William Jackson of Exeter

Thomas Busby, "Memoirs of Mr. Jackson, of Exeter" Monthly Magazine 16 (September 1803) 139-43.

The musical world has lately sustained a considerable loss in the death of the late Mr. William Jackson, of Exeter; a gentleman long and justly admired, not only for his high professional merits, but for his various useful and ornamental acquirements, companionable qualifications, and truly amiable character. Judging that such particulars of this gentleman's life as came within my knowledge, accompanied with a few critical remarks on the style and merits of his compositions, might be acceptable to the Readers of the Monthly Magazine, I have seized a leisure hour to commit them to paper, and trust they will not be deemed unworthy a place in that useful and widely-circulating miscellany.

Mr. William Jackson was born at Exeter in May, 1730. His father, an eminent grocer in that place, and master of the city-workhouse, gave him a liberal education, with a view to one of the learned professions; but the youth soon discovering a particular genius for the harmonic science, he was induced to indulge the bent of nature; and placed him under the tuition of Mr. Travers, organist of the cathedral church of St. Peter, in Exeter, with whom he remained two years. Mr. Jackson, after leaving Mr. Travers of Exeter, went to London, where about the year 1748, he became a pupil of the celebrated Mr. Travers, author of Haste my Nannette, and other much-admired two and three-part songs; and at that time organist of the King's Chapel, and St. Paul's Covent-garden. — Under this master he studied two years, after which he returned to his native city, where he for many years practiced as a composer, performer and teacher, with considerable profit and reputation.

His compositions, chiefly vocal, were numerous, and of such singular merit as in private to command the most flattering approbation of the best judges, both in the country and the metropolis, and to quickly elevate him to a respectable rank in his profession. Indeed they, for the most part, exhibited a chasteness of conception, ingenuity of construction, and truth of expression, which not only evinced much native genius, but a taste and knowledge of the higher principles of harmony that could only result from greater acuteness of observation, and close and elaborate study.

In London, his superior talents would not only quickly have ensured him some of those parochial settlements which are daily becoming vacant; but the conduct of public concerts, theatrical composition, and other provinces of professional practice, unknown at a distance from the capital, would have called his abilities into constant exercise, and have accelerated his progress both in wealth and fame. But fixed in Exeter, cut off from these opportunities of advancement, his pecuniary reward, tho' far from scanty, could not keep pace with his growing repute; and not withstanding his great and acknowledged merit, he did not obtain any settled benefice until Michaelmas 1777, when he succeeded Mr. Richard Langdon, as sub-chanter, organist, lay-vicar, and master of the choristers, in the cathedral of Exeter.

