Thomas Roseingrave (1690/911766)



  • Organist
  • Composer

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
July 2023

Thomas Roseingrave was born in Winchester, where his father Daniel Roseingrave (c.1655–1727) was the organist of the Winchester Cathedral from 1682–92, and subsequently at the Salisbury Cathedral from 1692–98. Thomas and his brother Ralph (1695–1747) were educated initially in Gloucester, but followed their father to Dublin in 1698 where he became the organist and stipendiary of Christ Church Cathedral and organist and vicar-choral of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Daniel Roseingrave resigned his position at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1719 because of health issues, but remained the organist the Christ Church Cathedral until his death. Such were young Thomas’s musical gifts that the dean and chapter of St. Patrick’s Cathedral provided the young man financial assistance in late 1709 so that he could travel to Italian centres and continue his musical studies. He already considered himself to be a good keyboard player, but his ego received a considerable bruising during a soiree in the home of a nobleman in Venice. Roseingrave subsequently recounted the tale to Charles Burney: “finding myself rather better in courage and finger than usual, I exerted myself, my dear friend, and fancied, by the applause I received, that my performance had made some impression on the company.” The remainder of the story is in Burney’s words:

a grave young man dressed in black and in a black wig, who had stood in one corner of the room, very quiet and attentive while Roseingrave played, being asked to sit down to the harpsichord, when he began to play, Rosy said, he thought ten hundred d---ls had been at the instrument; he never had heard such passages of execution and effect before. The performance so far surpassed his own, and every degree of perfection to which he thought it possible he should ever arrive, that, if he had been in sight of any instrument with which to have done the deed, he should have cut off his own fingers. (General History of Music 4, 1789)

The devilish keyboard player was Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757), son of the famous opera composer Pietro Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725). Although he had been publically bested by Scarlatti, Roseingrave accepted his defeat with good grace and set out to befriend the young Italian, following him to Rome and Naples. This connection appears to have remained until Roseingrave returned to Dublin in 1713.

Roseingrave moved to London in 1716 following a dispute in Dublin when he was not appointed the Master of State Music. The Daily Courant (June 13, 1717) advertised a concert at the York-Buildings for the following day when a “Serenade, compos’d by Mr. Thomas Rosiengrave, ... [would] be Sung by Sig. Bernacchi and Sig. Berenllatt.” Roseingrave became ingratiated in the London’s musical life as teacher and performer thereafter. He took the opportunity to champion the music of Domenico Scarlatti whenever possible, and he produced Scarlatti’s opera Amor d’un ombra at the Haymarket Theatre in 1720 under the title of Narciso. In 1725, the post of organist at the newly constructed church of St. George’s, Hanover Square was advertised. This was a much sought-after position, there being a fine new organ installed. It was also the place of worship for Handel (1685–1759), thus putting considerable pressure on the church’s organist, but also increasing his prestige. Only the best candidate would do, and an advisory committee was established to help in the process of selection. According to Charles Burney, the members were Handel, Johann Christoph Pepusch (1667–1752), Maurice Greene (1696–1755) and Johann Ernst Galliard (?1687–1749), some of the most famous musicians then living in London. Each candidate was to perform prepared works and then improvise at sight on subjects that they were presented. Although Handel was not present that day, he did send a fugue subject for the candidates. Only Roseingrave survived the test of improvisation and Burney writes that he “treated the subjects given with such science and dexterity, inverting the order of notes, augmenting and diminishing their value, introducing counter-subjects, and turning the themes to so many ingenious purposes, that the judges were unanimous in declaring him the victorious candidate” (General History of Music 4, 1789). Burney, of course, was not there to hear this triumph because he had not yet been born, but he records that he heard this account from his teacher Thomas Arne (1710–78) and others who had been present.

