Of all our public singers, while many are masterly, many elegant, many astonishing, HE only is sublime
Thus in one of her many letters did Anna Seward - writing to Sir Walter Scott no less - attempt to describe the artistry of John Saville, probably the most notable of the Lay Vicars to grace the stalls of Lichfield Cathedral in the eighteenth century. Miss Seward’s intense though almost certainly platonic relationship with Saville has been explored in depth by others and was indubitably something of a cause célèbre in the society of eighteenth century Lichfield. Historians have focussed on the nature of their relationship and its impact on Anna Seward’s own reputation as well as her emotional attachment to the Lay Vicar, whilst Saville himself has tended to be somewhat overshadowed by his inamorata.
Saville’s memorial, sculpted by Sir Nigel Gresley, may be found on the west wall of the south transept; a handsome monument in the classical style and of a scale which both rivals and exceeds those of greater dignitaries. This provides some indication of the high regard and renown with which he was held in his lifetime. The fulsome verses inscribed on the memorial were composed by Anna Seward who paid not only for its construction but also for Saville’s funeral and the construction of his burial vault, which is located on the south side of the cathedral churchyard, adjacent to the nave aisle. Her own wish to be laid in the same vault as her dear friend, if the tomb of her late father Canon Seward could not be made to accommodate her remains, was overruled by the Dean and Chapter after her death in 1809, presumably on the grounds of propriety.
The singer himself had died aged 67 in August 1803, as his memorial records, having sung at two Cathedral services earlier in the same day, much as he had done for the previous 48 years of his tenure. He had been appointed to the choir as a young man of 19, installed as a Lay Vicar in 1755 upon his translation from Ely Cathedral where he had served as a probationary Lay Clerk, having been born in the nearby fen village of Haddenham in 1736. His long vicarship coincided with a turbulent time in the Lichfield choir’s musical history, during which for some years the Organist and Master of the Choristers was the talented though mercurial Dr John Alcock, who simultaneously held the post of Lay Vicar and made little secret of his contempt for the state of the musical resources, the behaviour of his fellow musicians (and indeed for the Dean and Chapter) many whom he subsequently satirised within a novel published under the pseudonym John Piper after resigning the post of Organist whilst still continuing as a member of the choir
Saville was one of the Lay Vicar signatories to a petition sent to the Chapter at Michaelmas 1758 regarding Alcock’s own misdemeanours, but appears to have remained on good terms with his colleague and one suspects on account of his prowess, was able to surmount the criticisms which Alcock levelled against the other Lay Vicars. In the Georgian period, Lichfield Cathedral maintained the Opus Dei through daily choral offices of Matins and Evensong (choral celebrations of Holy Communion were rare) for 365 days per year. Lay Vicars took days off in rotation according to a strictly regulated pattern. This diurnal rhythm and routine formed the essential framework of John Saville’s musical life, though far from limiting his artistic horizons.
Cathedral music in this era was different to that in our own in two significant respects. The first concerns repertoire: morning and evening canticle settings tended to be somewhat foursquare, generally of a fairly undemanding style with minimal organ accompaniment, instruments being generally much smaller than those of today and without pedal stops. Anthems, however, were frequently very elaborate compositions and provided opportunities for quasi-virtuoso performances from the alto, tenor and bass singers. This was something of a golden age for the art form known as the ‘verse anthem’ where relatively short choruses for the full choir framed extended arias, duets and trios (verses) for skilled solo singers who were encouraged to embellish their performances with frequent ornamentation. Saville would have quickly become acquainted with, and doubtless adept in, performing the verse anthems of Purcell, Humfrey, Boyce, Greene, Wise, Blow and other composers of the restoration Chapel Royal school, whose works are frequently akin to miniature oratorios in scale.
The second significant difference concerns the practicalities of cathedral worship. Before the mid-19th century services were performed in a much more ad hoc basis than today. There were no formal processions: Lay Vicars entered the quire (wearing only long surplices, without cassocks) in a random fashion with no formality, often assembling indeed after the opening responses had been intoned. Their vestry was situated at the angle of the south quire aisle and south transept, hence the location of several musicians’ memorials in that area of the cathedral today. Formal rehearsals for the full choir were almost non-existent and the music for each service was not usually published in advance. The general rule appears to have been that the Canon in Residence selected the repertoire at the start of the service, informing choristers, lay vicars and Organist of his wishes by note or whispered word of mouth. The provision of leather bound music books – frequently in handwritten manuscript produced by copyists and in single voice parts, housed beneath the stalls, meant that repertoire was always at hand and facilitated this practice. The Cathedral Library has an extensive collection of these volumes and they make fascinating reading, not least for the for the graffiti accumulated in their margins over the centuries.
Saville appears to have possessed a particularly fine voice which he evidently used with both skill and grace. Seward’s letters make frequent reference to the sensitivity and artistic qualities of his performance. For example, she noted that
Other voices may be as fine, the skill and fancy of other singers as distinguished; but for all the graces and powers of touching expression, nor man nor woman ever sung as Saville sung.
