300322: Ten Duets
Edited by Timothy Roberts
By 1755, when he published his first set of songs, the composer had already described himself as “of Exeter” in order to distinguish himself from a musical namesake: a prescient epithet, since apart from brief periods in London and one visit to the Continent, he was to pass his life in his native city, where in 1777 he became cathedral sub-chanter, organist, lay vicar and master of the choristers. It was in London that he had studied for a while with John Travers (d.1758), who had himself published a set of canzonets, for various vocal scorings, as early as 1746. Travers had been an important figure in the revival of “ancient music” in mid-Georgian London, and both he and Jackson frequented the Madrigal Society where they would have heard 16th and 17thcentury vocal music.
Jackson belongs to that pre-Romantic moment when music as a profession started to attract the liberally-educated middle classes. The son of a grocer, Jackson was not simply a practical musician: he also became a talented artist in oils, and published sometimes controversial essays on both music and the arts in general. His music was not forgotten in the 19th century and as late as 1897 four of the canzonets were republished in partsong arrangements.
These duets are drawn from Jackson's Twelve Canzonets, Op. 9 (1770), A Second set of Twelve Canzonets, Op.13, (c.1782), Twelve pastorals, Op. 15 (1786) and one is from Six Madrigals, Op. 18 (c.1798).
The vocal duets of William Jackson are exquisite products of Britain’s ‘Age of Sensibility’ - an era also defined by the poetry of Thomas Gray, the paintings of Jackson’s friends Gainsborough and Reynolds, and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67) and A Sentimental Journey (1768). The Op. 9 canzonets for two voices appearing in 1770 as his have a short preface commencing:
As the greatest Part of these Canzonets were extemporary productions, and performed almost as soon as composed, I should have scarce have ventured to publish them, if they had not met with more approbation than appeared to me due to their merit. Perhaps the ease with which such familiar airs may be sung, went farther to recommend them, than a style that needs to be studied before it can be liked. As trifles only they are offered to the public, and as trifles they will doubtless be received.
Despite these modest protestations, the composer surely knew that these graceful, rococo works -combining as they do the italianate grace of J.C. Bach (12 Canzonette on texts by Metastasio, London, 1765/67) with unobtrusive contrapuntal skill -approach the “sentimental” ideal: that is, the unpretentious expression of genuine feeling. A second dozen of canzonets (Op.13) was published about a decade later, while an attractive later set ofPastorals (1786) for the same scoring is lighter in tone. In the 1790s a few more duets, now with written-out piano accompaniments rather than a mere figured bass, were included in Jackson’sEpigrams and Madrigals.