Thomas Attwood (17651838)



  • Composer
  • Performer

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
February 2023

Attwood’s father (also named Thomas, d. 1825) was a musician in the King’s Band. The son showed early musical promise; at the age of nine years, he became a chorister in the Chapel Royal (1774−81), and benefitted from royal patronage thereafter. The Prince of Wales (later George IV) was so impressed with the young man’s abilities that he sent him to Naples in 1783 to complete his musical education. There, he studied with Felipe Cinque and Gaetano Latilla (1783–85). In 1785, Attwood travelled to Vienna where he became a student of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756−91). As Erich Hertzmann has shown, Mozart was reasonably secure financially at the time, so he had not accepted Attwood as pupil because of financial need. Rather, “Mozart recognized the young man's talent as a potential composer, and he also liked his modesty and sincerity” (“Mozart and Attwood,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 12, no, 2/3, 1959). The Irish singer Michael Kelly (1762−1826), then performing in Vienna, knew both men well and recorded Mozart’s words in his Reminiscences:

Attwood is a young man for whom I have a sincere affection and esteem; he conducts himself with great propriety, and I feel much pleasure in telling you, that he partakes more of my style than any scholar I ever had; and I predict, that he will prove a sound musician. ( Reminiscences, ed. Roger Fiske, 1975).

Attwood returned to Britain in 1787 at the same time as Stephan Storace (1762−96), Nancy Storace (1765−1816) and Michael Kelly, bringing with him his study papers that contain Mozart’s corrections and annotations. These papers show Mozart to have been a conscientious teacher. [1] Court appointments soon followed; in 1791, Attwood was made a music teacher to the Duchess of York and, in 1795, teacher to the Princess of Wales.

In 1796, Attwood was named organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral and composer to the Chapel Royal. Such positions confirmed his rank as an “approved” British composer and his career flourished. In 1792, he made his debut as a dramatic composer with an afterpiece called The Prisoner. This  escape-opera was a considerable success when it was heard at Drury Lane. Attwood’s devotion to Mozart is seen in the inclusion of the aria “Non piú andrai” from Le nozze di Figaro. Attwood followed this up with two further afterpieces: Osmyn and Daraxa (1793) and The Mariners (1793), both at Drury Lane. The bulk of Attwood’s some thirty works for the theatre, mostly afterpieces, was done before the turn of the century. Attwood’s music was appreciated, although the style was not suited for highly dramatic situations. Following the premiere of The Prisoner, the critic for the Diary or Woodfall’s Register (October 19, 1792) claimed that the “Music did Mr. Atwood infinite credit,” but later complained that “the last Air in the first act of Mrs. Crouch, though a charming composition, is not set in character. To mention Revenge, Jealousy and Hell in a Heavenly tune, is like a Castrato boasting of the feats of his manhood.” While Attwood’s music was polished, tuneful and eminently tasteful, these were not the attributes for success in works of high drama.

During the nineteenth century, Attwood largely turned his attention to church music and administrative duties. He was a founding member of the Royal Philharmonic Society, and one of its directors in 1816–20 and 1824–32. He was also a founding professor of the Royal Academy of Music (1823) where he was much respected as a teacher. He became close friends with Felix Mendelssohn (1809−47) during the latter’s visits to Britain. Mendelssohn dedicated his Three Preludes and Fugues op.37 to Attwood. Well connected socially and musically, Attwood was a much-respected musical leader in London. In addition to composing for the stage, Attwood’s musical output includes instrumental pieces and much vocal music for the Anglican Church. Included in the latter are the coronation anthems I was glad (1821) and O Lord, grant the king a long life (1831). The former piece resulted in a renewed association with George IV, who subsequently appointed him musician-in-ordinary to the king, and organist to his private chapel at the Brighton Pavilion. In 1836, Attwood was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal, succeeding Stafford Smith. Among Attwood’s many pupils were George Bridgetower, Cipriani Potter, and his godson Thomas Attwood Walmisley. The latter edited and published Attwood's Cathedral Music in 1852.

Attwood’s anthems are still sung in church services. They often show the influence of Mozart in their phrasing and sensitivity to texts. Unfortunately, little of his music has been recorded. Several anthems can be heard on YouTube, and the song “Reflections of Marie Antoinette” is available on CD. [2] Attwood took ill after Christmas 1837, but refused traditional medical treatments. He died in his house at 17 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, on March 24, 1838. His funeral took place at St. Paul’s Cathedral on March 31, 1838, and he was buried in the crypt beneath the organ.


[1] Attwood’s exercises in theory and composition, complete with the corrections in Mozart’s hand can be found in the British Library (Add MS 58437). They have also been published in the W. A. Mozart: Neue Ausgabe Sämtlicher Werk, X/30/1 (Kassel, 1965).

