Writings on Leicestershire local history, now available online and free of charge

About Jonathan Wilshere          List of publications          Newspaper articles, etc.

Article on Thomas Attwood Walmisley (1814-1856)
Source: Journal 'Musical Opinion', March 1964

There can be very few church choirs who are not familiar with "Walmisley in D Minor" - for that service has become one of the most frequently used in the Anglican church during the past one hundred years. Yet how few know more about Walmisley - whether as man or musician? January saw the 150th anniversary of the birth of this interesting figure in English church music, and this is as good an opportunity as any to discover more about him.

Thomas Attwood Walmisley was born in London on January 21st, 1814, and the son of Thomas Forbes Walmisley (1783-1866) who, though he was organist of St. Martins-in-the-Fields for 40 years, achieved greater notoriety as a glee-writer. However, it was from his godfather Thomas Attwood (1765-1838) that the young T. A. W. derived much of his early musical education. Attwood, a former boy chorister in the Chapel Royal and a pupil of Mozart, was organist of St. Paul's for his last 42 years, and is buried under the organ in that cathedral. Attwood was also a founder of the Philharmonic Society in 1813, a professor at the Royal Academy from its foundation in 1823, and Director of the Chapel Royal from 1836. In addition, he acted as host and friend to Mendelssohn on his visits to this country, and it is consequently not surprising that the young Walmisley also enjoyed friendship with that composer.

Though Walmisley became organist at Croydon church at the age of 16, he quickly came under the influence of Thomas Miller who also developed Walmisley's literary tastes, and even persuaded him to cultivate his mathematical mind by combining mathematical studies with his musical ones - and at the same time ensuring the he did not neglect literature! After three years at Croydon, and with Monck Mason trying to interest him in Opera, Walmisley went to Cambridge to start his Sunday slavery of playing at eight services at two colleges (Trinity and St. John's) in addition to the University church. A third college - Jesus - was soon added to his list. For his Mus.B. in 1833, Walmisley wrote "Let God Arise" (with full orchestra). Although unsuccessful in the University Prize Poem, his love of literature was not sacrificed, and before he transferred to Jesus College, he also contrinued his mathematical studies at Corpus Christi. This three-in-one man continued his life of incessant slavery by composing, in 1834, in addition to a Service in B flat, "O give thanks" for Commemoration at Trinity. The illness of Clarke-Whitfeld meant that Walmisley composed, at short notice, an Ode, written by the Bishop of Lincoln, for Lord Camden's installation as Chancellor. This caused Walmisley to interrupt his mathematics for a while. Consequent upon Clarke-Whitfeld's death in 1836, Walmisley was elected to the Chair of Music at the age of twenty-two and while still an undergraduate - a remarkable achievement in itself.

Composition, for the next few years, played a minor part in Walmisley's existence, but after he achieved his B. A. in 1838 and his M. A. three years later, further works followed. In 1842 he wrote an Ode (words by the Rev. T. Whytehead) in honour of the Duke of Northumberland. In 1845, a collection of Chants and Responses in use at King's, Trinity and St. John's was published. Two years later, with words by the then Laureate, Wordsworth, the installation of the Price Consort was celebrated by another Ode. In 1848 Walmisley because Mus.D. but continued working at Cambridge. Among his later acitivites, he edited a collection of Attwood's cathedral music, which was published in 1852. Sweete Floweres (1854) was Walmisley's first successful attempt at madrigal writing. His health was, by this time, beginning to suffer from ceaseless toil and his death at Hastings on January 17th, 1856, took place within a short while after he had ended his work at Cambridge. After his death, his father published a collection of his Anthems and Services (1857).

Though Walmisley was among the ablest writers of church music of his day, his insular existence at Cambridge was a hindrance to his development as a composer in other fields. Some unpublished duets for oboe and piano (written for an undergraduate, Alfred Pollock) were highly though of, and but for a story associated with Mendelssohn, we might have known Walmisley as an orchestral composer, who had rid himself of his Cambrdige complex. Walmisley had written a Symphony he proposed to submit to the Royal Philharmonic Society, but when he ventured to show it to Mendelssohn (whom he much admired) he was met with the scurrilous rebuff: "No. 1 - let us see first what No. 12 will be." (Mendelssohn had written 12 unpublished symphonies, before his five numbered symphonies.) This unkind remark weighed heavily on his mind, and put an end to Walmisley's hankering after orchestral writing. Yet he did share, both with Attwood and Mendelssohn, a love of Bach, and was a pioneer in making the now well-known works of this composer better known. He conceded that the B Minor Mass was the greatest composition in the world, and also recognised the importance of the Cantatas, which were still in manuscript at the time. By inaugurating musical lectures with practical examples at Cambridge, Walmisley was an early advocate of the value of Musical Appreciation and he was very successful in this sphere of activity. But, inevitably, it is for his church musical that he is known: music that is the best of its class since Wesley and Goss, and much of it possessing an independent organ part for the first time since the rich age of Byrd, Morley and Gibbons. The highspot in his service in D Minor, the Magnificat, was once available in an Enlighs Church Music series on 78 r. p .m. Today, the only work by Walmisley the record collector can obtain is a setting of Psalm 23 sung by the Temple Church Choir in a collection on H. M. V. CLP 1529 (Stereo CSD 1415).

Surely this remarkable man, who might easily have put music last to literature or mathematics, deserves to be remembered by something more than his D Minor Service - and a brass tablet erected in 1888 in Trinity College!