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The English Mozart

PUBLISHED: 11:54 26 January 2015 | UPDATED: 11:55 26 January 2015

Grimsthorpe Castle where Linley drowned when boating with friends

Grimsthorpe Castle where Linley drowned when boating with friends

Archant

Talented Bath musician Thomas Linley the Younger looked set to take the 18th century musical world by storm until his untimely death at the age of 22, as RAY CAVANAUGH discovers.

Many are unaware that England has its own version of a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And as prematurely as Mozart’s demise came, at the age of 35, the death of England’s counterpart would occur at an even earlier age.

The English Mozart is Bath native Thomas Linley the Younger, born at Abbey Green in May 1756. He was the third child of Thomas Linley, a harpsichordist and long-time leading music instructor in Bath.

From an early age, young Linley’s musical pursuits were ardently nurtured. Fortunately, his natural talents were well aligned with such a vocation. Though he displayed considerable promise on the piano, his primary instrument soon showed itself to be the violin.

Extraordinary abilities

The 25 July 1763 edition of Boddely’s Bath Journal provides the first known mention of a young Linley performance and records show that soon after he played a violin concerto in Bristol. He then headed to London to study with the famed composer William Boyce.

By age 10, Linley was performing at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House and a review in the Lloyd’s Evening Post touts his “extraordinary abilities” as a violinist. For further mastery, he was sent to Italy for private instruction from the violin virtuoso Pietro Nardini.

It was in Florence where an early adolescent Linley met another prized young musician just four months his senior. His name was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Perhaps they were still too young for rivalry or maybe their musical passion put them above all that. At any rate, the two quickly became friends.

Youthful energy

Based on their remarkable performances Mozart and Linley soon became the talk of Italy, which, according to music historian Charles Burney, considered them the “most promising geniuses” of the era.

Mozart’s father, writing to his wife, tells of the two precocious talents together on the piano serenading guests at the house of a prominent Italian scholar. The letter paints a scene of such youthful energy, promise, and aesthetic delight; it is haunting to think of the end to both of their stories.

After their time together in Florence, there is no record of Linley and Mozart having met again. Reportedly they remained frequent correspondents; however, “only one of their letters survives”, according to Cliff Eisen’s The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia.

A growing reputation

Returning to England, Linley would lead many concerts, both in Bath, where he led the orchestra, and in London. Peter Clive’s book Mozart and his Circle says that Linley composed sacred as well as secular pieces.

As for the sacred, 1773 saw the release of Linley’s first full-length devotional score Let God Arise. As for the secular, 1776 brought the arrival of his Shakespeare Ode, which garnered perhaps the most glowing praise of any of his works.

Aside from providing music for the theatre, he wrote “at least 20 violin concertos”. Sadly, most of these works have been lost over the years.

Even when he was not composing, Linley kept a full schedule; he and his violin were in constant demand. To some extent, his superb reputation was a surprise; in his era, England was, ironically, known to prefer foreign composers to its own. One review of a Linley performance mentions how: “the very warm applause he received last night proves that an English audience will give proper encouragement to true merit and genius, even though it is the production of their own country”.

Tragedy strikes

In July 1778, at the invitation of the Duke of Ancaster, the Linley family headed to Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire. There the virtuoso accompanied two friends for a boating trip on a nearby lake. A storm came abruptly and the boat overturned. Linley’s two friends swam to safety, but Linley never made it ashore. When his body surfaced some 40 minutes later, all efforts to revive him proved futile. England’s Mozart was gone, at the age of 22.

Further tragedy would befall the Linley family: three of the composer’s sisters succumbed to consumption, and one teenage brother died at sea. Soon after this last misfortune, Thomas Linley the Elder died; many felt that acute grief was the cause of his expiration.

The younger Thomas Linley would remain in the thoughts of his former friend and contemporary; Mozart would later describe his English counterpart as a “true genius”, who “would have been one of the greatest ornaments of the musical world”.

And so a boat trip on a lake led to the tragic curtailment of a genius who would stay young forever.

Thanks go to…

Aside from the books by Peter Clive and Cliff Eisen, this piece is indebted to Roger Slade, whose website, rslade.co.uk, provides a series of eminently accessible bios on 18th-century English composers.

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