Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, John (1595-1674)

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WILSON, JOHN (1595–1674), musician, born at Faversham in Kent on 5 April 1595, was distinguished as a lutenist, and in 1635 succeeded Alphonso Bales as musician to the king. Personal popularity won for his compositions something more than a just appreciation both at the court of Charles I, when Oxford was the stronghold of the royal cause, and among the young men of the university. Wilson's influence in spreading the love of music has been acknowledged as far-reaching. ‘The best at the lute in all England,’ he sometimes played the lute at the music meetings of Oxford, but more often presided over ‘the consort’ (Wood, Life, p. xxiv). In 1644–5 Wilson graduated Mus. Doc. Oxon.; in 1646, on the surrender of the Oxford garrison, he entered the household of Sir William Walter of Sarsden. On the re-establishment in 1656 of the Oxford professorship of music, Wilson was appointed choragus, the lectureship having by this time been diverted from the intention of its founder. In 1661 he resigned this post for that of chamber musician to Charles II, and in 1662 he was appointed gentleman of the Chapel Royal in the place of Henry Lawes.

He lodged at the Horseferry, Westminster, died there—‘aged 78 yeares, 10 months, and 17 dayes’—on 22 Feb. 1673–4, and was buried in the little cloister of Westminster Abbey. He married his second wife, Anne Peniall, on 31 Jan. 1670–1.

Wilson's portrait is among others belonging to the Oxford Music School. An engraving by Caldwall (1644) was published by Hawkins (Hist. 2nd edit. p. 582; cf. Bromley, Cat. Engr. Portr. p. 153).

The theory has been raised by Dr. Rimbault, but has never been seriously accepted, that Dr. John Wilson was identical with Shakespeare's Jack Willson, who sang ‘Sigh no more, ladies,’ and other lyrics. The folio of 1623 gives the stage direction, ‘Enter the Prince, Leonato, Claudio, and Jack Willson’ (Much Ado, act ii. sc. 3). That Wilson had frequent intercourse with contemporary composers of Shakespearean lyrics, and himself set to music ‘Take, oh! take those lips away,’ are known facts. That he had a humorous nature and a love of practical joking, such as would better beseem an actor of those days, was commonly reported, and that he was the Willson who, in company with Harry and Will Lawes, raised a tavern brawl, is possible (Harl. MS. 6395, quoted by Rimbault, Who was Jack Wilson? 1846). But these coincidences are not of sufficient weight to establish identity. On the other hand, there is a letter of 21 Oct. 1622 from Mandeville to the lord mayor and aldermen, soliciting for John Willson the place of one of the servants of the city for music and voice, vacant by the death of Richard Balls (Remembrancia, viii. 48, 121), and a list of musicians for the ‘waytes,’ 17 April 1641, records the same name. It is unlikely that Wilson commenced his career by these city appointments, which may be presumed to have been enjoyed by a humbler namesake, John Wilson, actor and singer.

The Playfords published airs and glees by Wilson in (1) ‘Select Ayres,’ 1652; (2) ‘Catch that catch can;’ and (3) ‘Pleasant Musical Companion,’ 1667. In Clifford's ‘Collection’ (2nd edit. 1664) are the words of (4) Wilson's ‘Hearken, O God;’ (5) ‘Psalterium Carolinum, the devotions of His Sacred Majestie in his solitude and suffering, rendered in verse by T. Stanley, and set to musick for three voices and an organ or theorbo,’ 1657; (6) ‘Cheerful Ayres or Ballads, first composed for one single voice, and since for three voices,’ Oxford, 1660, 3 vols. This was the first attempt at music printing at Oxford. In manuscript there are at the British Museum many of Wilson's songs in Additional MS. 29396, most of which is said to be in the handwriting of Ed. Lowe; an Evening Service in G (vol. v. of Tudway's ‘Collection’) and nine songs and part-songs in Additional MSS. 10337 and 11608; and at the Bodleian Library music to several ‘Odes’ of Horace and to passages in Ausonius, Claudian, Petronius Arbiter, and Statius. Among Wilson's compositions was the air ‘From the fair Lavinian shore,’ from which (and Savile's ‘The Waits’) Sir Henry Bishop compounded the popular glee ‘O, by rivers.’

[Burney's Hist. of Music, iii. 389; Hawkins's Hist. ii. 582; Grove's Dict. iv. 462; Cheque-book of the Chapel Royal, p. 13; Abdy Williams's Degrees of Music, pp. 36, 82; Davey's Hist. pp. 279, 284, et seq.; Cal. State Papers, Dom. Charles I and Charles II; will in Westminster Act Book, fol. 86; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. ii. 171, viii. 418, 6th ser. x. 455; Coll. Top. et Gen. vii. 164; authorities cited.]

L. M. M.