To celebrate to commemorate: John Wall Callcott (1766 – 1821)

 John Wall Callcott by Frederick Christian Lewis Sr, after Sir Augustus Wall Callcott by Frederick Christian Lewis Sr, after Sir Augustus Wall Callcott, stipple engraving, published 1824

John Wall Callcott by Frederick Christian Lewis Sr, after Sir Augustus Wall Callcott stipple engraving, published 1824.
© National Portrait Gallery, London

John Wall Callcott (1766 – 1821) is synonymous with the Glee, that quintessentially English unaccompanied sentimental part-song, usually for male voices, popular in the 18th and early 19th century for the enjoyment of which the Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Catch Club was founded in 1761, and which awarded prizes for different types of glee and catch. Callcott, the 250th anniversary of whose birth we celebrate this year, produced somewhere upwards of 150 glees in his lifetime and his reputation as a composer of these works was sealed when he won no fewer than three of the Catch Club prizes in 1785.

So successful was Callcott composing in this idiom, that he went on to win prizes at the Catch Club year after year, submitting over sixty pieces for their consideration. His skill was in his understanding of effective writing for each part and of writing appropriately for professional and amateur ensembles as well as for different audiences. As Emanuel Rubin says in his excellent and comprehensive study of the Georgian glee: “Callcott’s glees … cover the gamut in style, literary content, level of difficulty, and sophistication of structure, but they all share a keen understanding of the sonorous possibilities of the solo-voice ensemble, effective writing for every voice, and musical sensitivity.” (The English Glee in the Reign of George III. Warren, MI. Harmonie Park Press 2003, pp.342 – 3). His son-in-law William Horsley published an anthology of  Callcott’s vocal music A Collection of Glees, Canons and Catches, ed. W. Horsley (London, 1824), [MR280.a.80.38 and 29] which also includes an invaluable memoir of his father-in-law “…written from my own recollections; from communications made to me by Dr. Callcott’s Family and Friends; and, more particularly, from a brief sketch of the principal events of his life, drawn up by the Doctor himself, and now in my possession.”

Glees from William Horsley’s 1824 Collection of Glees, Canons and Catches by Callcott

A precocious child, he determined initially on a career as a surgeon, but, having attended an operation “…the shock he experienced on this occasion, however, gave him a complete distaste for surgery [and who can blame him, given the primitive state of the art at the time?]….Music now engrossed his most serious thoughts…”. Gradually, he made himself known in the profession, he played as a “supernumerary hautboy” in the Academy of Ancient Music, sang in the chorus for oratorio performances at Drury Lane Theatre and began to compose, taking several lessons with Haydn when he was in London. He was drawn in particular to the glee “…which, at present”, says Horsley, “is the chief, if not the only, characteristic of the English School of Music, and on which the fame of Dr. Callcott may be said securely to rest.”

The University Library possess well over 100 of Callcott’s vocal works, the majority of the glees in three, four or five parts, with those in Horsley’s anthology offering a splendid overview of his considerable output. Have a look at The new mariners, or, You gentlemen of England [MR290.a.80.1 item 3], or The Erl King (1798)[MRA.260.80.94], about as far away from Schubert’s hair-raising setting of Goethe’s text as it is possible to get. Or for something more educational, how about The Multiplication Table [MR290.a.80.107 item 25].

The Title page and dedication of Horsley’s 1824 Collection

Perhaps the most eccentric item in our collection is Aldiborontiphoscophornio [MRA260.80.56], a setting of the opening lines of the 1734 political satire and parody of over-the-top operatic plots Chrononhotonthologos by Henry Carey. Aldiborontiphoscophornio is a “pompous ass” character whose foil is the equally absurdly-named Rigdum Funnidos.

Such was his reputation as a composer of glees that the Scottish musical biographer David Baptie chose Callcott’s portrait as the frontispiece for his 1896 Sketches of the English glee composers [M742.d.85.2]

Callcott was not only a prolific composer of glees, but also a respected music theorist. His first essay into publishing in this field was, ultimately, an unfinished project – a Dictionary of Music for which he published a proposal in 1798 [MR416.d.75.3 item 7] including examples of entries, expecting the whole to come out a year later. He sets out the need for such a work explaining that “Among the principal difficulties encountered by students, in any of the arts or sciences, are those which arise from obscurity, or want of precision, in the technical terms. The nomenclature of Music has peculiar disadvantages, being in some parts redundant, in others extremely deficient…the great variety of foreign terms continually imported, calls for more explanation than has yet been afforded by any work of this kind in the English Language.” Alas it was never to be realised despite his assurance to readers in his preface to the Musical Grammar to the contrary.

Explanation of the notes, marks, words, &c used in music. London, 1792. p.21

Explanation of the Notes, Marks, Words, &c used in music. London, 1792. p.21

However, his other music tutors were in use for much of the 19th century. The first, his Explanation of the notes, marks, words, &c used in music was published in London in 1792. In his preface, Callcott explains that “The following pages have been written…for the use of Beginners…to assist the progress of Scholars in general, during the absence of their masters.” And he is careful to pay tribute to Haydn “…for his candid and liberal observations on all former compositions, and for the kind attention, with which he has perused the succeeding pages.”

Extracts from Callcott's 1806 Musical Grammar

Extracts from Callcott’s 1806 Musical Grammar

His 1806 Musical Grammar [MR580.d.80.5, 2nd ed. 1809], goes into much greater detail. Horsley, in his Memoir says of it that “…it is not possible to name a treatise so copious in information, so rich in examples, and in which the explanations are given in so masterly and so clear a manner.” Its four sections cover notation, melody, harmony and rhythm and such was its success that it remained in print, in various editions and revisions until the 1870s. Once again, Callcott explains his purpose in a short preface: “The design of the following Work is, to compress in a small volume, the leading principles of Practical Music…”

Tragically, Callcott suffered a mental breakdown not long after the publication of the Grammar and spent the next six years in an asylum, his health never fully recovered and a second breakdown followed in 1817. He died four years later.


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4 Responses to To celebrate to commemorate: John Wall Callcott (1766 – 1821)

  1. Gareth says:

    In the Rowe Library at King’s we have a couple of songs by Callcott published ca. 1797 under the collective title of JUVENILE IMPROVEMENT: ARITHMETIC. They are musical settings of the multiplication table (going up to ‘Twelve times twelve is an hundred and forty four’) and the pence table (sample lyric: ‘Twenty pence is one and eightpence / Thirty pence is two and sixpence / Forty pence is three and fourpence / Fifty pence is four and twopence’ etc. etc. ad nauseam). I’ve only played through them in my head, but musically they’re deadly dull. A crying shame, given how catchy the words are.


  2. Pingback: To celebrate to commemorate: John Wall Callcott (1766 – 1821) | MusiCB3 Blog | First Night History

  3. Pingback: A (virtual) evening at the Black Bear | MusiCB3 Blog

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