WILLIAM JACKSON, an eminent musical composer, was the son of a tradesman of Exeter; where he was born in 1730. As he early discovered a great genius for music, he was educated to that profession under the celebrated Travers, and may be said to have imbibed no small portion of that composer's spirit. It must be allowed that Jackson possessed a considerable share of intellectual ability, and evinced on many occasions a very distinguished taste for the fine arts. His judgment in general was sound; genius will not be denied him; and when genius, judgment, and taste are united in the same person, we are entitled to expect an approximation to human excellence. At the same time it must be confessed, that these qualities were strongly alloyed by a mixture of selfishness, arrogance, and an insatiable rage for superiority. In many of his musical compositions he has displayed traits of novelty, but these are not the most estimable of his productions. The Elegies, the best of his works, possess superior melody, for which we may allow him credit; but the harmony of these is in some measure derived from his old master; that is, they are constructed upon the model of that composer's canzonets. Indeed, many of Jackson's early compositions savour much of the spirit and contrivance of Travers.
Jackson's fame, in a great measure, may be said to be founded in his judgment of selection with regard to poetry; though he sometimes took unwarrantable liberties with his author, in order to accommodate the lines to his music. Perhaps no composer copied less from others than Jackson, yet at the same time it must be admitted that he was a palpable mannerist. His most interesting and novel melodies are too frequently associated with common passages that have existed almost from the origin of music; the descent of four notes in the diatonic order is sufficient to illustrate our meaning. Jackson's peculiar fort existed in giving all elegant and plaintive melody to elegiac poetry. In constituting harmony, without rendering the middle part or parts of a composition destitute of melody, Jackson stands unrivaled. This is no trivial praise, when it is known that, before his time, composers were, and are at present, very defective in this part of their art. It was a defect in Jackson's music, that his melody would suit any species of plaintive lines: few of his compositions displayed the art of mingling expression with melody, and preserving the latter in its purity. His Fairy Fantasies, not yet published, evince more congruity than any others of his works.
He long taught music at Exeter, and in 1777 was appointed organist of that cathedral. In 1782 he rose at once to literary fame by the publication of Thirty Letters on various subjects, 2 vols. 12mo. These principally consisted of essays on the belles lettres, and evinced taste, learning, vivacity, and even genius. In 1798 he published The Four Ages, together with Essays on various subjects, 8vo, which consisted of so much instructive, original, and entertaining matter, that it added considerably to the author's well-earned fame. It contained, however, some opinions on religion, not sufficiently considered, which gave offence to serious readers. He also published A Treatise on the present state of Music, 1791, and eighteen musical works, consisting of hymns, songs, canzonets, elegies, and An Ode to Fancy. Mr. Jackson also paid his court to the graphic muse, but never looked at nature, believing, that by copying other masters he might at last arrive at excellence. His great model was his friend Gainsborough, whose colouring and composition he constantly endeavoured to imitate, sometimes with a degree of success which induced him to lay a false claim to the merit of originality. But, had he succeeded in even equalling that great artist, his pictures would not have spoken the language of nature; the man who merely copies another, either in music or painting, can never he considered a great artist; he can only be a faint echo, and ranked among the servum pecus imitatorum.
Though his general mode of living was temperate, yet he thought that a still greater abstinence would prolong his existence. In his latter days, he dined on milk-porridge, and drank water. This experiment was fatal. His habit necessarily became impoverished, and his existence terminated in a dropsy, at the age of 73, July 12, 1803.