(b Faversham, Kent, 5 April 1595; dWestminster, London, 22 Feb 1674). English composer, lutenist and singer. He was probably involved in the musical life of the court and the London theatre from an early age, apparently from 1614. There are songs by him for The Maske of Flowers and Valentinian, both of which date from that year, and he was connected with the King’s Men: songs by him survive for plays put on by them between 1614 and 1629. In view of this association it seems likely that he is indeed the ‘Jacke Wilson’ alluded to in the 1623 folio edition of Much Ado about Nothing, despite the lukewarm reception the suggestion has had since it was made in 1846 (the allusion need not be to the first performance of the play in 1604 but to some performance before 1623).
Wilson was recommended to the Lord Mayor of London by Viscount Mandeville on 21 October 1622 as one of the ‘Servants of the City for Music and voice’ and was duly appointed a city wait, a position he still held in 1641. In 1635 he entered the King’s Musick among the lutes and voices at £20 a year with the usual annual livery of £16 2s. 6d. The court moved to Oxford during the Civil War in 1642, and on 10 March 1644 Wilson graduated the DMus at the university. Two years later the garrison surrendered, and he left the city to shelter nearby in the household of Sir William Walter of Sarsden, Churchill; he stayed there until 1656, when he was made professor of music in the university. His remarkable personality made its mark on the Oxford scene, especially at music meetings and the like. In his autobiography Anthony Wood made frequent mention of him, describing him as ‘the best at the lute in all England’. A number of amusing anecdotes refer to him: his portrait in the Faculty of Music at Oxford depicts him as a robust, florid man and quite credibly ‘a great pretender to buffoonery’.
Wilson’s Cheerful Ayres or Ballads proclaims itself ‘the first Essay (for ought we understand) of printing Musick that ever was in Oxford’. In 1661 he resigned the professorship in favour of his friend Edward Lowe (who made manuscript copies of many of Wilson’s songs), and was reappointed to the King’s Musick. He succeeded Henry Lawes as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal on the latter’s death in 1662. Increasingly both positions must have become sinecures owing to his advancing age, although it did not prevent his making a second marriage, to ‘Anne Penniall on January 31, 1670/71, at Westminster Abbey. Aged 66 [sic]’ (the mention of a daughter in his will indicates an earlier marriage). He was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey; the inscription (now recut) on the gravestone reads: ‘John Wilson/ D in Musick Here/ Interrd Dyed/ February y 22/1673 [ = 1674]/ Aged 78 Years/ 10 months and/ 17 Dayes’.
Wilson’s most important works are his songs; 226 survive in a manuscript (GB-Ob Mus.B.1 dated 1656), which is mainly in the hand of Edward Lowe and includes 30 settings of Latin verse by Horace and others. Songs for the following plays have been identified, although some of the dates are doubtful: Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: Valentinian (c1614); Thomas Middleton: The Witch (c1616); Fletcher: The Mad Lover (1616), The Queen of Corinth (c1617), The Bloody Brother (?1617), The Loyal Subject (1618), Women Pleas’d (c1620), The False One (c1620), The Pilgrim (1621), The Wild-Goose Chase (1621), The Spanish Curate (1622) and Love’s Cure (?1625); John Ford: The Lovers’ Melancholy (1628); and Richard Brome: The Beggar’s Bush (?1622) and The Northern Lasse (1629). He also set to music four songs from William Cavendish’s The Varietie, acted by the King’s Men at the Blackfriars Theatre, 1639–42, and works in Thomas Jordan’s anthology of Cavalier poems (GB-NO). Many of the songs printed in Cheerful Ayres or Ballads have a bluff tunefulness that gives them a popular character: In a maiden time professed (to words from Middleton’s The Witch; MB, xxxiii, 1971) is a good example. More refined in style and reminiscent of the lighter type of lute-song are songs like In a season all oppressed (MB, xxxiii, 1971). His handling of the declamatory style is often clumsy and shows little of Henry Lawes’s sensitivity. Even so there are successes, especially among songs lying between the extremes of tuneful balladry and doctrinaire declamation, for example Take, O take those lips away (MB, xxxiii, 1971). The psalms in Psalterium Carolinum (published in 1657 and reissued immediately after the Restoration, in 1660) are comparable in style with Henry and William Lawes’s Choice Psalmes (1648) and Walter Porter’s Mottets (1657), essentially devotional music. More interesting are his pieces for 12-course lute (or theorbo; Ob Mus.B.1), which are in the nature of preludes written in all the major and minor keys.
Psalterium Carolinum: the Devotions of His Sacred Majestie, 3vv, bc (org/theorbo) (London, 1657)
Cheerful Ayres or Ballads …, 3vv, bc (Oxford, 16604; probably pubd in 1659), 7 ed. in MB, xxxiii (1971)
4 songs in W. Cavendish, The Varietie (comedy), London, Blackfriars, 1639–42 (London, 1649)
Songs in 16528, 165210, 16537, 16585, 16595, 16664, 16676, 16695, 16734, 16805, 16825, 16864, Brief Introduction to the Skill of Music, ed. J. Playford, bks 1 and 2 (London, 3/1660); reprints in 18th-century anthologies
Principal song MSS in F-Pn; GB-Cfm, Es, Eu, Lbl, Ob (11 ed. in MB, xxxiii, 1971), Och; US-NH, NYp
30 lute (?theorbo) pieces, GB-Ob
Songs in T. Jordan’s anthology of Cavalier poems, NO
AshbeeR, i, iii, v, viii
E.F.Rimbault: The Old Cheque-Book or Book of Remembrance of the Chapel Royal (London, 1872/R)
V.Duckles: ‘The “Curious” Art of John Wilson (1595–1674): an Introduction to his Songs and Lute Music’, JAMS, vii (1954), 93–112
M.Crum: ‘A Manuscript of John Wilson’s Songs’, The Library, 5th ser., x (1955), 55–7
J.P.Cutts: ‘Seventeenth-Century Lyrics: Oxford, Bodleian MS Mus.b.1’, MD, x (1956), 142–209