Music in Eighteenth Century Birmingham by Martin Perkins

FRIDAY, 3 APRIL 2015

Music in Eighteenth Century Birmingham – The Musicians of St Philip’s

First home to the Birmingham Triennial music festivals, St Philip’s (now Birmingham Cathedral) has a long tradition of as a place of great music.  Many of the musicians associated with St Philip’s in the eighteenth century did not confine their professional activities to that building.  This article explores the life and works of some of these men and other prominent musical figures of the town.

Music in St. Philip’s – right place, right time.“Lovers of mere harmony might receive great pleasure from Metrical Psalmody, in parts, devoid as it is of musical measure, and syllabic quantity, if it were well performed; but that so seldom happens, that the greatest blessing to lovers of Music in a parish-church, is to have an organ in it sufficiently powerful to render the voices of the clerk, and of those who join in his out-cry, wholly inaudible.”

The townsfolk of Birmingham didn’t have to endure the situation described here by Charles Burney, writing in his A General History of Music, volume II.  Even before St Philip’s was built in 1715, the parish church of Birmingham – St. Martin’s, Digbeth – already had an organ, and therefore an organist.  St Philips also didn’t have to rely on unaccompanied psalm-singing in worship because the subscriptions raised for erecting the church also paid for a new organ, built by Thomas Swarbrick and installed in the west gallery.  Birmingham therefore was already an attractive proposition for any budding musician keen to take advantage of a pre-existing appetite for music both sacred and secular. The first organist, however, was the Birmingham-born Barnabas Gunn.

Barnanas Gunn

According to St. Philip’s records, Gunn was appointed in 1715. This position would have been a relatively minor one at the time, and it’s perhaps not surprising that he only stayed 15 years before he moved to Gloucester to become the organist there  – probably tempted by a more prestigious position. However, he returned to Birmingham in 1739 to become organist at St. Martin’s – a smaller church, without a choir, with perhaps fewer responsibilities than Gloucester, but it is possible that he also took overall responsibility for music in the town in general, including at St. Philip’s.
Moving from Gloucester to Birmingham as a Cathedral organist in today’s world would be considered a side-step in career terms, but it was Birmingham’s rising middle class and the opportunities for earning extra income that clearly persuaded Gunn to return. Indeed, he was involved with a variety of non-church music-making during these years.
One might think that composers were at the top of the tree in the profession, but in terms of earning a living, publishing music was more often a way of getting your name out, giving proof of your worth as a musician so that you can attract some wealthy patrons and pupils.
Gunn’s published compositions are very typical of this situation:

2 Cantata’s and 6 Songs (Gloucester, 1736)

Fairest of all the lights above: A lyric Poem (1742)
6 violin sonatas (1745)
6 violin sonatas (1745)
12 English Songs (circa 1749)
6 Setts of Lessons for the Harpsichord (1750)

(Gunn: Twelve English Songs, 1749.)
Barnabas Gunn taught privately, and we have a fascinating glimpse into this world by way of a letter from one of his pupils.  During the late 1740s and early 1750s, he taught one Maria Dolman, who was the cousin of William Shenstone, the famous poet who lived at The Leasowes in Halesowen. Miss Dolman lived not far away in Brome, a village halfway to Kidderminster, from where she penned the following letter to her cousin describing her music teacher and a recent controversy surrounding him.

“I Return you a Multitude of Thanks for the Favour of your last Letter to me. I think you seem to have had as solitary a Winter as we have at Broom. This is the Season a Town Life is vastly preferable to that of the Country; the Country now is only fit for Poachers and Game-keepers. However, we have two Amusements which never fail us, and those are Reading and Music. In order that we may enjoy the latter in a greater Degree.., we have got Mr. Gunn over sometimes, and he says, he’ll make us proficient in the Art of Music presently, provided we will but be diligent. I have sent for the Pamphlet that is wrote against Mr. Gunn’s Compositions. As he’s my Master, I have a Curiosity to it. He says, it pulls him all to Pieces. I can’t tell what Genius he has for composing Music, but certainly he’s a very good Music-Master. As a Companion, I do not much admire him: I think he’s a disagreeable Man; very mercenary; always full of Esteem for himself, and of Contempt for all others; and does not consider, that it is almost as glorious to acknowledge Merit in other Persons, as to have it oneself: but he sets good Lessons, so I’ll bear with him.”


This gives a pretty good idea of Gunn’s character, and ability as a musician. The Pamphlet in question – The Art of Composing Music by a Method entirely New Method Suited to the Meanest Capacity, was written by no less than Dr. William Hayes, professor of music at Oxford University.

