Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Busby, Thomas

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BUSBY, THOMAS (1755–1838), musical composer, was the son of a coach-painter. He was born at Westminster in December 1755, and though as a boy he received but little education, yet at an early age he was distinguished by his cleverness. Busby's father was fond of music, and sang himself with good taste. When his son developed a fine treble voice, he determined to bring him up as a musician. With this view, application was made to Dr. Cooke, the organist of Westminster Abbey, to take young Busby (who was then between twelve and thirteen) as a chorister ; but Cooke thinking him too old, he was placed under Champness for singing, and Knyvett for the harpsichord. Subsequently he studied under Battishill, and made so much progress that in the summer of 1769 he was engaged to sing at Vauxhall at a salary of ten guineas a week. On his voice breaking, he was articled to Battishill for three years, during which time both his musical and general education rapidly improved, though more by his own efforts than by those of his master. On the expiration of his articles he returned to his father's house, and set himself to earn his living by music and literature. His first venture was the composition of music to a play by Dr. Kenrick, 'The Man the Master,' but this was never finished. He then turned his attention to oratorio, and began a setting of Pope's 'Messiah,' at which he worked intermittently for several years. Busby was more successful with literary pursuits than with musical. He was for some time parliamentary reporter of the 'London Courant,' and assisted in editing the 'Morning Post,' besides acting as musical critic to the 'European Magazine' and Johnson's 'Analytical Review,' and contributing to the 'Celtic Miscellany' and 'Whitehall Evening Post.' In 1785 he wrote a poem called 'The Age of Genius,' a satire in the style of Churchill, containing nearly 1,000 lines. About five years after the expiration of his articles Busby was elected organist of St. Mary, Newington. Shortly afterwards (July 1786) he married a Miss Angier, daughter of Mr. Charles Angier of Earl's Court, Kensington. After his marriage he lived in Poland Street, where he was much in request as a teacher of Latin, French, and music. A few years later he moved to Battersea. In 1786 Busby and Arnold brought out a 'Musical Dictionary,' the success of which induced the former to issue a serial entitled 'The Divine Harmonist,' consisting of twelve folio numbers of music, partly selected and partly original. In this work are included some fragments of an oratorio by the editor, 'The Creation.' The 'Divine Harmonist' was followed by 'Melodia Britannica,' which was to be a collection of English music, but the work was unsuccessful, and was never completed. About the same time Busby completed a translation of Lucretius into rhymed verse. In 1798 he was elected organist of St. Mary Woolnoth. In the spring of 1799 his efforts to get an important musical work performed were crowned with success, and his early oratorio was produced by Cramer under the name of 'The Prophecy,' probably in order not to provoke comparison with Handel's 'Messiah.' The oratorio seems to have been well received, and Busby set to work upon settings of Gray's 'Progress of Poesy,' Pope's 'Ode on St. Cecilia's Day,' and a cantata from Ossian, 'Comala;' but it is doubtful whether any of these were performed. A so-called 'Secular Oratorio,' 'Britannia' (words by John Gretton), was more fortunate, as it was sung at Covent Garden in 1801 with Mara as the principal soprano. In the preceding year Busby wrote music for Cumberland's version of Kotzebue's 'Joanna,' which was produced at Covent Garden 16 Jan. 1800, without much success. Shortly afterwards he brought out 'A New and Complete Musical Dictionary,' and started the first musical periodical in England, 'The Monthly Musical Journal,' of which four numbers only saw the light. In June 1801 Busby obtained the degree of Mus. Doc. at Cambridge, for which purpose he entered at Magdalen College. His exercise on this occasion was 'A Thanksgiving Ode on the Naval Victories,' the words of which were written by Mrs. Crespigny. In 1802 he wrote music to Holcroft's melodrama, 'A Tale of Mystery,' the first play of this description which appeared on the English stage. It was produced at Covent Garden 13 Nov. 1802, and was very successful. In the following year Busby wrote music for Miss Porter's musical entertainment, 'The Fair Fugitives' (Covent Garden, 16 May 1803), but this was a failure. His connection with the stage ceased with Lewis's 'Rugantino' (Covent Garden, 18 Oct. 1805). The music to all these plays was published, and shows Busby to have been but a poor composer, even for his day, when English music was at a very low ebb. From this time until his death he devoted himself more to literature. The translation of Lucretius was published in 1813, and was followed by an attempt to prove that the Letters of Junius were written by J. L. de Lolme (1816), 'A Grammar of Music' (1818), 'A Dictionary of Musical Terms,' 'A History of Music,' 2 vols. (1819) a work which was successful in its day, though it is entirely a compilation from the Histories of Burney and Hawkins, 'Concert-room Anecdotes,' 3 vols. (1825), an amusing and useful collection, and a 'Musical Manual' (1828). In his latter years Busby lived with a married daughter at Queen's Row, Pentonville, where he died, aged eighty-four, on Monday, 28 May 1838. He was not an original genius, but a clever, hard-working man of letters. According to an obituary notice of him he was eccentric, and held 'loose notions on religious subjects.'

[Public Characters for 1802-3, 371; Concert-room Anecdotes, i. 93; Musical World for 1838, 80; Genest's Hist. of the Stage, vii.; Times, 30 May 1838; British Museum Catalogue; Graduati Cantab. 1760-1856.]

W. B. S.