William Savage, Georgian Musician

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Boy Chorister of the Chapel Royal
Richard Buckner, 1873 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Recently, entirely by chance, I discovered the existence of my Georgian namesake, William Savage, who turned out to be a distinguished musician, noted singer, capable composer and long-term friend of the great George Frederick Handel himself. Indeed, William Savage took solo roles in many performances of Handel’s choral and operatic works under the composer’s personal direction.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me say that this William Savage is, to the best of my belief, not directly related to me in any way. Savage is not that uncommon a surname and occurs in several distinct, regional clusters. It’s possible that, in the sufficiently remote past, the Georgian William’s ancestors and mine were linked, but there’s nothing to prove it. All this William and I can be proved to share is the same name.

His Life

William Savage was born in 1720 and died in 1789. He seems to have spent nearly all of his life in London, initially as a singer, then as choirmaster, composer and admired teacher of singing and music theory. He was also an eager collector of music manuscripts, many of which remain in public and academic collections.

Savage’s family, like many others, lost a considerable amount in the financial collapse known as the South Sea Bubble. However, his own natural musical talent was noted early and he became a pupil of Dr. Pepusch and the Italian musician/composer Geminiani, with a view to making music his profession. At the time, this would have meant securing suitable employment in the musical activities of the Anglican church. He became organist of Finchley Church, Middlesex, in 1741 and a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (a professional member of the choir in the Royal chapel in St. James) in 1744. His eminence as a church musician was assured when, in 1747, he was appointed Almoner (a minor church official, originally in charge of distributing money to the deserving poor, but latterly mainly an honorific title), Vicar Choral (another term for a professional cathedral cathedral choir member) and Master of the Choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a post he was to hold for almost 30 years. Ill health forced him to resign as Master of the Choristers in 1773 and as a Vicar Choral in 1777. He left London and lived at Tenterden, in Kent, for some four years after that to recover his health. Finally, in 1781 he returned to London as a music teacher and died in 1789.

He married a reputedly beautiful and definitely wealthy young woman (she had a fortune of £19,000 (some £3.5 million in today’s terms). It seems to have been a happy marriage, producing the children who survived. The elder of the two sons entered the church. The younger went to work for the East India Company, got involved in some sort of scandal and had to leave England for the West Indies, where he died a few years later.

His Musical Activities

Dr Burney claimed that the young Savage sang as a boy treble in the choir of the Chapel Royal in St. James, London, but there seems to be some doubt of this. What is agreed, however, is that he first came to public notice singing treble in a number of Handel’s popular Italian operas in the 1730s. This close association with the great George Frederick Handel continued for many years. After his voice had broken, William Savage sang bass in many of Handel’s operas and oratorios. He obviously must have had a fine voice and excellent musicianship to persuade Handel to use him so many times.

As a composer, Savage’s output was predominantly geared towards the Anglican church. He wrote a good number of anthems, together with various settings of the services and similar music. He also wrote more than a dozen secular songs, several duets and number of ‘catches’: the pieces for group singing which were so popular at the time. The list of his principal pupils reads like a roll-call of the most eminent English church musicians of the day.

Why has he been nearly forgotten? Perhaps because his performances were as a singer and left nothing behind but memories. Perhaps because he largely confined his compositions to church music at a time when the Anglican church was even more than usually moribund. Perhaps because the main chronicler of music at the time, Dr. Charles Burney, revealed a clear antipathy to Savage, damning him with faint praise and snide innuendos. Perhaps only for the same reason as the many pupils he taught: because English music was at one of its lowest points and the public wisely looked to foreign composers for pieces of real distinction.

Jane Savage

Before leaving William Savage, I have to mention his only daughter, Jane, who was arguably the most successful and interesting of his three children — at least until she married and gave up a musical career.

Jane was born in either 1752 or 1753 and lived until 1824. She obviously inherited her father’s musical talent, becoming a noted player of the harpsichord and a composer in her own right. Her published works appeared mostly in the 1780s and included several bravura pieces for both harpsichord and piano. Since the printed scores gave her address as the house her father was living in at the time, we can assume she lived with him.

Unfortunately, first her mother Mary, née Bolt, died in 1788, followed by her father in 1789. Left alone, Jane married a Mr Rolleston, described as “a respectable merchant of Mincing Lane”. Whether she continued her musical career is not clear, but she certainly published no more pieces under her married name. I suspect she gave herself up to domesticity, despite her music’s popularity at the time. For a respectable married woman to follow a career of any kind was far from usual in those days. One can only hope the trade-off of any career for the security of marriage proved to be a good one.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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5 Responses to William Savage, Georgian Musician

  1. noelleg44 says:

    What a fascinating namesake! And yes, so sad the fate of talented women in that time. Looking forward to the next Ashmole book – I love that man!

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  2. How interesting to hear about some English musicians. I wonder whether any of Jane’s children carried on to display the family’s musical aptitude? It would be nice to think that all that musicianship carried on down through the generations!
    (PS. Have I missed a new Dr Adam Bascom story? If I’ve already read all the books about him, can you give me any idea of how long we might have to wait for the next in the series?)

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    • Oh dear! If you’ve read four Adam books, that’s all there is for the present. Number five is giving me real trouble, so I’ve switched back to Foxe instead for the next one. That should — should, no promises — be out in the autumn sometime.

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      • Sorry, I think I have read four Adam Boscom books. I can see how plot, following the threads working, and developing the relationships between all the main characters might give you problems. I have really enjoyed the books about the doctor, with the apothecary and the developments in medicine and medical matters, though I’ve struggled a bit with the Foxe books. I can’t put my finger on it, sorry.
        I do hope you do manage to return to Adam Bascom before long, and that you find a different tack on whatever is looking so awkward now.
        Thank you for opening my eyes to life in Norfolk.

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  3. How good to come across a Georgian namesake to take you back to your favourite era. A nicely rounded story.

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