It was a very thinly veiled attack on Gunn’s writing style, as exemplified in his 12 English Songs of 1749. Hayes suggests that Gunn composed using a ‘Spruzzarino’, a machine which squirted ink on paper to create notes. 

“Take a Gallipot, put therein Ink of what Colour you please; lay a Sheet of ruled Paper on your Harpsichord or Table; then dip the Spruzzarino into the Gallipot; when you take it out again shake off the superfluous Liquid; then take the fibrous or hairy Part betwixt the Fore-finger and Thumb of your Left-hand, pressing them close together, and hold it to the Lines and Spaces you intend to sprinkle; then draw the Fore-finger of your Right-hand gently over the Ends thereof, and you will see a Multiplicity of Spots on the Paper; this repeat as often as you have Occasion …

(Hayes: The Art of Composing Music by a Method entirely New…, 1751.)

So, what was Gunn’s response? Rather than shrink away from this rather public embarrassment, he responded in a rather humorous way, using Hayes’ made-up ‘Spruzzarino’ to his advantage. The following year, he re-published his collection of songs with the addition of some new songs, including, a new opening song ‘Once more my good friends’ ….
Here’s the new title-page for the collection:

(Gunn: Twelve English Songs … Set to Musick by the New Invented Method of
Composing with the Spruzzarino, 1751)

John Eversmann and Music at Birmingham’s Pleasure Gardens, Balls and Subscription Concerts. 
Gunn died in 1753 and his his replacement at St. Philip’s, was William St. Thunes, who we do not know much about at all. His tenure lasted just over 4 years until John Eversmann was appointed. Eversman, like Gunn was active in the town outside of the church making and continued much of the extra-eccesiastical freelance work this predecessor had enjoyed. Of particular interest is the fashionable pleasure gardens established at Duddeston, later renamed Vauxhall after the famous gardens in London.
By the late 1750s, music was very much part of the attractions at Duddeston. In a notice in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette printed every week during May 1759, we can see that the proprietors were trying to attract visitors from far affield, not just up the road from Birmingham.
“Duddeston-Hall, commonly called Vaux-Hall, near Birmingham, Is now fitted up in a neat and commodious Manner for the Reception of Travellers; it Lies in the direct Road between Liverpool, Warrington, West-Chester, Salop, Stafford, and Lichfield, leading to London through Warwick, Stratford upon Avon, and Oxford; and is much nearer than going through Birmingham. It is conveniently situated for most of the great Roads that pass through Birmingham, and by going this Way, Gentlemen, &c. avoid riding near two Miles upon the Stones: Hands, with Directions, are set up in proper Places.”
The same newspaper also carried separate adverts for the musical attractions at the gardens, and we can see that the concerts were held fortnightly throughout June, July and August of that year.

As the years goes by, we start to see a little more information about these musical events at the gardens in the Gazette adverts. Notably, the phrase ‘A good band of musick’ appears with increasing regularity, which suggests that perhaps some performances weren’t quite up to the standard audiences expected! We sometimes see certain instruments singled out, such as on 6th August 1761 when the concert was to feature ‘French Horns and Kettle Drums’.  Occasionally we see reference to specific pieces performed. For example, on the 16th of August 1764, the final evening’s entertainments for that season, concluded with the Coronation Anthem ‘God Save the King’, and the concert of 18th June 1767 was to conclude with a favourte chorus in Handel’s Acis and Galatea.
Opera stars from the London stage made appearances at the Gardens from time to time. Soprano Signiora Mariana Mazzanti made an appearance during the August performances of 1763, for example. However, it was much more usual for singers from the theatre to perform, than those from the London opera houses; these were actor/singers who were resident for the season at the New Theatre in King Street, performing on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, and also appearing at Duddeston on Thursdays.
One might expect the gardens to have been a place of refinement for persons of gentle society but evidence is sometimes to the contrary.  The following advertisement is a typical notice for music at the gardens which featured Mr. Kear and Mr. Dorman, both members of Joseph Younger’s company, resident at the New Theatre throughout the 1760s and early 1770s.

(Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, 24 August, 1761)

Eversmann’s name appears in every advert for the entertainments at Duddesdon until his death in 1765. His successor at St Philip’s was Jeremiah Clark who had been appearing in Birmingham concerts for some years already, not as organist, but as a violin soloist; leading bands and playing solos at the gardens and in other concerts.

