Bound for America: Three British Composers


Nicholas Temperley documents the lives, careers, and music of three British composers who emigrated from England in mid-career and became leaders in the musical life of Federal-era America. William Selby of London and Boston (1738-98), Rayner Taylor of London and Philadelphia (1745-1825), and George K. Jackson of London, New York, and Boston (1757-1822) were among the first trained professional composers to make their homes in America and to pioneer the building of an art-music tradition in the New World akin to ...

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Bound for America: Three British Composers

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Nicholas Temperley documents the lives, careers, and music of three British composers who emigrated from England in mid-career and became leaders in the musical life of Federal-era America. William Selby of London and Boston (1738-98), Rayner Taylor of London and Philadelphia (1745-1825), and George K. Jackson of London, New York, and Boston (1757-1822) were among the first trained professional composers to make their homes in America and to pioneer the building of an art-music tradition in the New World akin to the esteemed European "classical" music. Temperley compares their lives, careers, and compositional styles in the two countries and reflects on American musical nationalism and the changing emphasis in American musical historiography.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252075957
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 7/7/2008
  • Series: Music in American Life Series
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicholas Temperley is a professor emeritus of music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of The Music of the English Parish Church, Haydn: The Creation, The Hymn Tune Index, and several other books.

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Three British Composers

By Nicholas Temperley


Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09264-0



Emigrants and Immigrants

American musical life in the early federal period was active and varied, but it harbored few professional musicians. The term "professional" can be used either to indicate a certain level of training and proficiency or to denote a musician who expects payment and attempts to make a living by his art. In either sense, few were to be found. They could exist only in a situation where a sufficient segment of the population was able and willing to devote financial resources to music provided by others.

We are dealing, of course, with Americans of European extraction. Native Americans and African Americans at this stage were making music for themselves and were not in a position to pay for their musical entertainment. But even in the white colonial settlements, music making had depended to a great extent on whatever skill, knowledge, and instruments the colonists brought with them, and it was only occasionally brought into contact with the latest developments in Europe. In some venues, such as the Spanish missions in Florida or the churches and singing schools of New England, amateur musicians built on what they could recall of a European tradition to create a new and distinctive body of music that satisfied the needs of the time and place.


When the English colonies joined to form a nation, a new force came to maturity: nationalism. First in war, then in all fields of human endeavor, leading Americans were determined to assert the claims and standing of the United States in the world. The only available standard to measure their progress was that of the European countries, most obviously Great Britain. Paradoxically, therefore, Americans had to become more European in their music in order to assert their national prowess. The style of the New England psalmodists, led by William Billings, has seemed to modern scholars and musicians to be genuinely and characteristically American. But to American musical leaders of the early 1800s, that same style was increasingly unwelcome, because it seemed to stigmatize American music as inferior, its composers as primitive and ignorant. They wanted to move in the direction of European art music.

A similar phase can be found in other nationalistic movements. At the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, Italian opera, composed and sung by Italians, monopolized available resources and prestige. When a Russian composer, Dmitry Bortnyansky (1752–1825), wished to compete, it would have been useless to write operas on Russian stories, in the Russian language, using Russian folksong; they would have been quickly dismissed as primitive and unacceptable. To prove his standing as a Russian-born composer, Bortnyansky had to write Italian operas in the closest possible imitation of Italian style; the next stage was to write Italianate operas with Russian texts. Another two generations passed before composers could successfully explore a distinctively Russian style for opera.

Similarly, after France was defeated by Prussia in the war of 1870–71, the Société nationale de musique arose to assert and promote the value of French music. But it has been observed that the model that came to prevail among the avant-garde composers who were members of the society was that of Richard Wagner. Michael Strasser writes, "Like [Ernest] Renan, who insisted that the road to national recovery lay in emulating the most admirable characteristics of France's conqueror, the founders of the Société Nationale looked to German masters from Beethoven to Wagner to light their way, convinced that the 'pure' music emanating from across the Rhine was that of a strong and vital society."

In each case, the chief concern of this early phase of nationalism was not to establish an independent national idiom, but to confer prestige on the music of indigenous musicians; and that prestige was measured by the dominant foreign idiom of the time. The musical language that Billings worked out was itself founded on a kind of English psalmody chiefly practiced by rural enthusiasts. But in England it was scorned or ignored both by the ruling classes and by professional musicians. Their contempt had not concerned New Englanders, so long as they were unaware of it. But as they came to experience something of the grandeur of Handel's music, under a director such as William Selby who was personally familiar with the proper style, they also learned the standards of taste that prevailed in Great Britain and wished to adopt those standards for themselves.

The reaction against indigenous American music began to predominate after 1800. In that year the musical entrepreneur Andrew Law (1748–1821), addressing "the Ministers of the Gospel, and the Singing-Masters, Clerks and Choristers throughout the United States," deplored the frivolity of American psalmodists: "the dignity and the ever-varying vigor of Handel, of [Martin] Madan, and of others, alike meritorious, are, in a great measure, supplanted by the pitiful productions of numerous composuists, whom it would be doing too much honor to name." Many compilers of church collections began to reduce, rewrite, or even exclude American compositions, as well as British pieces in the country style.

