Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Crotch, William

CROTCH, WILLIAM (1775–1847), composer, born in Green's Lane, St. George Colgate, Norwich, 5 July 1775, was the youngest son of Michael Crotch, a carpenter. The elder Crotch, who was a man with some love of music and mechanical ingenuity, had built himself a small organ, on which he could play a few simple tunes. About Christmas 1776 Crotch began to show some interest when this organ was played, and about the midsummer following he could touch the key note of his favourite tunes. When only two years and three weeks old he taught himself ‘God save the King,’ first the air and then the bass, and he was soon able to play a few other simple tunes, besides displaying an extraordinary delicacy of ear. An account of him was published by the Hon. Daines Barrington, and Dr. Burney communicated a paper on him to the Royal Society, which appeared in vol. lxix. pt. i. of the ‘Philosophical Transactions.’ The child seems to have received no regular instruction, but in 1779 he came with his mother, Isabella Crotch, to London. An advertisement of this date (18 Oct. 1779) announces that ‘Mrs. Crotch is arrived in town with her son, the Musical Child, who will perform of the organ every day as usual, from one o'clock to three, at Mrs. Hart's, milliner, Piccadilly.’ About 1782 he was playing at Leicester. An eye-witness recorded that he played the pianoforte seated on his mother's knee. He was at this time a delicate but lively boy, and ‘next to music was most fond of chalking upon the floor.’ At this time he also could play the violin, as well as the pianoforte and organ. In 1786 Crotch went to Cambridge, where he studied under Dr. Randall, to whom he acted as assistant. In 1788, on the advice of the Rev. A. C. Schomberg, a tutor of Magdalen, who took great interest in him, he moved to Oxford, where he intended to study for the church. He never, however, entered at the university, as his patron's health broke down, and Crotch therefore resumed the musical profession. Previous to this, on 4 June 1789, a juvenile oratorio of his, ‘The Captivity of Judah,’ had been performed at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. During the same year he was engaged at Oxford to play a concerto at the weekly concerts in the music room. In September 1790, on the death of Thomas Norris, Crotch was appointed organist of Christ Church, a post he held until 1807 or 1808, and on 5 June 1794 he proceeded to the degree of Mus. Bac. There can be no doubt that this is the actual date when he took his degree, although in a letter dated 7 March 1800 he says: ‘I took my degree in '95.’ His exercise on this occasion is preserved in the Music School collection, and is dated 28 May 1794. In March 1797 Crotch succeeded Dr. Philip Hayes as organist of St. John's College and professor of music; the latter office he held until 1806. He was also about this time organist to St. Mary's, Oxford. On 21 Nov. 1799 he proceeded Mus. Doc. His exercise on this occasion was a setting of Warton's ‘Ode to Fancy.’ It was finished on 28 Oct. 1799, and was published by subscription in 1800. During the next four years he delivered several courses of lectures at Oxford, and at the same time devoted himself largely, as he continued to do throughout his life, to drawing and sketching. In 1809 he published six etchings of Christ Church, showing the destruction caused by a great fire in the college, and in the same year he published six studies from nature, drawn and etched in imitation of chalk. In 1810 he composed an ode for the installation of Lord Grenville as chancellor of the university. Probably about this time he moved to London, where he was much occupied with teaching. On 21 April 1812 his greatest work, the oratorio of ‘Palestine,’ was produced at the Hanover Square Rooms. The book, an adaptation from Bishop Heber's poem, was ill suited for musical illustration, but in spite of this drawback, and of the fact that Crotch never printed the score and charged two hundred guineas for the loan of the band parts and his own attendance as conductor whenever the work was performed, it achieved a lasting success, and remains practically the one oratorio by an English composer which has survived for half a century. In the same year as the production of ‘Palestine’ Crotch published his ‘Elements of Musical Composition.’ He became an associate of the Philharmonic Society in 1813, and was a member from 1814 to 1819. In May 1820 he lectured at the Royal Institution, and in the same year composed an ode on the accession of George IV, which was performed at Oxford. On the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music in 1822 Crotch was appointed the first principal, a post he held until 21 June 1832, on which date he resigned it. In 1827 he wrote a funeral anthem for the Duke of York, and became again an associate of the Philharmonic. He was a second time member of the society from 1828 to 1832. His chief publications up to this time had been a set of ten anthems (1804), ‘Specimens of Various Styles of Music referred to in a Course of Lectures on Music read at Oxford and London’ (1807, 1808, and 1818), and in 1831 he published the ‘Substance of Several Courses of Lectures on Music read at Oxford and in the Metropolis.’ On 10 June 1834 he produced a second oratorio, ‘The Captivity of Judah,’ a work which is entirely distinct from the youthful composition of the same name which was performed at Cambridge. This oratorio has never been published, but it seems to have been less successful than ‘Palestine.’ It was produced at Oxford on the occasion of the installation of the Duke of Wellington as chancellor; for the same ceremony Crotch set an ode, the words of which were by Keble. His last public appearance was at Westminster Abbey on 28 June 1834, when he played the organ at a Handel festival. During the latter part of his life he lived at Kensington Gravel Pits, but for some time previous to his death he had been staying with his son, the Rev. W. R. Crotch, master of the grammar school, Taunton. Here he died suddenly at dinner on 29 Dec. 1847. By his will, which was made in 1844, he left his music and musical copyrights to his son, and the bulk of his property (estimated at 18,000l.) to his wife. He was buried at Bishop's Hull, near Taunton.

