(b Exeter, 29 May 1730; d Exeter, 5 July 1803). English composer, essayist, organist and painter. The son of a grocer, he was given a liberal private education and studied with musicians at Exeter Cathedral and other visiting musicians in the city. Some early sources identify John Silvester, organist at Exeter between 1741 and 1753, as his teacher, but Jackson himself did not provide any names; he asserts that his own efforts were the chief impetus for his knowledge of music and aspirations to follow a musical career. From about 1746, according to Jackson’s recollection, he continued his study in London with John Travers, organist of the Chapel Royal. Because of limited funds, after less than two years Jackson was obliged to return to Exeter, where, to avoid confusion with an Oxford-based musician, he adopted the designation ‘Jackson of Exeter’ on the title-pages of all his published work. He made his career as an independent teacher and performer until Michaelmas 1777 when he was appointed sub-chanter, organist, lay vicar and master of the choristers at the cathedral. He remained in the service of the cathedral until his death. He was survived by his wife (née Bartlett), two sons and a daughter; the sons pursued successful careers in diplomatic service. A monument was erected to him in the vestry of St Stephen’s, Exeter, where he is buried.
Throughout his life Jackson was active as a composer in a variety of media, though the largest proportion of work published in his lifetime was secular vocal music. The popularity of many of his individual songs, his two volumes of canzonets for two voices and small scale pieces for vocal ensembles, is evidence of a market for modest works for amateur performance. The Elegies op.3 (among Jackson’s most popular works in terms of critical reception and financial success), however, make demands upon the technical abilities of the singers beyond those normally associated with amateurs. The variety of instrumental resources used in the accompaniments in the first three collections of solo songs opp.1, 4 and 7 also suggest the availability of professional resources. Many of these works were almost certainly written for the concerts promoted at Bath by his friend Thomas Linley (i) which drew upon the prodigious talents of the Linley children and professional instrumentalists working in the city. Other publications from the 1760s similarly reflect Jackson’s attempt to move between music suitable for amateur performance and that more clearly intended for professional execution. The Hymns op.6, for example, offered simple settings of selected psalms by Tate and Brady, alternatively for three voices or unison voices with continuo, while the ode and anthem op.5, are clearly concert works.
Jackson’s first dramatic work was Lycidas, which was performed as an afterpiece at Covent Garden on 4 November 1767 and repeated at Bath on 26 November. The work (not published and now lost) commemorated the death in September of Edward, Duke of York (brother of George III). Bath was also the venue for the most successful performance of Jackson’s largest scale choral work, An Ode to Fancy, based on words by Joseph Warton. The treatment of this material is typical of Jackson’s attitude to his words; passages of the poem are omitted, rearranged and restructured to provide the framework for a substantial choral work – the composer refers to it in his autobiography as an oratorio – for solo voices, chorus and orchestra.
Although Jackson refers to unpublished sets of harpsichord ‘lessons’ written during the London years and at the time of his return to Exeter, only two collections of instrumental music were published. The Six Sonatas op.2 for harpsichord with optional violin (c1757) are among the earliest English examples of the genre and are notable for their adventurous treatment of texture. The Eight Sonatas op.10 for harpsichord and string quartet (c1773) are more mature in their handling of form
Jackson entered into full-time musical employment for the first time when he took up his duties at Exeter Cathedral in 1777. His immediate predecessor in the post of organist and choirmaster, Richard Langdon, had caused increasing difficulties for the cathedral authorities through absences and, according to Jackson writing in 1801, ‘I found a bad choir, which I was determined, if possible, to make a good one. By degrees I succeeded and it is now, and has been for many years, the best in the kingdom’. Much of his activity was directed towards establishing a new repertory and the composition of services and anthems for the church became a major preoccupation. None of his music for the cathedral was published until after his death when his pupil and successor, James Paddon (1768–1835), edited a selection of anthems and services in 1819. The authenticity of the Service in F, formerly questioned, is confirmed by Jackson’s autobiography. This work and especially the Te Deum, which long remained in use in the Anglican church, was composed in a simple contrapuntal idiom to meet the deficiencies of the Exeter choir which he inherited; other services in the Paddon collection are in a more elaborate style. The composer John Davy and the singer Charles Incledon were among the pupils or choristers trained by Jackson.
