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William Crotch

born: 5 July 1775
died: 29 December 1847
country: United Kingdom

William Crotch (1775–1847) was ‘a child prodigy without parallel in the history of music’. Sadly, he was to suffer psychological damage later in his life as a result of his parents’ determination to show him off. He was described as being ‘of a retiring disposition’, with a tendency to extreme conservatism in his old age, slating, for example, S S Wesley’s anthem The Wilderness when it was submitted for the Gresham Prize in 1833. Crotch wrote: ‘The introduction of novelty, variety, contrast, expression, originality, etc, is the very cause of the decay so long apparent in our church music.’

At the age of eighteen months Crotch was able to pick out tunes on a small house organ; by the age of two he had learned to play ‘God save the King’. At the age of three his mother took him on a series of tours in order to exploit his gifts, playing to the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1779. By then he could play in any key and name any notes in a chord without being able to see the keyboard. His mother embarked upon a tour of the British Isles with the boy entertaining audiences by performing on organ, piano and violin. Many commentators, including Barrington and Burney, heard him and wrote of his unusual skills. It is a pity that his early gifts for composition were not to bear lasting fruit, for, despite success in his own lifetime, his music has not stood the test of time. This may have been a result of the fact that he chose not to publish his best-known work—the oratorio Palestine. Instead he charged 200 guineas for the loan of the parts and for his presence as conductor—a successful way of propagating one’s music, as long as one is alive.

By the age of fifteen Crotch was organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, graduating with the degrees of BMus in 1794 and DMus in 1799. He became known as a teacher, lecturing at Oxford (becoming professor there) and at the Royal Institution and, in collaboration with Samuel Wesley and Benjamin Jacob, was a champion of Bach’s music at a time when it was little known. Crotch gathered together a large number of examples of music from earlier periods to illustrate his lectures. This collection was published in three volumes between 1808 and 1811 under the title Specimens of various Styles of Music. This was one of the first analytical collections of music and it was to prove very influential. Another later publication, this time of Tallis’s Hymns, had a decisive influence on the Tractarians, particularly Thomas Helmore. Crotch was appointed the first Principal of the Royal Academy of Music when it opened in 1822, a post he held for ten years. He died in 1834 while visiting his son—who was a master at Taunton Grammar School—and was buried at Bishop’s Hull.

Crotch’s analysis of the ‘three styles’ of music led him to classify church music as ‘sublime’. He would surely not have approved of elaborate verse anthems by composers such as Travers, but perhaps would have embraced the music of Ouseley as being imbued with the ‘correct’ ecclesiastical characteristics. Ironically, Crotch’s own music, particularly his penchant for enharmonic experiments and mystic modalism, presented novelties without parallel in the period.

from notes by William McVicker © 2002


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