John Thomson was born in Sprouston on 28th October
1805,the son of the minister the Rev. Doctor Andrew
Thomson and his wife Jane Carmichael. Andrew Thomson
was himself an amateur musician who composed church
music. After he moved to St George’s Edinburgh he worked
with choir master R. A. Smith to improve church music and
no doubt this background would have influenced the young
John Thomson‘s musical talents.
However, it was as a composer in the romantic movement that John Thomson would make his mark. This was the time when the works of Burns, Scott and Byron were making Scotland famous in Europe and several composers such as Beethoven wrote arrangements of Scottish songs. Thomson too made arrangements of Scottish folk songs. However, musically he was mainly influenced by the German romantic composers such as Weber and Beethoven and he developed a classical music style which owed more to what was happening in Germany, rather than his Scottish inheritance. In 1829 he met his younger contemporary Felix Mendelssohn, during the latter’s visit to Scotland. Mendelssohn admired his work and encouraged him to visit Germany to study, writing a letter of introduction for the Scotsman to take to his family.
“The bearer of this letter is a young man who has shown me much kindness here… I earnestly beg of you to smooth down for him as much as possible any difficulties he may encounter in Berlin… He is very fond of music; I know a pretty trio of his composition and some vocal pieces that please me very well…”
Thomson spent sometime in Berlin and seems to have made a good impression on Mendelssohn’s family. Fanny Mendelssohn, herself a talented musician, described him as the man “whom I like best among all the Englishmen (sic) I know,” and the two of them swapped musical compositions. He went on to meet Schumann and study with Ignaz Moscheles a friend of Beethoven, in Berlin and Leipzig. He also seems to have visited Paris in 1830.
His musical works included three operas “Hermann”, “The House of Aspen” and “The Shadow on the Wall” which were performed in London, a fine bagatelle, a rondo and other pieces for piano, two piano trios, a flute concerto and a flute quartet, concert arias and a six part glee “When Whispering Winds”. His “Drei Lieder” of 1838, a copy of which he dedicated to Mendelssohn, are considered to be comparable with Schumann’s famous songs composed two years later. He also edited the “Vocal Melodies of Scotland”.
In October 1839 he was appointed the first ever Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. A few months after this he married Janet, daughter of Dr John Lee the Principal of the University. In February 1841 he celebrated the first Reid concert, which also included programme notes - possibly the first example of what has now become standard practice in concert programmes. However, his career was cut short by his death from heart failure in May 1841. He was just 35 years old.
Information courtesy O. Drake
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