Jeremiah Clark
Jeremiah Clark is not to be confused with Jeremiah Clarke who was a London musician working at the end of the 17th century alongside Henry Purcell and John Blow. This Clark was a Worcester man: his father was a lay-clerk in the cathedral, and Jeremiah’s musical training started in the choir-stalls alongside father in the early 1750s. He was paid the handsome sum of 4 pounds a year during his years as a chorister.  From 1758 he started appearing professionally alongside his father in benefit concerts in the region – Bridgnorth, Bewdley, Worcester and Stourbridge. In 1763 he published his first collection of songs, and judging by the huge list of subscribers, had by that time acquired plenty of titled and gentry patrons, pupils and friends to support him.

(Jeremiah Clark: Eight Songs with the Instrumental Parts Set to Musick [Op. 1], 1763)
(Jeremiah Clark: Eight Songs with the Instrumental Parts Set to Musick [Op. 1], 1763 – subscribers list)

This publication was certainly a crucial factor in Clark getting the job at St. Philip’s. He moved to Birmingham late in 1765, having been ‘unanimously chose Organist of the New Church in Birmingham’, as an announcement in the Oxford Journal stated on October 10th.  He appears not to have taken over all the extra-church musical roles that Hobbs and Eversmann enjoyed. But it is unclear whether this was because there wasn’t room, or if he was actually too busy with his duties at St. Philip’s, Blue Coat school, and, most interestingly – as a concert violinist.
He undoubtedly was an organist (the role at St. Philip’s demanded it, and he is recorded as having performed concertos in public), but it is as a violinist that we see most evidence of his public music-making. Throughout the next 20 years his name appeared all over the Midlands region as a soloist: Gloucester, Hereford, Worcester, Sutton Coldfield, Derby, Wolverhampton, Lichfield and many other centres. He performed alongside London professionals in the Three Choirs Festival, and promoted his own benefit concerts in Birmingham Assembly Rooms and Duddeston Gardens.
The following typical advertisements from Aris’s Birmingham Gazette featuring Jeremiah Clark date from 1770. The first, the annual St Cecilia concert given by the Lichfield Cecilian Society, would no doubt have featured prominent singers of the City including the celebrated John Saville, one of the Vicars Choral at the cathedral. The second, an example of the many ‘benefit’ concerts promoted by local professionals; this one by the blind organist of St. Peter’s, Wolverhampton, William Rudge. We see here that Jeremiah Clark also performed a ‘Solo’ (i.e. a concerto), and the principal vocal soloist was the aforementioned John Saville of Lichfield.

(Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, 1 October 1770)
(Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, 19 November 1770)

Clark published 2 further sets of songs, including a set with orchestral scoring with horns, clarinets and wind, undoubtedly written for performances at one of his concerts or pleasure gardens evenings. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career as a composer came in 1798 when he offered his services to organise a grand celebratory concert for the recent victories of Lord Nelson and Lord Duncan at Camperdown.  His Constitutional Ode was performed, – sadly only the published concert programme survives.
At the end of his life, Clark returned to Worcester, having secured the position of organist at the Cathedral in 1806. This appointment was short-lived: after directing the Three Choirs Festival that year, he evidently retired, probably on grounds of ill-health, to nearby Bromsgrove, and died there 3 years later.

Hobbs, Bond and the first Oratorio Performances. 
Perhaps the most well-known feature of music in eighteenth-century Birmingham is the establishment of the Triennial Festival and its roots in the churches and musical societies of the town. An important factor in this movement was the public’s appetite for public oratorio performances put on with philanthropic aims in mind. At St. Martin’s (in the Bull-Ring), Digbeth, Richard Hobbs, was making his own mark on Birmingham’s musical scene by introducing its audiences to such oratorios.
Handel’s English Oratorios were extremely popular at the time. The  Old Testament stories that English oratorios were based on had the drama and exoticism of the Italian opera (which had fallen out of favour), and also a clear religious and moral content which meant that it was perfectly acceptable for performances during religious holidays and even in churches.  Handel himself conducted an annual performance of Messiah at London’s Foundling Hospital from the early 1740s, popularising a movement across the land which remains to this day – the charity concert – and it was often in this context that oratorios were performed in the provinces.
Richard Hobbs was the first person to attempt such an event in Birmingham, and this happened on the 10th and 11th of October 1759. Actually, Messiah wasn’t featured in this first event, the two concerts took place in the Theatre rather than a church, and they were performed for Hobb’s own benefit rather than for charity, but nevertheless it whetted the appetite for future performances.

(Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, 1st October 1759)

A close inspection of the advert reveals that the event must have been a huge undertaking, involving performers from London and across the Midlands counties. Thomas Pinto was a London violin virtuoso and leader at theatres and pleasure gardens; Abraham Adcock was a celebrated trumpeter and organ-builder; and the vocal soloists were all prominent names on the scene at the time – Master Carpenter, James Wass (Gentleman of the Chapel-Royal), Price (Gloucester), Mence, Saville and Brown (Lichfield).
Hobbs put on another oratorio meeting the next year, and the following years saw further initiatives by local musicians, most notably, Capel Bond, organist of Coventry. Bond was certainly top dog in the region as a professional musician in the 1760s. He not only promoted his own oratorio concerts but was also called upon to conduct elsewhere in the region.  One curious fact concerning the oratorio performances in the early 1760s is that apart from the two put on by Hobbs in 1759 and 1760 Birmingham itself did not host such events for some time.

In 1767 the following poem appeared in the Birmingham Gazette, 19th October 1767:

“On the Revival of Oratorios in BirminghamIn other towns while oratorios please,Shall we in gloomy silence spend our days?Nor taste of those Enjoyments that impartMelodious Sounds to captivate the Heart?Sons of Apollo, who the Name revereOf Handel, and his Memory hold dear,Let not the circling Seasons pass unsung;And whilst you’ve Power to charm the list’ning Throng,Bid Dulness fly, nor let it e’er be said,Where Arts are cherish’d, Music droops its Head.”

And at the end of October 1767, the revival of these oratorios took place: Handel’s Oratorios of Sampson and Acis and Galatea, at the theatre, and Messiah at St Philip’s. The advert boasted a similar calibre of soloists as in previous years and “a numerous Band, consisting of 16 Violins, 4 Hautboys, 4 Tenors, 5 Violincellos, 4 Bassoons, 2 Double Basses, 2 Trumpets, 2 French Horns, Kettle Drums, Harpsichord and Organ, with a full Chorus of 40 Voices.”
A crucial clue as to the origins of the great Birmingham Triennial Festival can be seen in the review of these performances, also in the Gazette, the following week.

(Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, 26th October 1767)

This public charity turned out to be the General Hospital, which although planned some 10 years earlier had run out of money even before the first brick had been laid.

The 1768 festival was a great success, raising substantial sums for the hospital, and firmly established the link with the hospital. By 1779 the hospital had been opened but the fund-raising concerts continued, and from 1784 the ‘festival’ became a permanent three-year fixture which sowed the seeds for the great Triennial Festival in the 19th century.

Amateur Interlude
The curious fact of music is that unlike other arts, music still has a complicated life after it has been composed. In the age of Enlightenment, music was seen as a very worthy subject to study; not only the rules of harmony and composition, but also the art of performance. As we know, being able to sing and play the harpsichord was an essential skill to have for any daughter aspiring to climb the social ladder, and it was normal for young men to learn instrument too – usually the flute, violin or, cello. Thus, performances could be given by professionals, or amateurs, or both. The role of the amateur in public performance is complicated, but was important.
An example of typical sentence added to advertisements for the musical meetings during this time is as follows:

(Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, 14th August 1768)

It is clear that the ranks of the bands at these concerts were intended to have been filled with these amateur gentry performers; evidence from correspondence and diaries from figures such as John Marsh and William Gardner corroborate strengthens the case.  However, these public concerts were not events that any competent amateur musician could take part in: two very important amateur musician/composers in the region were both in fact members of the clergy.  Richard Mudge, who was rector in the parish of Little Packington (situated off the main Birmingham-Coventry road), and as such, also private curate to the Earl of Aylesford of Packington Hall. Mudge was evidently part of the Aylesfords’ social circle, and certainly took part in musical events which included the Aylesfords, the architect Sanderson Miller, poet William Shenstone and, a clergy colleague of Mudge in Edgbaston – John Pixell.
Pixell was vicar at St. Bartholomew’s Church (now called Edgbaston Old Church), active from the 1750s to 80s. He published two sets of songs, in 1759 and 1775. They are unlike anything published at the time: far from being a uniform set of ’12 songs’ or even pieces of the same theme, they are a real pot-porit of styles, forms and subjects, with lots of arcadian-style cantatas, and songs that would fit well in a Pleasure Garden performances, as well as the more unusual domestic sacred works.

(John Pixell: Odes, Cantatas, Songs, &c, divine, moral, entertaining. Op. 2, 1775)


Joseph Harris
One final figure deserves attention – for being another true professional with a nation-wide reputation. Joseph Harris was not a native of Birmingham; born in Bristol, he gained a B.A. from Oxford in 1773 at the time he was organist at Ludlow. As a virtuoso keyboardist he gained prominence in concerts around the region, appearing in Birmingham several times during the 1770s and early 1780s before gaining the post of organist at St. Martin’s in 1787. Among his pupils was Anne Boulton, daughter of the Birmingham industrialist and Lunar Society member Matthew Boulton.

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