Although the cathedral records show no period of absence for Jackson he must have been away from Exeter for some relatively extended periods. In 1785 he undertook a ten-week tour of Europe (his only period out of England) during which he visited France and northern Italy, passing through the Low Countries on his return. The primary focus for this visit was to follow his artistic, not his musical interests, and especially to see mountains. He was also absent in 1780 when his comic opera The Lord of the Manor was produced at Drury Lane. Two of Jackson’s earlier songs had been introduced with new texts into the production of Sheridan’s The Duenna (21 November 1775). The new opera, a more substantial three act work, was very successful, with 21 performances during its first season, and was regularly revived in successive years. In 1812 Henry Bishop, in collaboration with, among others, C.I.M. Dibdin and Jackson’s former pupil John Davy, produced an adapted version at Covent Garden (24 October 1812) which contributed to the continued popularity of the opera during the first half of the 19th century. Jackson’s opera was unusual in that it was immediately published in a full orchestral score as well as the more customary vocal score format. The score demonstrates a command of a variety of idioms; it includes a substantial three-movement overture on a symphonic scale, as well as large-scale ensembles and solo items which make considerable demands upon the singers, yet it was the simpler, more sentimental, songs such as ‘When first this humble roof I knew’ and ‘Encompass’d in an angel’s frame’ which perhaps ensured the popularity of the work. These, together with the canzonets Love in thine eyes and Time has not thinn’d my flowing hair and the reworking of Arne’s Where the bee sucks, were among his most popular works and were frequently reprinted in single editions and popular anthologies. Jackson’s second opera, The Metamorphosis was less successful than its predecessor, running for only three nights. It was not revived, though a vocal score was published.
In addition to the libretto of The Metamorphosis Jackson wrote substantial prefaces to several of his publications. That to 12 Songs op.4 in particular is an important statement of the composer's aims, stressing as it does the aspiration of setting only the highest quality verse in a musical style based upon the traditions of a national melody which owed little to the fashionable excesses of Italian opera. Jackson is fiercely critical of descriptive word-painting which seeks to express the sound of the text, rather than its inherent sentiment. These principles underlie all the composer’s vocal music, whether conceived for professional or amateur performers. The often trenchant views expressed in the prefaces are an important contribution to the musical aesthetic of the period.
Jackson maintained friendships with a wide circle of literary figures and he published two collections of his own essays, Thirty Letters on Various Subjects and The Four Ages. The essays cover a wide range of general subjects as well as artistic topics. His most significant musical commentary is the essay Observations on the Present State of Music in London (1791). This rather pessimistic account of fashions of the age, regretting the inhibiting influence on English music of the cult of Handel and the triviality of Italian Opera, also includes the comment that the ‘present SYMPHONY bears the same relation to Good Music, as the ravings of a Bedlamite do to sober sense’. This was read by many, including Burney (who dismissed the pamphlet in a savage review in the Monthly Review), as an attack on Haydn and his reception in London. In 1792 Jackson was jointly responsible for establishing a literary Society in Exeter, and may have made three contributions to a volume of essays published by the society in 1796.
Jackson was also an enthusiastic amateur landscape painter. His circle of acquaintances among contemporary artists included both Reynolds and Gainsborough and The Four Ages includes interesting reminiscences of both men. In 1771 Jackson exhibited two oil landscapes at the Royal Academy exhibition, and a small number of paintings which show the strong influence of Gainsborough, have been attributed to him. His portrait was painted by Gainsborough, Opie and Downman, his son-in-law; Jackson recalled other portraits being undertaken by Rennell, Humphrey, and Morland.
The breadth of Jackson’s interests as a practising musician, artist and writer is unusual. He remains one of the most distinctive voices of his period in England; his music owes little to the influence of Handel and even less to the fashionable style promoted through the continued popularity of the Italian Opera. Perhaps because of his provincial base he maintained an independence of thought, yet he was among the first composers in England to show an awareness of the styles of early Classical music both in his harmonic language and his extensive use of dynamics. His best music is to be found in his secular vocal works, where he demonstrates an ability to blend a natural melodic style with a sensitivity to text. His posthumous reputation has been affected both by the continued popularity of his bland cathedral services and by the rather negative portrayal of his character by Burney, with whom he had a long-standing literary rivalry. Writing in Rees’s Cyclopaedia after Jackson’s death, Burney described him as possessing ‘selfishness, arrogance, and an insatiable rage for superiority’, though he grudgingly commended his ability to create an ‘elegant and plaintive melody to elegiac poetry’. Most of the other contemporary accounts do not share this view of his personality; rather they speak warmly of his intellectual integrity and personal qualities.
all printed works published in London
all performed in London
Lycidas (afterpiece, 1, W. Jackson, after Milton), Covent Garden, 4 Nov 1767; music lost
The Lord of the Manor (comic op, 3, J.S. Burgoyne), Drury Lane, 27 Dec 1780; as op.12 (1781); many songs pubd singly
The Metamorphosis (comic op, 3, Jackson and R. Tickell), Drury Lane, 5 Dec 1783; as op.14 (1783)