The most detailed exposition of the new philosophy was delivered by John Hubbard (1759–1810), a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Dartmouth College, in a lecture to the Middlesex Musical Society in 1807, and published as a pamphlet the following year. Hubbard suggested that "genius is needed to make harmony acceptable," and that those who did not know how to write it would do better to leave melodies unharmonized. "While the noble expressions of those great masters [such as Handel] excite our admiration, the counterfeit efforts of the unskilful excite our disgust." He praised not only Handel, Felice Giardini, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Henry Purcell, and Samuel Arnold, but even the English country psalmodist Aaron Williams, for "instances of the sublime." The style he called, in contrast, "the bombastic" was one in which "our unfortunate country has been particularly fruitful. Almost every pedant, after learning his eight notes, has commenced author. On the leaden wings of dullness, he has attempted to soar into those regions of science, never penetrated but by real genius.... Among the most common faults of this style, we may reckon the common fuge." For "correct" fugues he pointed to the work of Purcell, William Croft, Arnold, Jeremiah Clarke, and Maurice Greene, leading composers of Anglican church and theater music.

These caustic views did not go unchallenged, but they were echoed in many other prefaces and writings. Especially the word "science" (or "scientific") became a catchword suggesting the technical competence displayed by "European" composers, and the ones held up as models are nearly always English by birth, or, like Handel and Giardini, had made their home in England. One writer, taking a more positive approach, saw an opportunity for Americans to inherit the greatest European traditions:

The mighty oak is truly a grander object than the tiny acorn; but unless this had been planted, that had never adorned the mountain's side. The celebrated Handel is said to be indebted to Corelli for the elements, by which he breathes such energy and sensibility, and which give to his performances [i.e., compositions] such inimitable expression. If then there had been no Corelli, there possibly had been no Handel; and if no Handel, the melodies of Haydn, Madan, and Arnold, never probably would have charmed the lovers of holy song. Instead therefore of ridiculing the productions of our age and country, and indiscriminately condemning to oblivion the incipient efforts of the American composer, let us, while we reject his worst, commend his best; and, by using them alternately with the labours of able masters, form him to a riper and a purer taste.

Even Daniel Read, one of the leading exponents of country psalmody, toward the end of his life admitted that in his early publications he had not been a "scientific musician." He claimed, however, that through a study of learned writings and of such scores as Handel's Messiah and Haydn's Creation, "my ideas on the subject of music have been considerably altered; I will not say improved."

The views quoted above are concerned largely with the idioms and standards of sacred music in New England. It was in that medium alone that anything identifiable as an indigenous American style had developed before 1800. Consequently, it was there alone that conflict between "provincial" and "cosmopolitan" schools of thought had arisen. In music making, the British heritage had never yet been seriously challenged.

The inevitable result was that properly trained musicians from Britain were sought out and looked up to in America, not only to direct performances and offer their own compositions, but to teach, train, and guide American musicians and music lovers so that they in turn could become truly scientific. Any professionally trained musician from Britain was likely to be treated with respect as an "able master," and his services would be in some demand, particularly as a teacher. Indeed one British composer, George Jackson, made his status official by arranging to receive a musical doctorate before he set out for American shores.

In retrospect, the eventual triumph in America of the art-music idiom and its canons of taste seems inevitable, given the desire to compete in all fields with European nations, the steady growth of an affluent middle class, and the continuous influx of new immigrants from Europe. The process was slowed for a time by the movement for independence, which invested the native style with a certain patriotism, reduced direct communication with British leaders of opinion, and at the same time tainted anything British with suspicion; and indeed, for a time Paris rather than London was looked to as a source of musical sophistication.

Once political independence was assured, Americans began to assess their position in the family of Western nations and to strive to equal or surpass them. In music, this could only be done in a musical language that enjoyed high standing in Europe. For, after all, white Americans were nothing but transplanted Europeans; if they sought a higher level of their own culture, the only place to look for it was Europe. Among the European capitals, London enjoyed many advantages as a source of musical expertise: the huge network of familial and social ties, the quantitative level of emigration, the dominance of trading and shipping links. Above all, the common language made English songs, theater pieces, and church music instantly usable in America, and facilitated the passing on of musical knowledge and experience from teacher to pupil, and from author to reader.

Concert and theater music required trained professionals if it was to reach a standard that was remotely comparable to that of London. The theater was perhaps the arena where there was the least distinction between British and American aesthetic standards, because it was a place where the audience could directly impose its will. Composers writing for the English-language theater at this time, whether in London, Dublin, New York, or Philadelphia, were forced to bring their style down to the lowest common denominator. Broad humor, easy tunes, obvious harmonies, predictable dance and march rhythms, and a little flashy virtuosity were the qualities expected of theater music. Amateurism would not be tolerated for long.