This appointment should have heralded a subsequent career of great success. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Roseingrave became romantically attached to one of his students and proposed marriage to her. Her father forbade the union and barred Roseingrave from their home. Thereafter, the balance of Roseingrave’s mind was disturbed. William Coxe (1748–1828), likely relying on well-circulated anecdotes, records that Roseingrave “was perfectly rational upon every subject, but the one nearest his heart; whenever that was mentioned, he was quite insane” (Anecdotes of George Frederick Handel, and John Christopher Smith, 1799).[1] Charles Burney described it as “a temporary and whimsical insanity” (General History of Music 4, 1789). The malady had other manifestations that interfered with Roseingrave’s church duties. Burney records that the musician was “never able to bear any kind of noise, without great emotion. If, during his performance on the organ at church, any one near him coughed, sneezed, or blew his nose with violence, he would instantly quit the instrument and run out of the church, seeming in the greatest pain and terror” (General History of Music 4, 1789). It is likely that musical performances in the church were heavily dependent on deputies to cover for when Roseingrave was indisposed. In 1744, complaints were brought against this group for misconduct and, in April of that year, John Keeble (1711–86) was appointed as Roseingrave’s assistant (not 1737, as stated by Burney). This was essentially a termination of Roseingrave’s duties, although he was permitted to receive half of his salary for life on account of his infirmity. The Daily Advertiser (September 28, 1744) advertised a benefit concert for Roseingrave and outlined the situation of his departure from St. George’s. A similar concert was held on September 25, 1745. and this appears to have been a glittering affair. According to the advertisement in the Daily Advertiser (September 18, 1745), Thomas Arne appears to have been much involved in the occasion and recent works of his were performed. The vocal soloists were Cecilia Young Arne (1712–89). John Beard (1716?–1791), Thomas Lowe (c.1719–83) and Henry Rheinhold (1690?–1751), all well known in London. Indeed, Lowe, Rheinhold and Mrs. Arne had recently introduced vocal music at the Vauxhall Gardens. Sadly, Roseingrave was not able to attend either concert because of his infirmity. Mrs. Delany (1700–88) records Roseingrave’s presence in Dublin in early 1753 where he remained for the remainder of his life.

Roseingrave’s time in Italian centres had an impact on some of his earlier compositions. The influence of Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) can be heard in the anthem “Arise, shine, for thy light is come,” composed in Venice in 1712 to celebrate the Peace of Utrecht. Charles Burney credited the influence of Alessandro Scarlatti on Roseingrave’s solo cantatas, published by subscription c.1735, and referred to them as “the most pleasing of his works.” His later published music, however, reveals far less Italian influence in favour of a highly personal and sometimes eccentric style. His keyboard music, in particular, shows a kind of nervous energy that is marked by frequent modulations and unexpected harmonic effects.[2] Charles Burney was much disturbed by these traits, complaining that the “harmony in the voluntaries, which Roseingrave published, is rendered intolerably harsh and ungrateful by a licentious and extravagant modulation, and a more frequent use of the sharp third and flat sixth, than any composer with whose work I am at all acquainted” (General History of Music 4, 1789). While less likely to offend modern audiences, his music is quite different from that of Domenico Scarlatti, whose keyboard sonatas Roseingrave championed throughout his life. Indeed, he published an edition of 42 of Scarlatati’s sonatas in two volumes (London, 1738–39). This edition also includes one piece by Roseingrave and a fugue by Alessandro Scarlatti. Of the remaining pieces, 30 are taken from the collection Essercizi per gravicembalo, the only music that Scarlatti himself published. It is not known when or how Roseingrave obtained the remaining pieces, but his edition was their first publication. As such, this publication is of great importance, leading Richard Newtown to conclude that Roseingrave was “directly responsible for the beginning of the ‘Scarlatti tradition’ in England” (“The English Cult of Domenico Scarlatti,” Music & Letters 20, no. 2, 1939).

[1] Unlike Burney, it is highly unlikely that Coxe ever met Roseingrave.

[2] Much of this repertoire has been recorded by Paul Nicholson on harpsichord and organ, Hyperion CDA66564. Not all of the published music may necessarily represent its original intentions. While the Concerto in D was published in a solo keyboard transcription, its concerto origins are clearly discernible. It has been recorded as an organ concerto by Paul Nicholson and the Parley of Instruments. Hyperion CDA66700.