20 June 2006


George Berg (ca. 1720–1775) was a London-based musician—organist at the London church of St. Mary at Hill, teacher of violin and harpsichord, and composer of instrumental and vocal music. When remembered today, it is for his collections of songs, especially those he wrote for entertainments performed at the Ranelagh and Spring Gardens and other pleasure gardens (entertainment complexes) in London. Berg was a professional member of the Gentlemen and Noblemen’s Catch Club and of the Royal Society of Musicians as well.[1] But Berg’s professional life is of little importance here: This is a paper about a personal interest that he sustained, its foundations, its inspiration, and its consequences.

For at least fifteen years, Berg engaged in a project to learn chemistry, specifically chemistry related to glassmaking and especially glasses used to make fake gemstones or enamel colors. He kept records of the project, copying his formulas, often with comments about the results, into an experiment book.[2] Berg also transcribed relevant portions of chemistry texts and recorded his conversations with others about these and related subjects.

Berg’s experiment book chronicles his efforts to learn both chemical theories and glassmaking techniques. It provides extraordinary access to information about what Berg did and how he did it. What we do not fully understand is why. Was Berg interested in a contribution to public knowledge, personal intellectual satisfaction, an income, or something else entirely? We know that Berg solicited information from others as he worked to improve his products. What was the value of these social networks to his endeavor? Why did artisan glassmakers, enamelers, and goldsmiths advise and encourage Berg? What was his relationship with other experimental gentlemen who worked to understand or improve glassmaking? Answers to such questions are critical to better understanding Berg’s project. And, if Berg is a typical eighteenth-century gentleman, one eager to benefit himself while improving the world in which he lives, then these answers may suggest typical concerns, approaches, and capabilities.

This paper has five parts. In the next part, I describe the contents of George Berg’s Experiment Book. I then discuss Berg’s project, beginning with a brief description of glassmaking and related chemistry in the eighteenth century. This part also includes a discussion of print and human resources available to George Berg. The fourth part outlines the social relationships on which Berg relied and, in particular, his relationship to the Society of Arts (as the Royal Society of Arts was often called at the time). In the final section, I consider the consequences and broader meanings of Berg’s project and of similar endeavors.


At 14 July, 2006, Blogger Sarah Lowengard said...

Investigations of Science and Technology
Recent historiography of 18th century Europe (that is, history written in the past 20 or so years) often addresses access to information and specifically information about technology and science. Lectures, books, journals, and public debate brought theoretical and practical ideas to people from all strata of society throughout a broad geographic region. Action, especially as the pursuit of discoveries—inventing things, learning about nature, investigating scientific ideas—was often a result. This outcome of learning may have been a part of gentlemanly behavior, but it was not exclusively the behavior of gentlemen. The concept of participation in “polite society” may better suggest this inclusiveness.

Furthermore, we recognize a wide range of 18th century activities as pursuits within the sciences or technology: the ultimate success of the endeavor or the way it anticipates 20th or 21st century truths are not principal criteria. One result is a de-emphasis on the category of “enlightened entrepreneur” that was a feature of earlier 20th century writing. Enlightened entrepreneurs were men known to have applied modern science to their practical occupations. Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Charles Mackintosh and Christoph Oberkampf are frequently mentioned in this context. Since the 1960s, such organizations as the Lunar Society of Birmingham have been identified as outlets for cooperation among such men. I don’t wish to denigrate the achievements of these and the other men who fit this profile of enlightened entrepreneur. However, we now recognize that of the ideas and concerns that inspired them inspired many others, too. Communal investigation of scientific subjects and their application to practical endeavors was more common in the 18th century than we once believed. The problem is that we often do not have much documentation of these groups. We know that George Berg was a member of Society of Arts, the Royal Society of Musicians and the Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Catch Club, but we have no information his membership in any other coffeehouse societies, improvement organizations or professional groups.

You can easily find online information about the nature of 18th century investigations into the sciences and technology. Return, for example to the history of the Royal Society of Arts http://www.rsa.org.uk/rsa/history.asp or browse the RSA archive database http://www.rsa.org.uk/archive/archiveSearch.asp. Examine the lists of scholarly societies that flourished in the eighteenth century at the Scholarly Societies project www.scholarly-societies.org. Look for relevant information at Paul Halsall’s Modern History Sourcebook http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/modsbook.html, or Jack Lynch’s Eighteenth Century Resources http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/18th/index.html. There are, of course, many many other books and articles available—on the Internet and in paper versions—about these ideas.

At 15 July, 2006, Anonymous Fredk G Page said...

Noting that George Berg’s musical abilities have no place in this article may I nevertheless enquire whether you happen to know his birthday? Perhaps Berg qualifies for an entry in the list compiled by the newly formed Society for the Propagation of the Music of the Chemist-Composers?

Fredk G Page
Kington, UK

At 15 July, 2006, Blogger Sarah Lowengard said...

Personal Information about G. Berg

Alas, what personal information I have about Berg does not include his birthdate, or even year. His sister Elizabeth (d. 1784) was born in 1720 and I suspect he may have been 5 years older or younger but not much more.

Nor have I been able to find a death date for him. I know it was between 17 April 1775 (when the Vestry Minute Books of St. Mary at Hill note Berg's re-election as organist) and 4 May of that year, when his will was proved. His death was not noted in the records of St. Mary-le-Strand, although his parents and sister's were.

At 30 July, 2006, Blogger Sarah Lowengard said...

Berg the Musician (Off-topic)
As I was putting together the information for this paper, it seemed to me that Berg’s musical interests were separate from his chemistry pursuits, and I chose to leave out most information about that aspect of his life. But perhaps it is not so far off-topic, given the general questions I pose in this introduction. I’ll outline what I know below, if anyone has more information please do contribute. The general question that underlies this post is: Is there a relationship between Berg’s profession and his avocation? (Readers who are members of the Society of Chemist-Composers: I’d especially like your opinions on this.)

In addition to the details I provided in the paper, Grove Music – and other sources – note that Berg had been a student of J. C. Pepusch (d. 1752), and it seems that Berg’s musical life featured the same combination of jobs as that of his teacher, although without the patronage of someone like James Brydges.*

Berg’s annual salary from St. Mary at Hill was £26 per year, paid in two installments. I have not been able to determine how much he might have earned from teaching, or composing and accompanying singers at the theaters.

Berg won a gold medal from the Gentlemen and Noblemen’s Catch Club in 1763, the same year he was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians. Although publication of his songs continued into the nineteenth century, the last book of his music appearaed in 1769.

Evidence of Berg’s life as a musician appears on the verso of some papers inserted into the notebooks. It inclues: a lyric* possibly written for some friend; a draft of a letter to Baron Gustav Adolf (or Adam) Nolcken, Swedish envoy to London, requesting permission to dedicate a book of sonatas; a note “June 23 begun with Miss Bennet” (though perhaps that’s about something entirely different); and a list of song titles that appears to be a draft table of contents. There are a few lists of people who might be musician friends or clients but this is difficult to determine.

Here are two additional questions from me:
*What is the likelihood that Berg’s chemical studies were an effort to attract a patron?
* What does it mean that books of compiled songs make reference to Berg as the composer without mentioning a lyricist. . . but don’t include the music? Is it possible or likely that Berg wrote the lyrics as well as the music for these songs?


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