James Hook (17461827)



  • Musician
  • Composer
  • Teacher

Biographical details

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
August 2022

James Hook was born in Norwich in the parish of St. John, Maddermarket, on 3 June 1746. He was severely club-footed, a considerable handicap at that time. William Parke records that “his feet had, by early surgical operations, been so much improved, that he could walk in a limping manner tolerably well. One foot, however, in appearance, was much better than the other, though bad was the best.” Hook was not embittered by his situation, and Parke records that Hook “could even laugh at his own infirmities” (Musical Memoirs; comprising an Account of the General State of Music in England, 1830). Throughout his life, Hook appears to have been a genial person who enjoyed company and who possessed a great sense of humour. His musical prowess was noted at an early age; he played the harpsichord by the age of four and was appearing in concert by the age of six, a true child prodigy. Musical instruction was provided by James Garland at the Norwich Cathedral, under whose tutelage Hook not only developed as a keyboard performer (both organ and harpsichord) and also as a composer.

Hook had settled in London before February 1764 to further his musical career; however, his options were limited because he did not play any orchestral instruments. He was thus restricted to church work, performing organ in the pleasure gardens, and teaching. It is not surprising then, that the first recorded references to Hook as a performer in London are at a pleasure garden. Theodore Busby writes that Hook “commenced his professional career at White-Conduit House, where he daily entertained the visitors with his executions on the organ” (Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of Music and Musicians, 1825). This enterprise was located in the area of Islington in present-day North London, which was then very rural and not a prestige location.

Hook soon made a name for himself in London as an organist, composer and teacher. His ballads were soon performed in the concerts at the Vauxhall and Marylebone gardens. Hook obtained the more prestigious position of organist and composer at the Marylebone Gardens beginning in 1768. His official title was “Music Master,” indicating that he likely supervised the programming of the concerts and performed regularly in them. Indeed, he was mentioned in the newspapers advertisements on the opening day of that season (23 May 1768) performing “a concerto on the organ by Mr. Hook.” The move to Marylebone was of a significant step forward in the London musical world where both his performance skills and compositions became known to a wider audience.

Work at the pleasure gardens was seasonal, however, leaving the greater part of the year for other employment. He was organist at St. John Horselydown, Bermondsey, for many years; it was fortunate that most English organs of the period did not have full pedal boards and that there was not a strong tradition of rigorous pedal technique, given his handicap. Some sources state that Hook became the organist of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor; however, the records of the St. George’s Chapel Archives and Chapter Library make no reference to him. Teaching became a significant part of his livelihood. William Parke records that “his time was a good deal taken up in teaching the piano-forte, by which his income was greatly extended, and to my knowledge his annual receipts from only two schools, one at Chelsea and other at Stepney, were six hundred pounds” (Musical Memoirs; comprising an Account of the General State of Music in England, 1830). Hook hoped for a regular appointment at the Drury Lane theatre, although none was forthcoming. Undeterred, he produced music for twenty-four stage works between 1769 and 1813, with several of the late works composed to libretti by his son Theodore Edward Hook. Neither Hook père nor fils had the strongest theatrical instincts, although several of their patriotic works enjoyed success. On 23 April 1805, they presented The Soldier’s Return; or, What can Beauty Do?, a comic opera in 2 acts, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. This opera proved to be very popular with audiences during a time of war and it played in that theatre until 31 October 1806.Newspaper advertisements show that it was performed subsequently in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Newcastle, Exeter, Hampshire, and other locations.

Hook began his association with the Vauxhall Gardens in 1774, and quickly established himself as being essential to the musical success of the gardens. John Marsh visited the enterprise in June of 1775, and reported that he was “much pleas’d with Barthelemon on the violin, Hooke on the organ & with some humorous catches & glees [sung] by Mrs Weichsell, Vernon etc.” (The John Marsh Journals: The Life and Times of a Gentleman Composer, 1752-1828, 1998). Hook’s tenure at Vauxhall was longstanding and he used the concerts at the gardens to disseminate his huge output of vocal and instrumental music. He remained in his position of organist and resident composer until 1820, a remarkable tenure of 46 years. Hook left this post unexpectedly, and Theodore Busby records that “Mr. Hook, of ballad notoriety, who, after setting to music more than a thousand songs, has deemed it high time to retire from the public ear, and the public eye ... so little was his abrupt retirement expected or understood, that the proprietor of the [Vauxhall Gardens] ... kept his station in the band open for him, during one entire season” (Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of Music and Musicians, 1825).