In the year 1755 Mr. Jackson's fine talents in musical composition first became known to the public. — About that time, after amusing his friends with a variety of ingenious literary productions in prose and verse; and giving proofs, by many excellent specimens in landscape-painting of a real genius for that art; he printed a book of twelve songs, of which The Heavy Hours are almost past, — Ah why must Words my Flame reveal, — 'Twas when the Seas were roaring, — and — Ianthe the lovely, the Joy of her Swain, — were so simple, yet elegant, and so original and striking as to speedily become popular, and at once give him a station among the first English composers of that day. These were followed by six accompanied sonatas for the harpsichord, in which perhaps his genius did not display itself with equal advantage; but his third work, consisting of six three-part elegies, preceded by an Invocation, gave such evidence of taste, feeling, and judgment, as to establish his reputation as a vocal composer. His next publication was a second collection of 12 songs of which Go gentle Gales, — Let me approach my sleeping Love, — and With Delia ever could I stray, long delighted every cultivated ear; and justly added to the same he had already so well earned. Mr. Jackson's fourth appeal to the public opinion was in an Anthem selected from the Psalms, and Pope's celebrated Ode of a dying Christian to his Soul; the Preface to which he concludes by saying, that both in the Anthem and Ode, he has aimed more at style than composition: and that "there is intended to be contrivance enough to engage without perplexing the attention." The fact, however, is, that the style is poor, the contrivance stiff, if not bald, and the expression, especially in the ode, cold and weak. This work was succeeded by a book of twelve hymns in three parts, with adaptations for a single voice, in the preface to which are some very judicious and useful hints respecting the proper style of this species of church composition; but it is easier to point out than to perform, to judge than to execute; and Mr. Jackson, we must say, after allowing much praise to his work, has not uniformly given to his hymns that "rational and expressive music," he so earnestly recommends. But prefatory strictures are dangerous; even Dryden's examples cannot always stand the test of his own precepts. Mr. Jackson's next publication, consisting of a third collection of songs, though distinguished by many of the attractions peculiar to his compositions, did not present that aggregate of excellence which characterized his former collections; nor was any single air calculated so far as to fascinate the common ear as to become popular. His eighth and greatest work was an Ode to Fancy, the words from Warton. In this production he has necessarily adopted a kind of oratorial style, which, with all his merit in the lighter kinds of composition, was, it is evident, beyond his compass. Dignity of expression, majesty of movement, bold contrivance and grand construction, are all indispensable to the great Ode; and these were not among the general characteristics of Mr. Jackson's style, consequently he has not always reached the sentiments of the poet, nor given to the whole that force and importance of effect expected from this higher species of composition: The eight sonatas for the harpsichord by which this work was succeeded, were written with much taste and spirit, and possessed many passages which, at that time, were perfectly new. His opera nine, consisted of twelve canzonets for two voices; the first of which is his charming and so justly admired composition, Time has not thinned my flowing Hair, and which is also enriched with his two beautiful duetts, From the Plains, from the Woodlands and Groves, and Ah! where does my Phillida stray. To these were afterwards added six quartetts, consisting of harmonizations of old favorite airs, chiefly taken from Dr. Arne; in the disposition of the parts of which he has displayed much ingenuity and knowledge in effect; a collection of twelve canzonets for two voices, in which will be found that elegant and sweetly-affecting duett, Love in thine Eyes for ever plays; two operas comprizing much tasteful and expressive music, and a book of epigrams.

But the catalogue of his musical productions would be very incomplete without naming his manuscript services and anthems, which have been repeatedly performed, at Exeter cathedral, to the delight of all who have heard them. These indeed, rank among the best of his works; Every real judge must confess that the inspiration of the Poet and Musician are in perfect union; and that the connection is productive of an effect the most solemn and devotional. A piece called the Fairy Fantasies, Milton's May Morning, Lycidas, an elegy, and other vocal works of Mr. Jackson's in manuscript, are spoken of with such high commendation, that it is to be hoped they will ere long find their way to the public ear; and add to that praise which every real judge of fine composition cannot but allow him.

In the year 1782, Mr. Jackson appeared as a literary author, when he published in two volumes, small octavo, his Thirty Letters on various Subjects, forming a miscellaneous collection on literature and science, replete with useful information, and elegant and classical in their diction. On poetry, music, and painting, his opinions are frequently singular, yet generally just in themselves, as well as clearly and neatly conveyed. On some subjects, however, he entertained peculiar ideas; particularly in the instance of spontaneous generation; a long-exploded notion which he attempted to illustrate and revive. His opinion on this subject, however erroneous in the judgment of others, is boldly given and forcibly maintained; and merits the attentive perusal of those who value argument above declamation, and are amused with ingenious deductions drawn from problematical premises. In the year 1795, when they had been out of print several years, he published a new edition of them in one volume, octavo, with several additions and corrections.

About 12 years since he put to press a pamphlet On the present State of Music in London, containing many judicious and valuable remarks, and of which a second edition was soon called for.

In the year 1798, Mr. Jackson added another volume to his Letters, under the title of The Four Ages; with Essays on various Subjects. In this work he considers the four mythological ages as descriptive of so many distinct periods of the world, but in a different order from that in which the poets have placed them. Among the essays there is a most curious and entertaining one, on the character of Gainsborough, the painter. But how far the publication of the anecdotes given of that great artist, come within the pale of that confidential friendship supposed to have subsisted between the parties, those will best determine who consult the secret feelings of generosity and honor.