Crotch occupied a distinguished position in his day, when indigenous music was at a low ebb, and his reputation may be said to have been sustained since his death. He was a learned musician, but not a dry one, and probably, if he had lived in a more congenial musical atmosphere, would have attained a far higher standard than he did. There are passages in ‘Palestine’ which show that he was possessed of original genius and no mere servile copyist of Handel, although the style of the Saxon master is predominant throughout the work. Crotch, like so many other musicians, was unfortunately mainly dependent upon teaching for his subsistence; it is therefore not to be wondered at that he produced so little. Throughout his life he was devoted to drawing, and his numerous sketches and water-colours which have been preserved show that if he had not devoted himself to music he might have attained distinction as an artist. The principal portraits of Crotch are (1) an oil-painting of him as a boy, attributed to Romney, but more probably by Beechey, in the possession of the Royal Academy of Music; (2) a painting by J. Sanders, exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1785; (3) an engraving from a drawing by J. Sanders ‘ad vivum,’ published 20 Nov. 1778—this is possibly an engraving of (2); (4) in the ‘London Magazine’ for April 1779, seated at the organ; another version of this is called ‘Master Crotch, the musical phænomenon of Norwich;’ (5) an oval half-length, engraved by James Tittler, and published by Mrs. Crotch 12 May 1779, ‘near St. James's Street, Piccadilly:’ this is probably the same portrait that was advertised in 1779 as ‘taken from life by Mrs. Harrington, of No. 62 South Molton Street;’ (6) by W. T. Fry, published 1 Sept. 1822; (7) by J. Thomson, after W. Derby, in the ‘European Magazine,’ 1 Nov. 1822. Of this two versions exist, one with the coat filled in and one without; and (8) a drawing by F. W. Wilkins (now in the possession of Mr. D. C. Bell), representing Crotch in his doctor's robes.

[Eastcott on Music, 91; Parke's Memoirs, i. 14; Busby's Musical Anecdotes, iii. 142; Grove's Dict. of Music, i. 420; Appendix to Bemrose's Choir Chant Book; Harmonicon for 1823, 27, 1827, 206, 1831, 3; Daines Barrington's Miscellanies, 311; Gardiner's Music and Friends, i. 33; Cox's Recollections of Oxford; Crosse's York Musical Festivals, 76, 100, 103, 113, 126, 181, 249; Universal Mag. December 1779; Musical World, 1 April 1848, 31 Jan. 1874; Monthly Mag. 1800, 1801; Orchestra, 31 Oct. 1873; Athenæum, 31 Jan. 1874; Pohl's Mozart und Haydn in London, i. 112, ii. 79; manuscripts in possession of Mr. G. Milner Gibson Cullum and Mr. Taphouse; Evans's and Bromley's Catalogues of Engravings.]

W. B. S.