Evidence suggests that he was a counter-tenor, possibly of the haute-contre type who could sing in both the tenor and male alto registers. Indeed, in 1785 he is recorded as having sung both the tenor and alto arias in a performance of Messiah at a major music festival held in Manchester. The counter-tenor voice was much in vogue by the mid eighteenth century, its distinctive timbre and range possibly rivalling the even more exotic vocal pyrotechnics exhibited by the Italian castrati such as Seneschino, Farinelli and Tenducci who caused such a musical sensation whenever they appeared on the London operatic stage. The operas of Handel after the Italian model were widely admired and many of his heroic roles were written with these particular voices in mind. It is interesting in this context to note how Anna Seward frequently refers in her correspondence to John Saville using the Italianate soubriquet ‘Giovanni’. Saville, however, was certainly no castrato, impregnating his wife before marriage and his appointment to Lichfield where she subsequently bore him two daughters.
He clearly had a particular affinity for Handel’s music and taught Seward to appreciate the composer’s works, both sacred and secular. In due course of time separated from his wife Mary, whom Seward describes as having a shrewish disposition, Saville moved from the residence in which he had previously lived with his family – 6, Vicars’ Close – into a smaller dwelling at 7, Vicars’ Close during 1772 . He appears to have spent increasing amounts of his time outside Cathedral duties organising and appearing in a range of musical soirees and concerts. Some of these were designated ‘Smoking Concerts’ and were convivial musical occasions held in Vicars’ Hall (now demolished) at the western end of Vicars’ Close. These events attracted cognoscenti from the city and featured both instrumental and vocal performances. At the other end of The Close, Anna Seward’s family home in The Palace became the venue for frequent musical parties at which John Saville’s talents were often showcased to a select audience from Close, city and county. Concert parties held to coincide with Lichfield Races were a particular feature of the mid-eighteenth century cultural life of the city.
His prowess as a singer and particularly as an interpreter of Handel’s music certainly brought him to the attention of concert promoters well beyond Lichfield. His name appears periodically in advertisements and concert programmes in Birmingham from the middle of the century and there is evidence to suggest that he was contracted to appear at what is now the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as well as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London. More research remains to be done on the full scale of his solo career, but what is clear is that his heart (in more senses than one) remained in the City and Close of Lichfield.
Saville’s portrait of 1770 was painted in miniature by John Smart (1741-1811) and shows a sensitive face with heavy lidded eyes and a contemplative countenance. The painting was the gift of Anna Seward who made a specific bequest of it in her will to Saville’s grand-daughter Honora Jager who became the tenant of 6 Vicars’ Close some years after his death. This charming half -timbered residence located in the lower quadrangle, one of two which housed the college of Vicars Choral , was described by Anna Seward as ‘the pleasant little mansion in the Vicarage’ and became quite celebrated in Lichfield circles for the walled garden behind it in which Saville, a skilled amateur botanist, cultivated an extensive collection of rare plants rivalling that of his near neighbour Dr Darwin. The garden became known as ‘Damon’s Bower’ until Saville’s removal to the neighbouring property after his marital estrangement. He subsequently consoled himself by leasing a plot of land on the north bank of Stowe Pool, close to the famed Johnson’s willow and recreated his botanic garden still within sight of the cathedral spires.
By the time of his death, John Saville was evidently a notable Lichfeldian (albeit by adoption) who combined wide interests in the arts, a voice of rare quality, together with a sensitive disposition and a great capacity for friendship, most notably with Anna Seward. He succeeded in rising above the vicissitudes caused by Close gossip concerning the relationship he and ‘The Swan of Lichfield’ had forged over many years. His loyalty and personal qualities left a profound impression on the poet, perhaps best summarised in this extract from the obituary she penned for The Gentleman’s Magazine published in London, August 1803:
Readers of this post may glean further similar sentiments from closer inspection of the text of his memorial inscription alluded to above:
This melancholy announcement of the loss of an excellent man, very generally known and where known always beloved will excite the sympathy of Genius and the tear of friendship. Pre-eminent were his abilities as a vocal performer from the rare union of feeling with science, of expression with skill.
Once in the heart, cold in yon narrow cell,
Did each mild grace, each ardent virtue dwell;
Kind aid, kind tears, for others’ want and woe,
For others’ joy, the gratulating glow;
And skill to mark, and eloquence to claim
For genius in each art, the palm of fame.
Ye choral walls, ye lost the matchless song
When the last silence stiffen’d on that tongue,
Ah! Who may now your pealing anthems raise
In soul-pour’d tones of fervent prayer and praise?
Saville, thy lips twice on thy final day,
Here breath’d, in health and hope, the sacred lay;
Short pangs, ere night, their fatal signal gave,
Quench’d the bright sun for thee – and op’d the grave!
Now from that graceful form and beaming face,
Insatiate worms the lingering likeness chase;
To sinless – changeless – everlasting spheres.
Sleep then, pale mortal frame, in yon low shrine,
“Till Angels wake thee with a note like thine”
This article was written by Michael Guest, Senior Lay Vicar, in 2013 for the Cathedral Friends' Annual Report and is reproduced with permission.