Wednesday, October 1, 2008

John Blow’s bad singing

John Blow, an English organist and composer, died three hundred years ago today. He taught Henry Purcell, was one of James II’s musicians, and is thought to have composed the first true English opera. There is no evidence that he kept a diary, and so I only mention him here because Pepys referred to him once - rather unflatteringly.

Blow was baptised in February 1649 (his birth date isn’t known), and was probably educated at the Magnus Song School in Nottinghamshire. In 1660, he joined the choir at Chapel Royal, under Captain Henry Cooke. By the end of the decade, he had been appointed organist at Westminister Abbey, and  had become one of the king’s musicians. He was succeeded as organist at Westminster Abbey in 1680 by one his students, Henry Purcell, who had also sung under Cooke at the Chapel Royal, but was reappointed to the post when Purcell died in 1695.

Although hardly remembered today, Blow enjoyed much success during his life. He held various important music-related positions, such as choirmaster at St Paul’s Cathedral, official composer for the Chapel Royal, and Composer in Ordinary to James II. He also composed much ceremonial music, both religious and secular. Although some credit Henry Cooke with the first English opera - The Siege of Rhodes - performed in 1656, my 15th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica says John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, written between 1680 and 1685 ‘is regarded as the first true English opera’. The New Grove (definitive encyclopaedia for music) also ‘names it as the earliest surviving English opera’.

Blow died on 1 October 1708, three hundred years ago, and was buried in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey. The Twickenham Museum has some information about the musician, presumably because he owned a house in nearby Hampton during the latter part of his life. And it is thanks to the museum’s website that I know Pepys heard a young Blow sing, unfortunately his voice had already broken.

Here is part of Pepys diary for 21 August 1667 (taken from

‘Thence by coach, took up my wife, and home and out to Mile End, and there drank, and so home, and after some little reading in my chamber, to supper and to bed. This day I sent my cozen Roger a tierce of claret, which I give him. This morning come two of Captain Cooke's boys, whose voices are broke, and are gone from the Chapel, but have extraordinary skill; and they and my boy, with his broken voice, did sing three parts; their names were Blaew and Loggings; but, notwithstanding their skill, yet to hear them sing with their broken voices, which they could not command to keep in tune, would make a man mad - so bad it was.’

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