Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/William Jackson, Organist

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THE autobiography of William Jackson was printed and published for the first time in the Leisure Hour, 1882. It is not of much personal interest, as it concerns almost exclusively his musical education and his travels abroad. For instance, concerning his marriage, it is dismissed with the curt remark, "At twenty-three I married." Nevertheless it affords us some particulars which we might have sought for in vain elsewhere.

He informs us: "Of my family I know nothing but that for many generations they were farmers at Morleigh, an obscure place in the south-west of Devon. It seems trifling to add that all the Jacksons in Devonshire have a family face and person. What mine was may be known by a picture by Rennell, painted at twenty years of age; one by Gainsborough at forty; another by Keenan at seventy. I recollect also sitting for a miniature to Humphrey, for a portrait in crayon to Morland, and for two in oil to Opie." He goes on to say: "My grandfather Richard Jackson was a sergemaker in Exeter, lived creditably, and acquired what in those days was considered a fortune. He left many children. My father, William, was his second son, to whom he gave a good school education, but not inheriting the prudence of his predecessor, he soon dissipated his little fortune."

William Jackson of Exeter was born on 28 May,
William Jackson, Organist - Devonshire characters and strange events.jpg

Mr. William Jackson, Organist

1730, and began his education at seven, which was continued till he was sixteen. He did not begin his musical studies till twelve years old, when he became a chorister in Exeter Cathedral. He displayed a decided taste for music.

"From a subordinate member of the choir at Exeter I learnt two or three common airs, such as are given to beginners. This was the whole of my instruction for three years which I received from others; by my own assiduous practice I could perform Handel's organ concertos and some of Corelli's sonatas—in a wild, irregular manner, no doubt. As yet I was a stranger to any but my own poor performance, when I was carried to hear a young lady, who, among other pieces, played the overture of Otho."

In 1748 he removed to London, where he passed two years under the tuition of John Travers, organist to the King's Chapel and to St. Paul's, Covent Garden, and an eminent song composer. He then returned to his native place, where he settled for life as a teacher, professor, and composer of music. He soon attained reputation and employment; but it was not till 1777 that he succeeded to the places of sub-chanter, organist, lay vicar, and master of the choristers in the cathedral. His talents in musical composition were first made known in 1775, when he printed a collection of twelve songs that speedily became popular.

Whilst a boy in London, "In or about 1746," he says, "the oratorio of Judas Maccabeus was first performed. I squeezed in among the chorus singers, and was remarked by Handel when he entered, as a stranger. 'Who are you?' says he. 'Can you play? Can you sing? If not, open your mouth and pretend to sing; for there must be no idle persons in my band.’ He was right. However, in the course of the evening, by turning his leaf and some other little attentions, there became some sort of intimacy between us, so that I gained admittance to the frequent repetitions of this oratorio."

Jackson made the acquaintance and gained the friendship of Gainsborough. Of him he says: "His profession was painting, music was his amusement," and the reverse might be said with equal truth of Jackson. Each undertook to instruct the other in his own art, and Jackson rather prided himself on his paintings than on his music. In his volume of essays, The Four Ages, he gives his reminiscences of Gainsborough, and they are amusing. His account can here be briefly summed up:—

"There were times when music seemed to be his employment, and painting his diversion. When I first knew him he lived at Bath, where Giardini had been exhibiting his then unrivalled powers on the violin. His performance made Gainsborough enamoured of that instrument; and conceiving, like the servant maid in the Spectator, that the music lay in the fiddle, he was frantic until he possessed himself of the very instrument which had given him so much pleasure but seemed much surprised that the music of it remained behind with Giardini.

"He had scarcely recovered this shock when he heard Abel on the viol-di-gamba. The violin was hung on the willow—Abel's viol-di-gamba was purchased, and the house resounded with melodious thirds and fifths. Many an adagio and many a minuet were begun, but never completed. This was wonderful, as it was Abel's own instrument, and therefore ought to have produced Abel's own music.

"Fortunately, my friend's passion had now a fresh object—Fischer's hautboy; but I do not recollect that he deprived Fischer of his instrument, though he procured a hautboy.

"The next time I saw Gainsborough he had heard a harper at Bath. The performer was soon left harpless, and now Fischer, Abel, and Giardini were all forgotten—there was nothing like chords and arpeggios.

