John Mather

Organist and choirmaster John Mather had the opportunity to revive choral music in Edinburgh, and to put Daniel Sandford's chapel in the forefront of Anglican choral music. He had the energy and talent to do so, and the people of Edinburgh were enthusiastic in their commitment both financially and as amateur chorus singers. That he did not, was entirely due to his own chronic financial mismanagement and disastrous relationships. His legacy was not musical revival, but, a horrifying example of domestic violence, and a historical might-have-been of special poignancy to this particular historian.

Lived
31 March 1781- 21 January 1850
Origin
Sheffield
Father
William Mather, died 21 Jan 1808, organist of St Paul's Sheffield from 1788, and of St James Sheffield from 1799 with John assisting.
Address
17 Castle Street, moving in 1816 to 2 Queensferry Street
Political views
It was probably essential for Mather's musical success to be seen to be a loyal supporter of the Tory government. He provided music at Pitt Club dinners in 1814 and 1818. (2)
Religious views
John Mather was trained in the Anglican tradition and the Scottish Episcopal Church was the only denomination which had organs and the financial resources to pay a professional organist. John Mather's career, however, provides interesting evidence of denominations working together more than competing to improve church music. The Edinburgh Institution for the Improvement of Sacred Music was an ecumenical project, with both Episcopalians and Presbyterians amongst the Directors. It gave early musical training to hundreds of children, and started some distinguished careers including that of John Wilson the opera singer (2, 1 Jan 1816, 30 Jul 1849). After the death of Natale Corri, organist at the Roman Catholic Chapel, John Mather played at the benefit concert for his family, and soon after acted as conductor in a concert organised by Corri's successor, MacPherson (3, 12 Feb 1823, 24 Apr 1824).
Profession
1799 Assistant organist at St Paul's, Sheffield; 1800 organist of Sheffield Parish Church (it closed for refurbishment in 1804); 1804 school music teacher in Doncaster; 1806 with his brother began the Yorkshire Amateur Concerts; 1810 freelance music teacher, conductor and pianist in Edinburgh; 1814 organist of Charlotte Chapel (4); 1815 probably one of the chief administrators of the Edinburgh Musical Festival; 1816 Director of the Edinburgh Institution for the Improvement of Sacred Music; 1818 organist and choirmaster of St John's Princes Street. His personal problems began to interfere with his work: the Institution collapsed in 1819, and in 1820 he was dismissed from St John's, the vestry reporting, 'Mr Mather's talents as an organist are of the first rank, and his ability to instruct the singers is unquestionable, but in inclination to do what is required for providing a creditable choir he has shown a total deficiency' (5) He was reinstated two years later, but dismissed finally in 1828 when the situation recurred: with his salary being requisitioned for debt repayments he lost the incentive to do the work. 1828 Music teacher in Sheffield. 1835 returned to Edinburgh as freelance accompanist and conductor, founded the Apollo Glee Club, directed the Edinburgh Festival Society (a chorus of about 70), and conducted the Reid Memorial Concerts. He continued to be considered one of the finest accompanists and choral directors in Edinburgh: one reviewer wrote,
we could not help admiring the delicacy, taste and skill evinced by Mr Mather, in his piano forte accompaniments, which we have before had occasion to notice; and we could not help comparing his performances in this respect with those of some whom we have seen so anxious to show off their own talents that they kept up a constant rumbling of the instrument, which completely swampted the endeavours of the vocalists.' (2, 2 Apr 1836)
However, his career was permanently blighted by his near-bankruptcy in 1818, and towards the end of his long life his performances were characterised by small audiences and tired repertoire. The opportunity to make Edinburgh an exciting centre of choral revival had been lost.
Wealth at death
Mather's financial management was disastrous throughout his life. He was already in debt when he arrived in Edinburgh in 1810. In the following years he ran a series of financially disastrous grand concerts. By 1818 he owed over £600 to a long list of tradesmen in Edinburgh and Yorkshire, and when he gained the two high profile salaried positions of the Edinburgh Institution and St John's they came down hard. He escaped prison by making over a large proportion of his salary, which proved professionally disastrous. At his death, he lived at the very modest address of High Terrace, which ran above the steeply descending Leith Street.
Chapel connection
Organist from 1815.
Married on
25 December 1804
Spouse
Maria Frost
Connections
John Mather's line manager at St John's was John Cay, chair of the choir committee, who had probably worked with him in organising the Edinburgh Musical Festival of 1815. One of the Commissaries who gave judgement against him in favour of his wife in 1818 was Thomas Tod.

Sources

  1. Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1818
  2. Caledonian Mercury
  3. The Scotsman
  4. Illustrated London News Jan-Jun 1850 p.83
  5. Minutes of St John's Vestry, National Archives of Scotland CH12/3/3
  6. Process of Separation and Aliment, National Archives of Scotland CH8/6/1703

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