(b London, 21 Jan 1814; d Hastings, 17 Jan 1856). English composer and organist, eldest son of Thomas Forbes Walmisley. His early talent led his father to send him to Thomas Attwood, his godfather, for lessons in composition. He was thus in a line of direct teacher-to-pupil succession from Mozart, who was to be his chief model as a composer. In 1830 he was appointed organist of Croydon Parish Church where he attracted the notice of Thomas Miller, who encouraged his literary tastes and also introduced him to the study of mathematics. Shortly after this he seems to have been confronted with a choice of musical careers: Monck Mason tried to secure him for English opera, while Miller, a former Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, was probably influential in obtaining him the offer of the combined organistships of Trinity and St John's Colleges. He chose Cambridge, and took up his appointment there in 1833, taking the MusB from Trinity on 1 July. His exercise for the degree was the anthem with orchestral accompaniment Let God arise. He continued his literary and mathematical studies with distinction, matriculating (as a member of Corpus Christi College) in Michaelmas 1834, and reading for an arts degree. He was soon called on to act as deputy for the aged professor of music, John Clarke-Whitfeld: in 1835 he composed an Ode for the Installation of the Marquis of Camden as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, performed on 7 July under Sir George Smart with Malibran as principal soloist. On Clarke-Whitfeld's death in the following year, Walmisley was appointed to succeed him in the chair of music, while still an undergraduate and only 22 years old. In 1838 he took the BA degree and became a full member of Trinity College. He took the MA in 1841 and in 1848 presented himself for the degree of MusD.
The chair of music, when Walmisley was elected to it, was a virtual sinecure, and was so low in prestige and rank that its occupants were not even allowed to enter the Senate House to present candidates for music degrees unless a special grace had been passed to admit them. By attaining the MA degree (he was the first professor of music to do so) Walmisley at least avoided this humiliating disability; and by his education and personality he raised the standing of the faculty of music in the university. He was the first professor to give regular lectures illustrated by musical examples. Although music degrees had existed at Cambridge for more than 350 years, there had never been enough candidates to require any kind of public instruction. Walmisley's lectures, which he gave without pay and entirely on his own initiative, were designed for the university at large rather than for the few candidates for music degrees. One series was entitled ‘The Rise and Progress of the Pianoforte’. In one lecture Walmisley startled his audience by prophesying ultimate recognition of the supremacy of the music of Bach, still at that time unknown to the ordinary English music lover.
As an organist, Walmisley far surpassed any Cambridge musician of recent memory, and his playing made an indelible impression on his audiences. He made innovatory improvements to the Trinity organ, including a 16' stop on the Great for playing a deep bass and a Choir-to-Pedal coupler for playing tunes on the pedals. He also contributed ‘Organs’ (of Cambridge chapels) to The Cambridge Portfolio (ed. J.J. Smith, London and Cambridge, 1840, i, 194). His ability as a choir trainer was considerable, and in his hands the joint choir of Trinity and St John's became one of the best in England. Dickson described hearing, in 1843, a group of Walmisley's choristers sight-read successfully the difficult and unfamiliar score of Spohr's Last Judgment. For this choir Walmisley was able to compose music of some difficulty and to develop the newer style of anthem and service with independent organ accompaniment.
In addition to playing the organ at Trinity and St John's, Walmisley occasionally had to deputize (without remuneration) for the organist of King's and the University Church, John Pratt, who was old and infirm but who was allowed to retain his position until his death in 1855. As the only active professional musician in the university Walmisley naturally played a leading part in most of the festivals, concerts and other musical events in the town, including those of the University Musical Society (founded 1844). He was content with such local activity, although his reputation soon became a national one. He was the leader of a devoted group of musical amateurs centred at Trinity, which turned its attention to more important music than the glees and ballads which had been the normal entertainment at social gatherings: under Walmisley's guidance they even began to perform the music of Bach. He was able to report to the university commissioners in December 1850: ‘Music is not cultivated to any great extent by members of the University, but I believe a taste for the art is rapidly increasing among us’. At his death, a void was left in Cambridge musical life which could not be easily filled. The chair of music was for the first time offered for open election; his worthy successor was Sterndale Bennett.
As a composer Walmisley, with S.S. Wesley, was responsible for rousing the tradition of cathedral music from the somnolent condition into which it had sunk during generations of neglect. He brought to it a sense of drama and climax derived from Classical instrumental music, and to a lesser extent from Handel's oratorios, which made his best church music comparable in colour and interest to the concert hall repertory. William Gatens has convincingly argued that Hear, O thou shepherd of Israel (1836) was an early example of the tendency, in Victorian times, for the genres of oratorio and cathedral music to draw nearer together. The Lord shall comfort Zion (1840) comes even closer to Mendelssohnian oratorio. However, Walmisley lacked that fervent emotional response to biblical texts which gives fire to Wesley's greatest anthems. As an example, the chord of the German 6th (for instance in From all that dwell and in the Magnificat of the Service in D), though a century old in European music generally, was a bold innovation in Anglican cathedral music; yet Walmisley's use of it, skilful though it is in terms of musical structure, has no relation to anything in the text. Walmisley's masterpiece is generally held to be his Evening Service in D minor (probably 1855), one of the highpoints of English cathedral music. In his maturity he confidently used bold and simple effects that are lacking in some of his more pretentious works of the 1830s; some of the greatest moments of this service are achieved with the choir in simple unison, accompanied by massive organ harmony.
Walmisley's secular music is unknown today, but it is not to be despised. Several of his songs, duets and trios with piano accompaniment are charming, and his madrigals, though not of course in a strict 16th-century style, are equal to some of the best work of Pearsall. In his youth he made several ambitious attempts at orchestral and chamber music, but gave up in discouragement, partly perhaps because of Mendelssohn's well-known rebuff when he showed him his first symphony: ‘No.1! Let us first see what no.12 will be!’. His sonatinas for oboe and piano, written for the gifted Cambridge undergraduate Alfred Pollock, would be worth revival. His three Installation Odes, however, are very much occasional pieces; their texts are trite, their music mostly dull. His compositions for organ were numerous, but are mostly lost; if the published Prelude and Fugue in E minor is representative, they had considerable merit.
Walmisley suffered from an extremely sensitive disposition and fell easily into bouts of depression, from which he sought escape in wine. According to George Garrett he threw the manuscript of the D minor Service into the wastepaper basket, from which it was rescued by his friend, Rev. A.R. Ward of St John's College. His early death was probably due to alcoholism and its attendant effects. Soon after his death, Walmisley's father edited most of his church music and had it published by Ewer & Co.
all printed works published in London
numerous MSS at the Royal School of Church Music, Croydon [RSCM]
Edition: T.A. Walmisley: Cathedral Music, a Collection of Services and Anthems, ed. T.F. Walmisley (London, 1875) [W]