"More years passed, when, upon seeing a Theorbo in a picture of Van Dyck, he concluded that the Theorbo must be a fine instrument." But Theorbos were no more played. The nearest approach to one was a lute. On inquiry Gainsborough ascertained that there was a poor German professor who performed on the lute, living in a garret. To him went the artist full of eagerness. The lute he must have. The poor man was reluctant to part with it; but finally sold it for ten guineas.

"But I must have the book of airs for the instrument," said Gainsborough; "the instrument is no good without the book." After much haggling, at last the German parted with the music-book for another ten guineas. "In this way," says Jackson, "Gainsborough frittered away his musical talents, and though possessed of ear, taste, and genius, he never had application to learn his notes."

Another acquaintance of Jackson's was Sir Joshua Reynolds. Of him he says: "Whatever defects a critical eye might find in his works, a microscopic eye could discover none in his heart. If constant good-humour and benevolence, if the absence of everything disagreeable, and the presence of everything pleasant, be recommendations for a companion, Sir Joshua had these accomplishments."

Of Jackson's musical powers it is not necessary to speak. Details concerning his compositions may be found in Grove's Dictionary of Music, and his songs "Love in thine eyes for ever dwells," "Take, O take those lips away, "and "Time hath not thinned my flowing hair," are still not quite dead. His "Te Deum in F" rang through every village church in England.

He made many visits to London, and returned each time more dissatisfied with Exeter, to which he was bound by his occupation as organist of the cathedral, and by his family.

The Literary Society of Exeter and its environs was not inconsiderable in number. Several of the resident clergy, some physicians and other gentlemen, had instituted what they called "The Exeter Society." They proposed to rival, by volumes of their own, the Transactions of the Manchester Society, whose occasional appearance had attracted some notice. But a committee sitting judicially on the contributions of their neighbours and of each other nearly broke up their friendly intercourse.

In this "Exeter Society" from the first Jackson had declined to enrol himself as a member. He kept aloof; he took no interest in their enterprise. He kept on good terms with the members, not entering into friendship with any, but also keeping free from their rivalries and contentions.

He was known throughout England as "Jackson of Exeter." This was because, on the publication of his first set of songs, he had described himself as "William Jackson of Exeter" to distinguish himself from another Jackson who was a musician at Oxford. The last twenty years of his life were passed in a voluntary seclusion. A good many regretted this; he supposed that his talents made him an object of jealousy in the petty world of a cathedral city. He was not made as much of there as he deemed that he deserved. Few strangers, however, visited Exeter without seeking an introduction to this eminent man; and his door was always open to those young men who were of a poetical cast of mind. Even Dr. Wolcot, the venomous Peter Pindar, had a kindly word to say for him in verse. His favourite composer of words for his songs was one Bampfylde, a Devonshire poet, whose sonnets have never been collected, and which would not commend themselves to modern taste. Rendal, a polished versifier, composed for him a series of fairy personifications, with distinct scenery and appropriate action, to introduce new combinations of music. The fays were in caverns, on lakes, on a volcano, among glaciers, in the billows of the sea, in groves lit by the evening star. The music of the "Fairy Fantasies," as these were called, was one of the latest compositions of Jackson.

Jackson occupied and amused himself with literary compositions. His Thirty Letters touched on many interesting points of art, literature, and philosophy.

In The Four Ages he put together a collection of various articles and stories. The volume took its title from the leading essay, in which he showed that the opinion of the Ancients as to a sequence of Golden, Silver, Brass, and Iron Ages should be inverted—that early man began in the Iron Age, and that society and culture were rapidly progressing to the Golden Age.

Dr. Burney said with severity, yet not without some truth, of Jackson: "He has never been remarkable for sailing with the tide of general opinion on any occasion. He would, perhaps, suppose the whole universe rather than himself to be in the wrong, in judging of any of the arts." The critic ascribed his perverse ingenuity to "prejudice, envy, a provincial taste, or perhaps all together, which prevented his candid attention."

He possessed a certain amount of wit, but it was of a cumbrous nature. On one occasion, being called upon at a public dinner for a toast, he said: "I have great pleasure, Mr. Chairman, in complying with your command, and give you the opening words of the third Psalm." The chairman, astonished at the inappropriateness of the idea, stopped the musician short by exclaiming: "Oh, fie, Mr. Jackson! the beginning of a Psalm as a convivial toast?"

