Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pierson, Henry Hugo

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PIERSON, originally PEARSON, HENRY HUGO (1815–1873), musician, born at Oxford on 14 April 1815, was son of Hugh Nicholas Pearson [q. v.], dean of Salisbury. Pierson was educated at Harrow, where he won the governor's prize for Latin hexameters, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1830. He was destined for the medical profession, but his predilection for music proved irresistible, and he soon devoted himself entirely to the art. While at college he published his first work, ‘Thoughts of Melody,’ six songs, the words by Lord Byron, which Schumann reviewed in the ‘Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.’ His earliest teachers were Corfe, Walmisley, and Attwood, the pupil of Mozart. In 1839 Pierson went to Germany and pursued his musical studies under Reissiger, Tomaschek, and the celebrated organist Rinck. On the retirement of Sir Henry Bishop in 1843, Pierson was elected, in the following year, to the Reid professorship of music in the university of Edinburgh, Sterndale Bennett being another candidate for the post. Pierson's disposition was too sensitive and retiring to enable him to fill a public office. After protesting in vain against the mismanagement of the Reid bequest, he soon resigned the chair, and made his permanent home in Germany, where he had a circle of warm friends and admirers. Pierson married a German lady of talent, the ‘improvisatrice’ Caroline Leonhardt. In Vienna he borrowed from his wife's connections the pseudonym of ‘Mansfeldt.’ This was done at the request of his father, who objected to his writing operatic music under his own name. Later he resumed his family name, changing the spelling to Pierson.

His first opera, ‘The Elves and the Earth King,’ was brought out at Brünn. This was followed by a more important dramatic work, ‘Leila,’ produced at Hamburg in 1848. The oratorio ‘Jerusalem,’ generally considered to be his finest work, was first given at the Norwich festival of 1852. But it was not, as is often stated, composed expressly for that occasion. It was planned, and the words selected from the scriptures, by W. Sancroft Holmes of Gawdy Hall, Norfolk, who was instrumental in bringing it out at Norwich. Holmes died before its production, and Pierson added two numbers in memoriam. At the time that the festival committee accepted ‘Jerusalem,’ they also decided to perform another oratorio, ‘Israel Restored,’ by Dr. Bexfield, an English musician. Bexfield had been a chorister of Norwich Cathedral, and possessed many local admirers. He and Pierson were regarded as rival composers; their parties were soon at daggers drawn, and a controversy, recalling the days of Handel and Buononcini, raged over the production of the two oratorios. ‘Jerusalem’ was enthusiastically received by a large and cultivated audience, but a section of the London press attacked the work with extraordinary animus. The composer was condemned as an ‘innovating nobody,’ a mere parasite of the Wagnerian school. It is not easy to trace in Pierson any affinity to the Bayreuth composer. His tastes were more allied to those of Schumann than to those of Wagner; as regards expression, he aimed at complete originality. ‘Jerusalem’ was performed by the Harmonic Union at Exeter Hall on 18 May 1853, and at Würzburg in 1862, where it created a favourable impression. A tolerably impartial review of the work, signed by Sir G. A. Macfarren, appeared in the ‘Musical Times’ of September 1852.

In 1854 Pierson composed incidental music to the second part of Goethe's ‘Faust,’ which was first produced at the Stadt-Theater, Hamburg. It added greatly to his reputation abroad, and won for him the gold medal for art and science presented by Leopold I of Belgium. The seventh performance was given for the composer's benefit, when he met with a most enthusiastic reception (Neue Berliner Musikzeitung). The ‘Faust’ music has been performed in Frankfort, Bremen, Dresden, and other leading German towns on the anniversaries of Goethe's birthday. A selection from the work was given at the Norwich festival of 1857. In 1869 Pierson revisited England, and was present at the Norwich festival, presiding at the organ during the performance of his unfinished oratorio ‘Hezekiah.’ One of the solos, ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,’ was exquisitely sung by Mademoiselle Tietjens, and made a profound impression; but ‘Hezekiah’ fared no better than ‘Jerusalem’ at the hands of the critics. This was Pierson's final effort to win the recognition of his countrymen. His last important work was a five-act opera, ‘Contarini,’ produced in Hamburg in April 1872. He died at Leipzig on 28 Jan. 1873, and is buried at Sonning, Berkshire.

Besides the works already mentioned, Pierson wrote a number of songs, in which his romantic spirit finds its clearest utterance. Of these, ‘Roland the Brave,’ ‘Thekla's Lament,’ and his remarkable settings of Tennyson's ‘Claribel’ and ‘The White Owl’ (‘When cats run home and light is come’) are fine examples. Some of Pierson's songs have a ring of passion and genuine pathos which recalls Schubert, whom he often surpasses in distinction of style; while at the same time they bear the unmistakable stamp of English thought and invention. He left many unpublished compositions, including several orchestral works. Three orchestral overtures, ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and ‘As you like it,’ have been given at the Crystal Palace concerts. Throughout his career Pierson suffered much from the ungenerous attacks of enemies and the eulogies of uncritical friends. He possessed inspiration of a high order, a lyrical gift of great delicacy, individual charm, and nobility of purpose. But his handling of great subjects is defective, when judged by the standard of Beethoven or even Spohr. His works have been persistently neglected in this country, and of all Pierson's interesting legacy of native invention, the glee ‘Ye mariners of England’ is alone popular with the English public. Pierson also composed many hymn-tunes, some of exceptional beauty.

There exist two portraits of Pierson: (1) an engraving published in the second volume of his collected songs (Leipzig); (2) a portrait sketch in Mr. Robin Legge's ‘History of the Norwich Festivals.’

[Accounts of the Norwich Festivals of 1852, 1857, and 1869, in the Musical World, Musical Times, Athenæum, Spectator, Norwich Mercury, Norfolk Chronicle, &c.; A Descriptive Analysis of the oratorio ‘Jerusalem,’ signed Amicus Patriæ (Norwich, 1852); obituary notices and reviews of Pierson's works in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Neue Berliner Musikzeitung, and other German newspapers; article by Canon Pearson in Grove's Dict. of Music; information received from Mr. Robin Legge.]

R. N.