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Book explores musical life in America in first 50 years after independence

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Just as contemporary American-made music enjoys great popularity in Europe today, music by European composers and performers was all the rage in America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. According to musicologist Nicholas Temperley, musicians with significant mastery of the British or European musical idiom were highly sought after in America.

That’s just one of many observations Temperley makes in his new book, “Bound for America: Three British Composers,” published this month by the University of Illinois Press. In the book, Temperley, a professor emeritus of music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explores “American musical life in the first 50 years after independence” by examining the lives and music of three London-based composers who emigrated to the United States during the prime of their careers. The composers – William Selby, who emigrated in 1773; Rayner Taylor, in 1792; and George K. Jackson, in 1796 – were multitalented and engaged in other music-related pursuits such as teaching, performing and serving as church organists.

Temperley, whose past research has focused primarily on British music and composers, said personal reasons inspired him to investigate these composers’ motivations for leaving successful careers in their homeland and taking their chances in America.

“A certain parallel with my own career stimulated my interest in these men,” he notes in the book. “Educated in Britain as a musician, and then as a musicologist, I moved permanently to the United States at the age of 34, for a mixture of reasons, economic, professional, and personal. There I continued my career and found that I had to modify my ideas and practices in various ways to suit my new surroundings. It is this sort of adaptation that I wished to investigate in Selby, Taylor and Jackson.”

Temperley considers the trio – who composed music in the era of Mozart and Beethoven – to be talented composers in their own right, but concedes that their names are hardly household words today, in the United States or Britain. Their achievements are notable nonetheless, he said. And even though Temperley acknowledges that “there were no great composers in America” at the time, Selby, Taylor and Jackson each were well-regarded and respected for their musical prowess during their lifetimes. In large part, the esteemed status they earned in the new country can be attributed to their background and training in London, which, Temperley said, was regarded as “the fountainhead for American ideas of public music-making” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

“However,” he writes, “the prestige that London-trained musicians enjoyed in the young republic has been reversed by history. In the revival of early American music that took place in the later 20th century, they were seen by some scholars as symbols of a snobbish anti-American prejudice.
The native composers whom they had displaced in their lifetimes were now unearthed and held up for admiration, while they themselves were devalued as an undesired foreign import. This reaction may have reached the point of inverted prejudice. At any rate I have tried to form a fresh evaluation of each man in his whole life and output.”

Temperley said at least one American biographer has conducted a thorough study of each of the composers he examined. Still, reconstructing an accurate record of their lives was difficult because relatively little source material – such as letters, sketchbooks or even portraits – exists. And much of the music is out of print, unrecorded and generally hard to find. For that reason, Temperley injected his text with several musical examples by Selby, Taylor and Jackson.

One of the biggest questions Temperley sought to answer through his research was “Why did they leave Britain?” On the surface, each appeared to enjoy a fairly prosperous career there. The short answer to the question driving Temperley’s inquiry appears to be: “for personal reasons.”

Selby, Temperley speculates, left Britain after a scandalous dismissal from his post as organist of the Magdalen Chapel; Taylor, who may have been married at the time of his emigration, appears to have eloped with a young protégé; and Jackson may have moved to escape debt collectors and assume a fresh, more respectable identity in America.

During his investigation, Temperley uncovered previously unknown information about the composers, which he believes will be of particular interest to other music scholars. For instance, he was the first to discover Taylor’s birth records, which indicated his mother’s French heritage. That is useful information for scholars, Temperley said, since Taylor set a lot of music to French text and demonstrated an interest in the French revolution. Temperley also was able to resolve some confusion regarding Selby’s identity by determining that an older brother had emigrated to New England ahead of him.

While such details will help musicologists arrive at a better understanding of early American musical history, Temperley believes the book may appeal to anyone, including those who appreciate music, students of American history or both.

“The stories have quite a bit of personal interest,” he said. “By putting two and two together, we are able to know more about various aspects of the time.”

The book also will help people understand the role music played in the cultural lives of post-revolutionary Americans. “Music is quite as important as other arts in the period, but sometimes gets lost,” Temperley said. “It’s sometimes easier to look at the architecture or the paintings or the poetry of the period.”