[2] Centaur CRC 3073. Sung by Stefanie True, soprano, with Capella Savaria, conducted by Mary Térey-Smith. The orchestration was made by the conductor from the original keyboard score.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

ATTWOOD, THOMAS (1765–1838), musician, born in London, 23 Nov. 1765, was the son of a coal merchant. When nine years old he was admitted as a chorister to the Chapel Royal, where he attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales (George IV), who invited him to Buckingham House, and was so pleased by his pianoforte playing and musical talent that in 1783 he sent him to Naples to study under Cinque and Latilla. From Naples Attwood went (1785) to Vienna, where he studied under Mozart, who expressed a favourable opinion of his talent. He left Vienna in company with the Storaces in February 1787. Shortly after his return to London he was appointed music master to the Duchess of York; he also subsequently occupied the same post with the Duchess of Cumberland and the Princess of Wales. In the following year (1792) he produced a musical afterpiece, 'The Prisoner,' at the Opera House, where the Drury Lane company was then performing. This was the first of several similar pieces he composed; in all his writings for the stage, after the fashion of the time, he eked out his own music by considerable interpolations from the works of other composers, particularly those of Mozart and Cherubini. In 1793 Attwood married Mary, the only child of Matthew Denton, of Stotfold, Bedfordshire. His eldest son, a lieutenant in the army, was assassinated at Madrid in October 1821; another son, after a distinguished career at Cambridge, became in 1837 rector of Framlingham, Suffolk. In 1796, on the death of John Jones, Attwood was appointed organist and vicar choral of St. Paul's, and in June of the same year he succeeded Dr. Dupuis as composer to the Chapel Royal. For the coronation of George IV (19 July 1821) Attwood wrote an anthem, 'I was glad.' In the same year the king appointed him organist of the chapel in the Pavilion, Brighton. He wrote an anthem, 'O Lord, grant the King,' for the coronation of William IV, and had begun another for the coronation of Queen Victoria when he was interrupted by his last illness. On the death of Stafford Smith (1836) he was appointed organist to the Chapel Royal, a post he did not live long to occupy. He was taken ill soon after Christmas 1837, and, preferring some peculiar mode of treating his complaint, neglected the proper remedies, and died at his house, 17 Cheyne Walk, on 24 March 1838. He was buried in St. Paul's on 31 March. Besides the works mentioned above, Attwood wrote some chamber music, many songs, glees, and pianoforte pieces. His music is melodious and graceful, as would be expected from a pupil of Mozart, but it is deficient in individuality and force. During the latter part of his life he made the acquaintance of Mendelssohn, who often stayed with the English composer at his house at Norwood.

[Biog. Dict. S. D. U. K.; Add. MS. 31587; Gent. Mag. for 1821; Annual Register for 1838; Kelly's Reminiscences, i. (1826); Grove's Dictionary, i.]

W. B. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.10
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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241 i 5 Attwood, Thomas: after wrote insert other anthems
Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

ATTWOOD, THOMAS (1765–1838), English composer, the son of a coal merchant who had musical tastes, was born in London on the 23rd of November 1765. At the age of nine he became a chorister in the Chapel Royal, where he remained for five years. In 1783 he was sent to study abroad at the expense of the prince of Wales (afterwards George IV.), who had been favourably impressed by his skill at the harpsichord. After spending two years at Naples, Attwood proceeded to Vienna, where he became a favourite pupil of Mozart. On his return to London in 1787 he held for a short time an appointment as one of the chamber musicians to the prince of Wales. In 1796 he was chosen organist of St Paul’s, and in the same year he was made composer to the Chapel Royal. His court connexion was further confirmed by his appointment as musical instructor to the duchess of York, and afterwards to the princess of Wales. For the coronation of George IV. he composed the anthem, “The King shall rejoice,” a work of high merit. The king, who had neglected him for some years on account of his connexion with the princess of Wales, now restored him to favour, and in 1821 appointed him organist to his private chapel at Brighton. Soon after the institution of the Royal Academy of Music in 1823, Attwood was chosen one of the professors. He was also one of the original members of the Philharmonic Society, founded in 1813. He wrote the anthem, “O Lord, grant the King a Long Life,” which was performed at the coronation of William IV., and he was composing a similar work for the coronation of Queen Victoria when he died at his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, on the 24th of March 1838. He was buried under the organ in St Paul’s cathedral. His services and anthems were published in a collected form after his death by his pupil Walmisley. Of his secular compositions several songs and glees are well known and popular. The numerous operas which he composed in early life are now practically forgotten. Of his songs the most popular was “The Soldier’s Dream,” and the best of his glees were “In peace Love tunes the shepherd’s reed,” and “To all that breathe the air of Heaven.” Attwood was a friend of Mendelssohn, for whom he professed an admiration at a time when the young German’s talent was little appreciated by the majority of English musicians.