Thomas Linley (17561778)



  • Composer
  • Performer
  • Author

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
June 2023

One of the greatest tragedies in the history of British music was the untimely death of Thomas Linley junior (1756–78), son of Thomas Linley (1733–95) and Mary Johnson (1729–1820). The couple had twelve children, eight of whom survived infancy; Thomas was their eldest surviving son. The family was exceptionally musical. The father was a singer, teacher, concert and theatre manager, and occasional composer. Two of the daughters, Elizabeth Ann Linley (1754–92) and Mary Linley (1758–87), were reckoned to be amongst the finest soprano soloists in the country, yet both gave up their careers once they were married. While Thomas’s other siblings did not achieve such similar acclaim, all were musical. Although born in Gloucestershire, the elder Linley’s family moved to Bath in 1744 where he became apprenticed to Thomas Chilcot (1707?–66), organist of the Bath Abbey. Linley began managing the musical performances held at the Assembly Rooms in Bath in 1766. When the New Assembly Rooms opened in 1771, Linley became the Musical Director, thus giving him a platform for his musical children to perform. The Bath concerts were held during the height of the “Season” in Bath (fall and early winter), a time when the spa town attracted wealthy and influential patrons. Fame achieved in these concerts gave the children performing opportunities elsewhere.

Young Thomas performed a violin concerto in Bristol in 1763 when only seven years, after which he was apprenticed to William Boyce (1711–79) from 1763 to 1768. Not only was Thomas an accomplished violinist, he sang, acted and danced–all skills that he displayed in his debut at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, on January 29, 1767, when he performed the part of Puck in Thomas Hull’s masque The Fairy Favour. The work was a short interlude presented between a comedy and an entertainment for the Prince of Wales. Elizabeth Linley made her London debut in the same performance, but none of the child actors were named by the press. Thomas Linley’s performance, however, was singled out in a review:

It would be sparing in justice ... not to say, that the dresses and scenery are well adapted to it; the moon-light scene in particular: Nor can enough said of the little boy, who plays the part of Puck; his singing, playing on the violin, and dancing the hornpipe, are all beyond expectation, and discover extraordinary abilities in one, who must be considered as a child. (Lloyd’s Evening Post, February 2–4, 1767)

In 1768, Thomas went to Florence to study with the Pietro Nardini (1722–93), a well-known Italian violinist and composer. Charles Burney was in the area two years later and sought out the young prodigy. On September 10, 1770, he recorded that “my little countryman, Linley, who had been two years under Signor Nardini, was at Florence when I arrived there, and was universally admired. The Tommasino, as he is called, and the little Mozart, are talked of all over Italy, as the promising geniusses of this age” (The Present State of Music in France and Italy: or, the Journal of a Tour through those Countries ... , 1771). Leopold Mozart (1719–87), father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91), wrote at some length about meeting Linley during their first Italian trip, 1770–71. Exact contemporaries, Wolfgang and Thomas bonded over music-making, as attested by Leopold Mozart in a letter to Anna Maria Mozart, dated April 21, 1770:

In Florence we found a young Englishman who is a pupil of the famous violinist Nardini. This boy, who plays absolutely beautifully and has Wolfgang’s height and age, came to the house of the learned poetess Sgr. Corelli, where we happened to visiting on the recommendation of M. L’Augier. The two boys took turns performing all evening while constantly embracing each other. The next day, the little Englishman, a most charming boy, brought his violin to where we stayed and played all afternoon with Wolfgang accompanying him on his violin ... Little Thomaso accompanied us home and wept the bitterest tears because we were leaving the next day. (translated by Robert Spaethling, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, 2000)

The two young men kept in contact for a period of time, as demonstrated by Mozart’s letter to Linley dated September 10, 1770.