"Yes, sir, unless you can suggest a better. I give you Lord How."

But what humour he had acidulated into sarcasm, as he could not move musically with the times. He could not advance out of the restricted circle of his own ideals, which was very narrow. To such a mind, Gothic architecture could only exhibit "an incongruous mass of absurdities—it is a false style, only showing the want of skill in the builders in mixing forms which cannot accord."

He was greatly incensed that the public appreciated the music of Haydn, Mozart, and even Handel, whose strains were "an imposition of the feelings drawn from illegitimate sources." Why could not English ears rest satisfied with Greene and Boyce and Blow? He affected to smile on "musical expression," which he considered so contemptible that fantastic Germans were only capable of attempting it. Did the poet ask, "What passion cannot music raise or quell?" I ask in turn, What passion can music raise or quell? Poets or musicians can only produce different degrees of pure pleasure, and when they have produced this last effect they have attained the utmost in the power of poetry or music. Jackson published his Observations on the Present State of Music in London in 1791, in which he gave vent to his spleen. Dr. Burney replied, "And must we go to Exeter to ask Mr. Jackson how to please and be pleased? Are we to have no music in our concerts but elegies and balads? Mr. Jackson's favourite style of music has been elegies, but what is an elegy to a tragedy or to an epic poem? He sees but one angle of the art of music, and to that all his opinions are referred. His elegy is no more than a closet in a palace."

The great Handel Commemoration in Westminster Abbey in 1784 affected the organist of Exeter Cathedral with an attack of the spleen, from which he seems never to have recovered. At first, when that gigantic project was announced, he declared it to be impracticable, for that so stupendous a band, composed of many hundred instruments, could produce only a universal and deafening clash. When, however, the miracle succeeded, he took exception at the selection of pieces that had been performed. Lest Handel should obtain an exclusive triumph, he protested that there were other musicians beside Handel who deserved to be heard, and merited as high honours as were accorded to him. In 1790 came Haydn to London, and the cup of Jackson's wrath overflowed. His ear could not endure the lively melodies and gorgeous effects of The Creation. It was then, in the rage of his heart, that he published his Observations. Artists and amateurs, according to him, who welcomed the ravishing music of Haydn were taking "their present musical pleasure from polluted sources." And on his accustomed principle and in his usual style he declared that, "judging of the sensations of others by his own, the public is not pleased with what it applauds with rapture."

Jackson entertained the greatest contempt for the physicians of his day, and perhaps not unjustly. He imagined that all the diseases to which man is heir are produced by misconduct and intemperance, and that they could be resisted by sobriety; and prevention, said he, was better than cure. His decision, persevered in, of using only abstinence, when his constitution was broken, precipitated his end. He died of asthma on 5 July, 1803, and was buried in S. Stephen's Church, Exeter, where is a tablet to his memory, with a eulogistic description of his talents and attainments, written by his friend, William Kendall. The tablet also records the death of his widow, his daughter Mary, and four sons. One of his sons was ambassador to the King of Sardinia, and afterwards to Paris and Berlin. His eldest son, William, at an early age entered the service of the East India Company, and was secretary to Lord Macartney in his embassy to China. He amassed a considerable fortune in India, and married Frances, the only plain daughter of Charles Baring, of Courtlands, near Exmouth. One of the other daughters married Sir Stafford Northcote, Bart., of Pynes, another Sir Samuel Young, Bart., of Formosa Place, on the Thames. William purchased Cowley Barton, where he built Cowley House. The design is said to have been suggested by his father, as bearing some resemblance to an organ front. He was High Sheriff of Devon in 1806. He died in 1842, without leaving any issue.

Among William Jackson's musical compositions was a setting of Pope's elegy, Vital Spark of Heavenly Flame, which was sometimes used as an anthem, and has been known to be given out by a clerk in a village church thus: "Let us sing to the praise and glory of God—Poppy's Legacy."

The authorities for Jackson's life are:—

Grove's Dictionary of Music.

A Dictionary of Musicians. London, 1827.

The autobiography already referred to in The Leisure Hour, 1882.

"Jackson of Exeter," in the New Monthly Magazine for 1832.

G. Townsend, "William Jackson," in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1882.

The Dictionary of National Biography, etc.