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John Callcott’s musical best seller

March 14, 2019
Ray Heigemeir
Title page (detail) of Callcott's book

A musical grammar in four parts :  I. notation, II. melody, III. harmony, IV. Rhythm,  by Dr. John Wall Callcott (1766-1821).
London :  printed for Robert Birchall, music-seller by B. McMillan,  1817  (3rd ed.)
Printed by B. McMillan, Printer to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent.

Callcott title page


On a recent browse through the Music Library locked stacks, I came across this small music instruction book from early 19thcentury England. Callcott’s A Musical Grammar, first published in 1806, is a standard music instruction textbook, and includes sections on notation, melody, harmony, rhythm, and ornamentation.  Though the work has been described as “presenting no new ideas,” it was a best-seller and remained in print in several editions well into the 19th century. 

The flyleaf is signed by its previous owners, “Eleanor Powell March 1823” followed by “Leonard Ratner 1962,” identifying this as one of many gifts to the Music Library by musicologist, composer, and theorist Leonard Ratner (1916-2011), who taught music at Stanford from 1947 until his retirement in 1984. In 1962 Ratner himself published a music textbook, Harmony: Structure and Style. 

John Wall Callcott (1766-1821) was an English organist and composer of popular music, and as such, he trafficked in the expected genres of glees, catches, and anthems. In 1791, Callcott studied briefly with Haydn during the composer’s visit to London, and wrote a symphony mimicking Haydn’s style. In addition to his glees, his lasting fame (such as it was) relied on the popularity of A Musical Grammar.

The “advertisement” by Callcott’s son-in-law and editor, William Horsley, at the beginning of the third edition includes this rather cryptic statement: “The present edition of The Musical Grammar was advanced nearly to the end of the Third Part, under the inspection of its Author, when he was unhappily prevented from attending to business of any kind.”  Callcott’s biographical entry in the New Grove Dictionary reveals that he suffered from a mental collapse in 1806, partially recovered in 1812, and the relapsed in 1816. In Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (7th edition), Slonimsky cheekily elaborates: “His mind gave way from overwork on a projected biographical dictionary of musicians, and he was institutionalized just before he reached the quirky letter Q.”

Example of typeset music notation

The book includes many brief notated examples which illuminate both the skill and the challenge of typesetting musical notation. You can see the line gaps in the measures above no matter how carefully the sorts were aligned, and sense the overall awkwardness in assembling the mosaic of pieces required to display multiple staves, clefs, key signatures, and numerical figures in just this one small example. 

Stanford Libraries holds a large collection of music theoretical works spanning several centuries.