Domestic music, on the other hand, was a field where the latest publications from London—or from Paris, Leipzig, or Vienna—could easily make their way to American parlors. But the young people, especially young women, who wished to master this music needed knowledgeable teachers, and there was little doubt that these were likely to come from Europe, where long-established institutions and richly varied practical opportunities existed for training professional musicians. In the colonial and early federal periods, Britain was still the main supplier, though not the only one.

In religious music, the European style was particularly associated with Anglicans (the Moravians of Pennsylvania being a remarkable but isolated exception). They, unlike the Congregationalists who were in the majority in New England, had encouraged the use of organs and the musical practices that came with them. Anglicanism in New England was in crisis during the revolutionary period, and its music temporarily lost its appeal. But in the decades that followed, leaders of the daughter Protestant Episcopal Church showed a strong desire to introduce chanting and other types of choir music; and to do so, they needed musicians trained in the mother Church of England.

British music at this period was dominated, in its turn, by foreign imports, above all from Italy. Colonies of musicians from Italy, Germany, Bohemia, and other parts of Europe were well established in London, Edinburgh, and some provincial cities, generally enjoying a status superior to that of native British musicians. As the Italian predominance gradually gave way to the German in every field except opera, British composers moved from an Italianate to a Teutonic style, with occasional glimmers of an indigenous idiom. Thus in imitating British models Americans were, almost unconsciously, adopting Continental influences. But the essential point was that the standards of taste that prevailed in London were sought and accepted in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. No doubt this was chiefly due to the fact that most Americans, especially the leaders of opinion, were British by ethnic background. It was only after the huge migration of Germans and Italians to America later in the nineteenth century that the direct influence of these countries, bypassing London, began to prevail. For the time being, middle- and upper-class Americans on the East Coast looked to Britain for their cultural leadership.


The situation I have just outlined was in many ways a favorable one for British musicians; and, as we might expect, a growing number of them traveled to America in order to take advantage of it. Before making such a life-changing decision, they must have weighed the pros and cons very carefully. At best, it was a big gamble. What sort of future could they look forward to if they stayed in their native country? What would they lose by leaving for an unknown land? Would they gain enhanced prestige in the United States, leading to economic security? Or could they expect to meet with antagonism, at a time of uncertain political relations between the two countries?

Such questions, of course, were also weighed by performing musicians who considered crossing the ocean. But the music of these singers and players has gone forever, while that of composers is still available, if only in the half-dead form of music notation. One can therefore form a judgment, not only of the change in their careers resulting from their transatlantic migration, but also of changes in the practices and styles of their compositions and in their reception by the public.

The three composers treated in this book had similar careers in many ways. All began their work in London, one of the greatest musical centers in Europe and probably the most lucrative of all at this time. They gained varying amounts of performing experience, but all had published a substantial body of their own music in Britain, and all in differing degrees had shown some interest in developing their art as serious composers.

But only one of the three (Taylor) rates so much as a mention in the standard modern text on British music in the eighteenth century. Their stature as composers cannot compare with that of their best English contemporaries. Even in a period of modest accomplishment in English music, the theater music of Arnold, William Shield, Stephen Storace, and Henry Bishop; the oratorios of William Crotch; the symphonies of the Earl of Kelly and Samuel Wesley; the piano concertos of John Field; the songs of William Jackson, Charles Dibdin, and John Clarke-Whitfeld; the anthems of Jonathan Battishill and Thomas Attwood; the voluntaries of John Stanley and Samuel Wesley; the sonatas of John Burton and George Frederick Pinto—these works show a mastery and a sense of purpose that throw the efforts of Selby, Taylor, and Jackson into deep shade. And even this list excludes such foreign-born composers resident in Britain as Johann Christian Bach, Giardini, Muzio Clementi, Jan Ladislav Dussek, and John Baptist Cramer.

Our three composers, in middle age, fled from this competition, to start again under what must surely have been less favorable conditions, where they had to build their reputations anew, where there was less patronage, fewer salaried posts, and a much smaller though rapidly growing economy. They had mixed success in America, but all left enough of their music behind to justify a fair assessment and comparison. In retrospect, writers on American musical history have seen them as leaders, giving them full treatment and acknowledging their importance in American musical life.

The first, most obvious question is why they moved. In none of the three cases can it be answered definitively, but one can profitably speculate, on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Was the decision a purely economic one? Did they embrace American nationalism and other attitudes in order to ingratiate themselves with the leaders of American opinion? Or, on the contrary, did a genuine sympathy with American ideals play a part in the decision to change their abode? Did family or personal considerations come into play?

Excerpted from BOUND FOR AMERICA by Nicholas Temperley. Copyright © 2003 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
1 Emigrants and Immigrants 1
2 William Selby 12
3 Rayner Taylor 52
4 George K. Jackson 123
Conclusions 195
Notes 205
Bibliography 221
Index 229
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