Robert Lucas Pearsall by Philippa Swinnerton Hughes (née Pearsall)
Robert Lucas Pearsall (14 March 1795 – 5 August 1856) was an English composer.
Pearsall was born at Clifton in Bristol in 1795. The family lived in Bristol until 1816, when Pearsall's mother, who had been widowed in 1813, purchased from her recently bankrupted brother-in-law the family house at Willsbridge in Gloucestershire.
Pearsall married Harriet Eliza Hobday, daughter of the celebrated portraitist William Armfield Hobday, in 1817 at St Andrew's, Holborn, London, and they had four children.
In those early years of marriage, Pearsall practised in Bristol as a barrister, but a mild stroke in 1825 persuaded him of the need to convalesce abroad, and he left England with his young family. They settled first at Mainz, and then in Karlsruhe in Germany from 1830 to 1842, and later at the Schloss Wartensee by Rorschach in Switzerland, where he remained until his death in 1856.
His move from England allowed him the opportunity to develop his interest as a composer. He received some compositional instruction from the Austrian violinist and composer, Joseph Panny, but most of his early essays at composition seem to be self-taught.
Despite being an expatriate for the rest of his life, Pearsall maintained a close connection with his home city of Bristol and returned to England several times, most notably from 1836 to 1837, when he was present at the founding of the Bristol Madrigal Society, for whom he wrote many of his best-loved works. Pearsall was an amateur composer whose personal wealth and comfortable situation meant that he rarely sought publication of his work, and many of his compositions were not published until after his death, although even now the majority of his work remains in manuscript. The de sometimes attributed to his name is pure affectation, a device used by his daughter Phillipa, who saw to the publication of many of his choral works after his death. It can only be assumed that she sought somehow to ennoble the name to achieve a better volume of sales. She even went to the extremes of scratching de into Pearsall's signature on some of his letters, to attempt to justify herself.
Pearsall is principally remembered for his part-songs (amongst which is his arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo) and for his twenty-two compositions in madrigal style, notably, Lay a Garland, Great God of Love, and I saw lovely Phyllis. He was also a composer of church music for both Roman Catholic and Anglican use. His contribution to the re-establishment of plainsong, renaissance polyphony, and ancient church hymns in German-speaking countries marks him also as an unsung hero of the nineteenth century Cecilian Movement.
Pearsall was a Romantic in the truest sense of the word, that is to say that he embodied everything that nineteenth century Romanticism was considered to be: his antiquarian interests, his rejection of the modern industrialising world around him and the pursuit of an older aesthetic in his composition allow him to sit comfortably beside other Romantics of his time such as the author Sir Walter Scott and the architect Augustus Welby Pugin. He was fascinated by history, heraldry, and genealogy. Also, sometimes forgotten, he was an accomplished translator, publishing his English translation of Friedrich von Schiller's play William Tell in 1829, and later in the 1830s, Goethe's Faust.
Sometimes he set his own verse to music, the words echoing the style and sentiments of Elizabethan poetry as, for example, in Why do the roses, written in 1842:
Why do the roses whisper to the wind, and toss their heads so high?
O gentle zephyr, tell me what they said as you pass'd by.
Say, do they look with envy at the bloom
On Flora's cheek that glows?
O well they know it mantles there,
Surpassing any rose.
Constant and expanding research is shedding new light on the importance of Pearsall amongst his contemporaries and on successive musical development. Although he belongs to what is now being referred to as "The Second Story" of nineteenth century musicology (in other words, the unfolding evidence of the hitherto shaded areas of musical life which co-existed with, and supported, the dazzling stars of the late Classical and Romantic period), his contribution should not be underestimated. Pearsall scholars, such as James Hobson at the University of Bristol (see CHOMBEC, the Centre for the History of Music in Britain, the Empire and the Commonwealth), England, are making excellent progress in that rightful re-establishment and assisting to slake the thirst for enlightenment.
Edward-Rhys Harry, until recently director of Bristol Chamber Choir (formerly Bristol Madrigal Society as mentioned above), was responsible for producing a landmark recording of Pearsall's setting of the Requiem Mass in 2009. Using Christopher Brown's edition (published by OUP in 2006) that was published by the Church Music Society, he created a new revised version which sought to address many of the issues raised by the original manuscript - specifically Pearsall's lack of definition regarding verbal underlay. The recording is available from the Bristol Chamber Choir.