Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pepusch, John Christopher

PEPUSCH, JOHN CHRISTOPHER (1667–1752), professor of music and composer, the son of a German protestant clergyman, was born at Berlin in 1667, and studied the organ under Grosse, and musical theory under Klingenberg. At the age of fourteen he played at court, accompanying a singer, and was soon afterwards appointed the teacher of Prince Frederick William. That post he filled for six years, pursuing his own studies in the meanwhile. In 1687 Pepusch was in Holland, where his earlier works were published by Etienne Roger; but at the end of the following year he came to England, tempted probably by the success of Buononcini (Gerber), though a story is told of an act of kingly severity at Berlin, which Hawkins supposed to have been the cause of the musician's anxiety to quit the Prussian service.

In London Pepusch was at first employed as viola-player in the Drury Lane orchestra (Mendel); in 1700 he was given the conductor's place at the harpsichord, with the privilege of fitting operas for the stage, and adding his own music. He, for instance, introduced his song, ‘How blest is a soldier,’ into ‘Thomyris,’ 1707. But as early as 1696 one of his sonatas had been performed in Edinburgh (Husk), and in 1704 he wrote concerted music for some musicians brought over to England by his brother, Gottfried (Burney, and set to music some pièces d'occasion. His first independent publication consisted of cantatas composed in the Italian manner. Handel, however, was then forming English musical taste, and Pepusch's rather artificial and pedantic productions fell flat. Bowing to circumstances, he recognised somewhat grudgingly the superior genius of Handel, whom he described as ‘a good practical musician,’ and entered upon his true career as a teacher of the science of music.

Pepusch had thoroughly mastered past and generally obsolete learning on his subject, but he unfortunately had no true appreciation of musical development; for him the most perfect method lay in the ancient system of hexachords; the last word in practical music had been uttered by Corelli. Greater exaggerations followed as Pepusch advanced in years. He appeared through life to cling to a rule of his early years which he impressed upon Burney, ‘I was determined not to go to bed at night without knowing something that I did not know in the morning;’ and having conquered all existing worlds of musical knowledge, he sought in his last days for worlds supposed to be lost. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 13 June 1745, and read a paper at a meeting, which was afterwards published (Transactions, vol. xliv. pt. i. p. 266). He must, as Burney relates, have bewildered himself and some of his scholars with the ‘Greek genera, scales, diagrams, geometrical, arithmetical, and harmonical proportions; quantities, apotomes, lemmas, and everything concerning ancient harmonies that was dark, unintelligible, and foreign to common and useful practice. … Yet, though he fettered the genius of his scholars by antiquated rules, he knew the mechanical laws of harmony so well that in glancing over a score he could by a stroke of his pen smooth the wildest and most incoherent notes into melody, and make them submissive to harmony, instantly seeing the superfluous or deficient notes, and suggesting a base from which there was no appeal’ (History, iv. 638). His eccentricities detracted little from the respect which his peculiar talents commanded, nor did they count for much against his skill in training sound musicians; among his pupils were Doctors Boyce, Nares, Howard, Cooke, Travers, Babell, Keeble, Rawlings, Berg, and J. C. Smith. To encourage the study of seventeenth-century work, he established in 1710 the academy for the practice of ancient vocal and instrumental music. Pepusch was for many years its director. It flourished according to the original scheme until 1734, when it was resolved to withdraw the choir-boys, and the performances languished for want of sopranos; it may be noted that no women were admitted even to the audience. To secure children's voices the managers afterwards determined to offer them instruction on low terms, and, when parents eagerly responded to the invitation, Pepusch generously undertook this additional burden.

Though devoting himself mainly to tuition, Pepusch did not wholly relinquish composition. His fine anthem ‘Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous,’ probably belongs to the period after 1712, when Pepusch was retained by the duke of Chandos as maestro di cappella at Cannons, and supplied the chapel services, until he retired in favour of Handel.

On 9 July 1713 Pepusch, with Croft, was admitted from Magdalen College Mus. Doc. Oxford. He rather offended the university by bringing London performers to assist in rendering his acts, and by giving public concerts in the city for his benefit. His exercise celebrating the peace of Utrecht was never published. A copy of the words, printed on both sides of a folio leaf, was in Dr. Bliss's library.

