Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Greatorex, Thomas
GREATOREX, THOMAS (1758–1831), organist and conductor of music, was born at North Wingfield, near Chesterfield, Derbyshire, 5 Oct. 1758: the pedigree compiled by Hayman in the ( Reliquary ' (iv. 220 et seq.) shows his descent from Anthony Greatrakes of Callow, of a family that has nourished for upwards of five centuries in the neighbourhood of Wirksworth, Derbyshire. Greatorex's father Anthony, by trade a nailer, was a self-taught musician, and became an organist. The doubtful story that the elder Greatorex constructed an organ with his own hands after he was seventy may refer to that built by John Strong, the blind weaver, and bequeathed to the elder Greatorex. Martha, the eldest daughter, was thirteen when chosen the first organist of St. Martin's, Leicester. She pursued her calling with so much success that her earnings bought her a little estate at Burton-on-Trent.
The family moved to Leicester when Thomas was eight years old. He was remarkably grave and studious, with a 'strong bias to mathematical pursuits, but, living in a musical family, his ear was imperceptibly drawn to the study of musical sounds ' (Gardiner). Greatorex studied music under Dr. Benjamin Cooke in 1772; two years later, after meeting the Earl of Sandwich and Joah Bates [q. v.], he was enabled to increase his knowledge of church music by attending the oratorio performances at Hinchinbrook. Afterwards he became an inmate of Lord Sandwich's household in town and country, and for a short time succeeded Bates as Sandwich's musical director. Greatorex sang in the Concerts of Ancient Music, established in 1776, but his health obliged him to seek a northern climate, and he accepted the post of organist of Carlisle Cathedral in 1780. Here in his leisure hours he studied science and music, and two evenings in each week enjoyed philosophical discussions with the dean of Carlisle (Dr. Percy), Dr. C. Law, Archdeacon Paley, and others. Greatorex left Carlisle for Newcastle in 1784. In 1786 he travelled abroad, provided with introductions, and was kindly received by English residents; among them Prince Charles Edward, who bequeathed to him his manuscript volume of music. While in Rome Greatorex had singing lessons from Santarelli. At Strasburg Pleyel was his master.
At the end of 1788 Greatorex settled in London, and, once launched as a professor, made large sums ('in one week he had given eighty-four singing lessons at a guinea'). Much of this lucrative business had to be renounced when, in 1793, he accepted the conductorship of the Ancient Concerts, in succession to Bates. His appointment as organist of Westminster Abbey, after the death of Williams in 1819, crowned his honourable career as a musician.
Accounted the head of the English school, Greatorex in 1801 revived the Vocal Concerts. He was a professional member of the Madrigal Society, the Catch Club (from 1789 to 1798), and of the Royal Society of Musicians (from 1791). He was also one of the board at the Royal Academy of Music on its establishment (1822), and was its chief professor of the organ and pianoforte. No important oratorio performance in town or country was thought complete without his co-operation as conductor or organist. Pohl records his accompanying on the Glockenspiel a chorus from 'Saul' as early as 1792 at the Little Haymarket. The fatigues of the provincial musical festivals in his latter years, when gout had attacked him, hastened his end. A cold caught while fishing was the immediate cause of his death at Hampton on 18 July 1831, in his seventy-fourth year. His body was laid near that of Dr. Cooke in Westminster Abbey; Croft's Burial Service and Greene's 'Lord let me know mine end' were sung during the ceremony, which was attended by a vast concourse of people. Greatorex was survived by his widow, six sons, and one daughter.
Greatorex's organ-playing was masterly. ‘His style was massive,’ writes Gardiner; ‘he was like Briareus with a hundred hands, grasping so many keys at once that surges of sound rolled from his instrument in awful grandeur.’ In another place the same writer remarks: ‘Although Mr. Greatorex was a sound musician and a great performer, he never appeared to me to have a musical mind; he was more a matter-of-fact man than one endowed with imagination.’ As a teacher he was admirable, and when conducting, his thorough knowledge of his art, his cool head and sound judgment secured careful performances. During the thirty-nine years that Greatorex held the post of conductor of the Ancient Concerts, it is said that he never once was absent from his duty, or five minutes after his time at any rehearsal, performance, or meeting of the directors. Little but Handel’s music was heard at these concerts, in accordance with the taste of George III and other patrons. Greatorex, too, had conservative ideas in artistic matters. He remarked that ‘the style of Haydn’s “Creation” was too theatrical for England,’ and pretended that he could not play it ‘because it was so unlike anything he had seen.’ Although he could harmonise and adapt with great ease, he did not attempt original work. A few songs and ballads were converted by him into glees, and were popular at the Vocal Concerts; ‘Faithless Emma’ was one of these pieces. At various meetings his orchestral parts to Marcello’s psalm, ‘With songs I’ll celebrate,’ and to Croft’s ‘Cry Aloud,’ were used. Of his published works, ‘Parochial Psalmody,’ containing a number of old psalm tunes newly harmonised for congregational singing, appeared in 1825; his ‘Twelve Glees from English, Irish, and Scotch Melodies’ were not printed until about 1833, after his death. In science he discovered a new method of measuring the altitude of mountains, which gained him the fellowship of the Royal Society; he was also a fellow of the Linnean Society. He was keenly interested in chemistry, astronomy, and mathematics; and was a connoisseur of paintings and of architecture. After his death his library, telescopes, &c., were sold; the Handel bookcase and contents (the works of the master in the handwriting of J. C. Smith) fetched 115 guineas. Warren’s manuscript collection of glees, which fetched 20l., included a manuscript note in Greatorex’s hand, commenting on the manners of earlier times, illustrated by the grossness of the poetry then habitually chosen for musical setting. Greatorex’s town house was 70 Upper Norton (now Bolsover) Street, Portland Place; in the country he had a beautifully situated house on the banks of the Trent.
[Cradock’s Memoirs, i. 117; Gardiner’s Music and Friends, i. 8 et seq.; Harmonicon, 1831, pp. 192, 231; Quarterly Musical Review, vi. 12; Oliphant’s Madrigal Society; Pohl’s Haydn in London, p. 23; Harleian Society’s Registers, x. 504; British Museum Catalogues of Music.]