Linley returned to England in 1771 and became a well known soloist in London and at his father’s concerts in Bath. The senior Linley took his leave of Bath in 1776 for London, where he managed the oratorio seasons at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with John Stanley. The family became reunited, and Thomas became the orchestral leader during the oratorio season. Linley composed prolifically during this time but, sadly, much music has been lost. Of the some twenty violin concertos which were credited to him, only one survives. Fortunately, other manuscripts passed to William Linley (1771–1835), Thomas’s younger brother, were donated to the British Museum in the nineteenth century. They are now a part of the British Library collection. Of great importance are the commemorative volumes of manuscript copies that were prepared for presentation to George III. They remain a part of the Royal Library, now housed at the British Library. Linley’s only extant complete violin concerto is found in R.M.21.h.10. The score demonstrates Linley’s technical prowess as a violinist and demands ease in the highest register, as well as passages in thirds and sixths. The work is far from empty display, however, and the level of melodic inspiration is high. The Stil galant idiom is well utilized, resulting in an entertaining and most attractive composition.[1]

Growing up in a family of singers and having been a boy soprano himself, it is not surprising that vocal music figures prominently in Linley’s suriving scores. He collaborated with his father on the comic opera The Duenna (Covent Garden, November 21, 1775), contributing the overture,[2] songs and ensembles. Other theatrical music included incidental music for The Tempest (Drury Lane, January 4, 1777)[3] and The Cady of Bagdad (Drury Lane, February 19, 1778), a comic opera. Linley’s imposing storm chorus likely set the opening scene in Sheridan’s revision of Shakespeare’s Tempest, but Linley’s songs also aptly capture the sense of magic in the play. Another work that is related to Shakespeare is the Lyric Ode on the Fairies, Aerial Beings and Witches of Shakespeare.[4] Sheakespeare celebrations remained in vogue in Britain, especially after the great Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769. The Lyric Ode was first performed in London at the Drury Lane theatre on March 20, 1776. The text by French Laurence evokes the supernatural elements of Shakespeare’s plays, rather than quoting the Bard’s words. Still, the text appears to have fired Linley’s imagination. The setting is of considerable length, lasting around an hour and requiring an orchestra, chorus, two sopranos and a bass soloist. The bass at the premiere was Charles Frederick Rheinhold (1737–1815) and the two sopranos were Linley’s sisters Elizabeth and Mary. It is evident that Linley took pride in showcasing the talents of his sisters in arias that displayed their dazzling vocal abilities. The orchestral writing is especially rich and makes use of flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, horns, timpani and strings.

The review in the Morning Chronicle (March 21, 1776) was particularly lauditory: “This composition must be allowed to be an extraordinary effort of genius from one so young a man ... there is Taste in both the Air and Accompanyments, that would not disgrace a Sacchini or a Bach.”[5] The review ended with the following sentiments: “From the general and sincere applause with which the Ode was received, we may venture to pronouce, that if Mr. Linley, jun. pursues his studies, he will one day stand foremost in the list of modern composers. His merit, even at this early time of life, is certainly sufficient to challenge the warmest encouragement from the public, even though our Amateurs should not yet be brought to overlook the misfortune of his being an Englishman.”

Comparison to elite composers of the period such as Antonio Sacchini (1730–86) and J.C. Bach (1735–82), both well known in London, is high praise; however, the evidence points to it appropriateness. Sadly, the young Linley was not given the opportunity to pursue his studies or to grow as a composer. On August 5, 1778, he was boating on a lake in the country estate of Grimsthorpe in Lincolnshire. The boat overturned and Linley was unable to swim to shore. When Wolfgang Mozart heard of the death of his friend, he said to Michael Kelly that “Linley was a true genius, and he felt that, had he lived, he would have been one of the greatest ornaments of the musical world” (Kelly, Reminiscences, ed. Roger Fiske, 1975).

[1] Recorded by Elizabeth Wallfisch, and the Parley of Instruments, under the direction of Peter Holman. Helios CDA66865

[2] Recorded by the Parley of Instruments, under the direction of Paul Nicholson. Helios CDH55256.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Recorded by Julia Gooding, Lorna Anderson, Richard Wistreich, the Parley of Instruments Orchestra and Chorus, under the direction of Paul Nicholson. Helios CDH55253.

[5] Strangely, the Morning Post (March 21, 1776) attributed the music to Thomas Linley, senior. Perhaps this is why their critic was less impressed than his colleague at the Morning Chronicle.