After 1714 he was frequently employed to supply Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre with music. He produced there, with musical settings, ‘Venus and Adonis,’ 1715; ‘Apollo and Daphne,’ 1715; ‘Death of Dido,’ 1716; ‘The Union of the three Sister Arts,’ a St. Cecilia's day entertainment, which had a long run, 1723; ‘Diocletian,’ of which Mrs. Pendarves wrote (1724), ‘I was very much disappointed, for instead of Purcell's music, we had Papuch's, and very humdrum it was; indeed, I never was so tired of anything in all my life’ (Delany, Correspondence). ‘The Squire of Alsatia’ was more successful, 1726; but the greatest triumph of the series was ‘The Beggar's Opera,’ 1727–8. Pepusch's overture, accompaniments, and basses were incorporated into this work, the raw material of which consisted of country dances, popular tunes, and the like. The selections were made with judgment, and no lapses into ancient lore marred the happy simplicity of their setting. The less known ‘Polly,’ 1729, and ‘The Wedding,’ 1734, were produced afterwards.

In the course of his zeal for diffusing knowledge, Pepusch was drawn into Bishop Berkeley's abortive scheme for founding a college in the Bermudas [see Berkeley, George, 1685–1753]. In 1737 he accepted the post of organist to the Charterhouse, where he took up his abode. For a few years before his death he saw only favourite pupils and old friends in his rooms, and now and then he would play chess. He died 20 July 1752, aged 85, and was buried in the chapel of the Charterhouse. A full choral service was performed at his funeral by the gentlemen and children of the academy and the choristers of St. Paul's. In 1767 a memorial tablet was put up on the south wall of the chapel by the members of the academy, to which he had bequeathed valuable music. Oldys notes that in 1737 Pepusch offered him any assistance that his ancient collections of music would afford for a history of the art and its professors in England. Owing to a series of blunders most of the library was dispersed, but some of his papers came into the hands of Hawkins, and thence to the British Museum.

Pepusch married in 1718 Francesca Margherita de L'Épine [see Epine]; their son died in 1739. A portrait of Pepusch was given by Hayes to the music school at Oxford. Hawkins includes an engraving, after Hudson's painting, in his ‘History’ (p. 831). Pepusch wrote and spoke English imperfectly, and he had the assistance of James Grassineau and John Immyns as amanuenses and secretaries; it is thought probable that he superintended the translation by the former of Brossard's ‘Dictionnaire,’ published in 1740 (Grove). His ‘Short Treatise on Harmony,’ containing the elements of his teaching, was published by him in 1731. The year before a work so entitled and founded on the master's method was given to the world, without guidance or permission from him, by an indiscreet pupil. He dictated, but did not print, ‘A short Account of the Twelve Modes of Composition and their Progression in every Octave.’

Among his published works, besides those already mentioned, are: 1. ‘Six Cantatas for Voice and Instruments,’ the words by Hughes, 1716? One of these is ‘Alexis,’ which was sung by Vaughan, with a violoncello obbligato by Lindley, in 1817. 2. ‘Six Cantatas for Voice with different Instruments,’ the words by various authors, 1717? 3. ‘Twenty-four Airs for two Violins.’ 4. ‘Sonatas for Flute and Bass.’ 5. ‘Solos for Flute.’ 6. ‘Solos for Violin.’ 7. ‘Ode for St. Cecilia's Day,’ 1723. 8. An edition of Corelli's sonatas and concertos in score, 1732. In manuscript there exist Songs in ‘Myrtillo,’ Fitzwilliam Museum; ‘Ode in honour of the late Duke of Devonshire’ (Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 5052); Motet, ‘Beatus vir,’ a 4 (ib. 5054); ‘Myrtillo’ (ib. 15980); autograph harmony and scale notes (ib. 29429); Magnificat (ib. 34072); at Royal College of Music, motets, sonatas, songs, and masques (Husk, Catalogue).

[Grove's Dict. (twenty-nine references in the four volumes); Hawkins's Hist., 2nd ed. pp. 831, 884, 907; Burney's Hist. iii. 109, 324, iv. 638; Gerber's Tonkünstler-Lexicon, 1792, ii. col. 91; Clark's Registers; Gent. Mag. 1738, p. 767; Annals of the Three Choirs, p. 15; Boyce's Cathedral Harmony, vol. i. pp. iv, vii; Husk's Celebrations of St. Cecilia's Day, pp. 61, 62, 90, 105; Oldys's Diary, p. 15; Ashton's Dawn of the Nineteenth Century, i. 15; Fuller-Maitland's Cat. of Fitzwilliam Museum, pp. 41, 232, 241; Anecdotes of J. C. Smith, p. 41.]

L. M. M.