In the year 1792, a literary society was instituted at the Globe inn, Fore-street, Exeter; of which the first members were Dr. Downman, president; Mr. Polwhele, author of The History of Devonshire; Mr. Jackson; the Rev. Mr. Swete, of Oxon; Mr. Hole, author of an Essay on the Arabian Night's Entertainments; Mr. Sheldon, the anatomist; and other ingenious gentlemen, resident in Exeter, or its environs. Each produced in his turn an essay in prose or verse, on some useful subject, to be read at the regular meeting of the society. An octavo volume of these pieces was printed in 1796, reflecting great honor on the talents of which this laudable institution was composed.

Mr. Jackson's literary productions not only possess the advantage of a chaste, correct, and even elegant style, but contain a substance and spirit that will not let the reader slumber over his pages, nor lay his volumes by without wishing to recur to them often, and receiving at each review a new and lively pleasure.

His time was devoted to music, painting, and literature; and it is difficult to say which of the three had the greatest share of his attention. But that his music derived much aid from his literary judgment will be universally allowed. Indeed the taste he constantly manifested in the selection of his words forms an elegant and distinguishing trait in his professional character. The native ease of Shenstone, and the tender sentiment of Hammond furnished many of his subjects; and the address with which he has reduced the heroic lines of the latter to lyric measure is a merit that ought not to be omitted, when we are collecting the evidences of his ingenuity.

The subjects on which he chiefly delighted to employ his pencil were those of landscapes; in the colouring of which he was particularly strong and bold. Morning and evening were his favourite seasons; because in the scenery of these he could indulge his love of partial lights, and striking effects: his cattle were well-drawn, and the disposition of his figures was judicious and happy: but his pictures on the whole had more of effect than finish, and rather displayed a clear, masterly mind, than the refined touches of an elaborate hand.

His music, taken in the aggregate, speaks great justness of conception, much beauty and novelty of idea, considerable powers of expression, a resource in combination and adjustment ranking far above mediocrity, and a matured judgment in general effect. But his melodies are not always free form that mechanical quaintness and rustic inelegance, which, perhaps, only an almost constant residence in the metropolis can wholly surmount; nor are his accompaniments of that artificial and delicate texture, which gives new grace to the air; perpetually embellishing that beauty it ought never to conceal, and occasionally varying from, without defeating, the subject. His basses are not unfrequently chosen with but little art or design, and his elegies and choral scores sometimes betray a want of facility in the interior disposition of the harmony; as well as an embarrassment in answering the points.

When playing the organ or harpsichord, he seemed lost to every thing around him. His performance was full, correct, and impassioned; and he had too just a taste, and was too much a devotee to the good old school, ever to destroy a single resident beauty in a composition, for the sake of unnecessary and surreptitious embellishment.

Mr. Jackson, early in life, married Miss Bartlett, a lady of Exeter, who still resides in that city, and by whom he has had several children. Three of them, two sons and a daughter, are now living. The elder of the sons went to India, and returned with a competent fortune, which he intended to enjoy in his native city, in the bosom of his family; but the appointment of an embassy to the court of Pekin called him from his retirement into actual service; he accompanied Lord Macartney on that remarkable mission, and since his return has resided near Exeter. The other son was employed for some time at Turin, as secretary of legation at that court, and was charge d'affaires, at Paris, after the peace.

In temper Mr. Jackson was precisely what he appears in his writings; pleasant, social, communicative, dryly facetious, and abounding in useful and judicious remarks and entertaining anecdotes. His manner was modest; and in his conversation he never even glanced at his own works. His reading was extensive; and he himself was most ingenious in confessing his obligations to those authors from whom he drew his knowledge; but so affluent was he in original ideas, and so easy and pleasant in his manner of delivering them, that he never was more entertaining, or appeared in a fairer light, than when he shone by the unborrowed rays of his own imagination.

He had a very select acquaintance; and was highly respected by all the first people in Exeter and its vicinity.

His aspect when he was alone in the street appeared somewhat lowering and unsocial; but this was merely the result of studious habits, which so far gained upon him as to prevent his even noticing passing objects of any kind. His figure was tall, and latterly so debilitated as to cause him to stoop very much. He long laboured under the affliction of a severe asthma, which at length terminated the life of a useful and highly ornamental member of society, and deprived a sublime science of a professor whose merits will be acknowledged while real taste exists, and long continue to cast a lustre on the intellectual character of his country.