Parke’s memoirs are filled with admiration for Hook’s songs: “As a composer he was for many years extremely popular; and for natural and pleasing melodies in his songs, &c. he has not perhaps been surpassed” (Musical Memoirs; comprising an Account of the General State of Music in England, 1830). Hook’s great facility allowed him to compose quickly, and over 2,000 examples of songs, rondos and cantatas etc. came from his pen. Many of these works were ballads and other popular songs, which were intended for home consumption after they were introduced in the concerts at Vauxhall. Many of the texts that he set were patriotic in nature which helped maintain morale during the long Napoleonic wars. In addition, Hook composed concerti for various instruments (keyboard, trumpet, clarinet), with those for keyboard serving his need to perform an organ concerto each evening at the Vauxhall concerts.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

HOOK, JAMES (1746–1827), organist and composer, born at Norwich in 1746, was the only son of John Hook, minister of the Norwich Tabernacle. He showed a talent for composition before he was seven years old, and was placed under Garland, the cathedral organist, for musical instruction. Migrating to London, he published a ‘Collection of new English Songs sung at the new Richmond Theatre’ (about 1765); was for a long time organist of St. John's, Horselydown; was organist and composer at Marylebone Gardens from 1769 to 1773; and at Vauxhall Gardens from 1774 to 1820. He gave music lessons, and excelled as an organist, performing an organ concerto every night at Vauxhall (Parke). He died at Boulogne in 1827. Hook's first wife was Miss Madden (d. 1795). Their two sons were James [q. v.], afterwards dean of Worcester, and Theodore [q. v.], the humorist. Hook, the composer, was himself a wit. His second wife died 5 April 1873.

Hook composed over two thousand songs, and wrote music for the organ, pianoforte, and other instruments, an oratorio, catches and glees, dramatic pieces, and an instruction book, ‘Guida di Musica.’ His knowledge of the works of other musicians was great, and he was charged by his contemporaries with unscrupulously adapting their musical ideas to his own purposes. Hook probably appropriated much that would have otherwise been sooner forgotten or never even known. His choice of materials and his perception of the public mood rendered him very popular. The originality of his most famous songs does not appear to have been questioned. His ‘Scotch’ ballad ‘Within a mile’ was sung by Incledon in the ‘Gentle Shepherd’ in 1795, and with the ‘greatest applause by Mrs. Mountain in Harlequin Faustus,’ probably in the same year. ‘The Lass of Richmond Hill,’ as happily ‘English’ as the former was ‘Scotch,’ was composed about 1787, and sung by Incledon probably in the following year. (See Notes and Queries, 5th ser. ix. 495, and x. 169.)

Among Hook's dramatic and concerted vocal pieces, some of them with words by Theodore Hook, are: ‘Ode on the Opening of the new Exhibition Room’ (on the site of which the Lyceum now stands), 1765; ‘Dido,’ 1771; ‘The Divorce,’ 1771 (produced in 1781 at Drury Lane), ‘Trick upon Trick,’ ‘Il Dilettante,’ ‘Cupid's Revenge,’ ‘Country Courtship’ (Sadler's Wells), and ‘One Morning Dame Turner’ (prize catch), all in 1772; ‘Apollo and Daphne,’ 1773; ‘The Ascension’ (oratorio), and ‘The Fair Peruvian,’ 1776; ‘The Lady of the Manor,’ 1778; ‘Come, kiss me, dear Dolly’ (prize catch), 1780; ‘Ode on the Return of Peace,’ and ‘Too civil by half,’ 1783; ‘The Double Disguise’ (written by Miss Madden), 1784; ‘Jack of Newbury,’ 1795; ‘Diamond cut Diamond,’ 1797; ‘Wilmore Castle,’ 1800; ‘The Soldier's Return,’ 1805; ‘Tekeli,’ and ‘Catch him who can,’ 1806; ‘Music Mad,’ and ‘The Fortress,’ 1807; ‘The Siege of St. Quintin’ (at Drury Lane), 1808; ‘Killing no Murder,’ and ‘Safe and Sound,’ 1809. Many of Hook's songs appear in ‘Collections of Songs sung at Vauxhall,’ ‘The Anchoret,’ ‘Hours of Love,’ ‘L'année,’ ‘The Aviary,’ ‘Nursery Songs,’ &c. Eleven of his glees and catches are published in ‘Warren's Collections,’ vols. i–iii.

[Grove's Dict. of Music, i. 746; A.B.C. Dario; Dict. of Music, 1827, i. 374; Pohl's Mozart in London, p. 50; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. viii. 208, 436; Parke's Musical Memoirs, pp. 36, 66, 253; Barham's Life of Theodore Hook; Quart. Rev. lxxii. (Essay on Theodore Hook).]

L. M. M.