col_jacky_colliss_harveyworked in museum publishing for the past 20 years and is a commentator and reviewer who speaks in both the UK and abroad on the arts and their relation to popular culture. She is the author of the bestseller RED: A History of the Redhead and most recently The Animal’s Companion.

She is a reviewer for ArtMuseLondon, a sister site to The Cross-Eyed pianist

Find Jacky on Twitter @JCollissHarvey

Image credit:

Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, 1666. Pepys is holding ‘Beauty Retire’, in his setting, as he looks at us.

NPG 211 © National Portrait Gallery, London