John Massey

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Born: 29 January 1774

Died: 2 December 1840


John Massey was a composer of church music from Manchester, who published one book of music, Sacred Music, consisting of hymn tunes and anthems. The book is not dated: the catalogue of the British Library dates it to [1810?], and the Hymn Tune Index follows this dating. The title page of the book describes the composer as 'teacher of psalmody', and the imprint reads: 'MANCHESTER. Publish'd & Sold by the AUTHOR Mayes St, by T. BEALE St Mary's Gate & all other Music Sellers in Town or Country'.

An outline of Massey's biography was given in a series of letters in the 'Notes and Queries' of the Manchester City NewsLink to the English Wikipedia article, which were republished in book form, edited by John Howard NodalLink to the English Wikipedia article, as City News Notes and Queries. The letters are given below: all were published in 1878, and are found in vol. 1 of City News Notes and Queries.

Massey died on 2 December 1840 in the Manchester Workhouse: his death was registered the following day. The informant was William Robinson, the Governor of the Workhouse: Massey's age was given as 68 years, his occupation as 'Joiner', and the cause of death as 'Ulceration of the Bowels'.

He was buried on 6 December 1840 at St. Mark's, Cheetham (entry no. 1801 in the register of burials, 1829-1846, ref. M387/1/3/6 at Manchester Archives and Local Studies): his age is given in the register of burials as 66. This is consistent with the date of birth given by 'W.D.' (29 January 1774), although 'W.D.' incorrectly gives the date of burial as 6 December 1841.

Given this date of birth, it appears likely that he was the same John Massey who was baptised at Manchester Cathedral on 13 February 1774, the son of Peares (spelt elsewhere as Pearce) and Dorothy Massey (register of baptisms for 1760-1777, ref. Mancath/1/1/1/7/1/2 at Manchester Cathedral Archives).

Correspondence on Massey's biography in City News Notes and Queries

pp251-252 (28 September 1878)

[548.] This almost forgotten Manchester genius who lived and died in the past generation, and who filled so very important a part in training the solo and choral singers of that day, through his high class attainments secured for Manchester the reputation of being the most musical town in England.

Several musical societies of more or less note sprung up at that time, the nucleus of the Manchester Gentlemen's Glee Club being one, and which remains to this day one of the foremost societies in the provinces. The Apollo Glee Club, held at the Bush Inn, Deansgate, was long the rival of the Gentlemen's Club; but the Manchester Choral Society was the most famed. It numbered some sixty efficient members, and eventually scarcely any festival or musical gathering of note was held, either in London or the provinces, without our Lancashire choralists being engaged and formed one of its greatest attractions. Old Massey, as he was familiarly called, seems from some unexplained cause to have glided out of sight and partially out of memory at some indefinite period, and not one of his old associates, from whom I have sought information, could assign any reason, or in fact, say whether he was living or dead. My inquiries were made from a desire to know more of a man whose compositions in the first place, and the great success of his teachings in the next, created in me a feeling of veneration for one so gifted, and great was my disappointment to find so much indifference shown to a man of his worth and ability; but, like the player, he had strutted his hour upon the stage and was then heard of no more! It was only in later years that one of his old, and most successful pupils, told me that he died in a workhouse, but he also was ignorant of the time of his death, nor could he tell me in what asylum his death took place. It is greatly to be deplored that men of his genius, after a life of useful and active services, should in their declining years be allowed to descend into the grave neglected and uncared for; and I believe that Manchester must bear the stigma of holding out no helping hand, when age and poverty overtook him, and finally consigned him to the cold mercies doled out by a bowelless body of poor-law guardians, - a body which knows no distinction between the inveterate pauper and the man of genius.

Fortunately he left behind him works, both sacred and secular, which will never die. But for this, it is probable he would at this moment have passed out of memory altogether. The famous basso, the late John Isherwood; Barlow, the equally famous alto; Walton, the first tenor out of the metropolis; Standage, and many other vocalists of high repute, were all pupils of his.

That he could not grow rich from his profession will be evident enough, when we reflect that his terms were only sixpence per lesson. His system was the old English solmization plan, in which only four out of the seven Italian syllables were used, and he appears to have had a method of so combining the groundwork of harmony, or thorough bass, with his notation, that his scholars quickly became not only ready readers at sight, but sound contrapuntists - a branch of the musical art which is almost a sealed book to the vocalists of our day. This knowledge of harmony is a tower of strength to the student, hence the great advantage Massey's pupils would have over the scholar whose knowledge is confined to the mere alphabet of notation. Many a smile have I noted when Massey's veteran pupils have been matched with the scholars of the modern schools - the Mainzers, the Hullahs, and others - whose loudly trumpeted systems of teaching us to read at sight in thirteen lessons, and which systems were to result in the conversion of the entire people into one universal music class, every one of whom was to be a profound scholar. How many thousands attended the Free-trade Hall, under the tuition of Hullah and Mainzer, in the full belief that the millennium of music was at hand; but alas, as the scions of old Massey's school fell away, or died out, not one of the numberless societies which had newly sprung up became even passable as choralists. Mr. Henry Wilson's class, now the Manchester Vocal Society, is an honourable exception to this. But here we have a master mind which in his own good time enabled him to bring together a body of vocalists of his own training, and hence we see Manchester once more standing in the front rank with this well-organized society of part singers.

Many of Massey's hymn tunes appeared in the collections of fifty years ago, and were widely known and sung; but I never met with any of his anthems or glees. Indeed, it is likely he would be too poor to pay the cost of publication. In the early days of the Gentlemen's Glee Club some of his glees were favourites long after the composer had passed away.

Let us hope that these remarks will be supplemented by other information, and that his worth and genius will yet find a record in that niche of fame so long denied him and yet so deservedly his.


pp270-271 (12 October 1878)
[586.] Mr. BIBBY asks for information respecting the late John Massey, musician and composer. I send enclosed to you a few facts relating to the old man, received from his only surviving son, who is now nearly sixty years of age.

John Massey resided for many years at 2, Back Mayes-street, Edward-street, Miller's-street, and was employed by Mr. John Wallis, an eminent builder in the latter street. During the winter evenings he taught singing, as your correspondent says, and nearly the whole of his leisure time was spent in teaching and composing. He is said to have written about twenty-six psalm and hymn tunes. These were disposed of to meet his many exigencies, and consequently were never published. His family consisted of three sons and one daughter; all of them, with the exception of his youngest son, are now dead.

During the latter portion of the old man's life his daughter kept his home together, but when she married and left him his home became a wreck. He, almost homeless, in declining health and defective memory, was compelled to accept the only home left him — the workhouse. I do not think there was any cause for remark respecting his treatment in the house, as he never complained of any ill-usage or unkindness, but seemed quite contented.

It must have been a hard task for him during the period of his teaching for sixpence a lesson — dear provisions, scant labour, a small family, and depending on the small wages of a journeyman carpenter. To save money under these circumstances was impossible; yet, withal, he kept together his music-class and sent forth men who have done credit to their teacher. In his retirement, and when his memory had almost failed, his only solace was music, and he regularly took his place in the choir at the workhouse on Sundays and played the violoncello. This continued during the remainder of his days. He died at the workhouse in New Bridge-street, and was buried by his family in his own family grave at St. Mark's Church, Cheetham Hill, on the 6th of December, 1841. He was born January 29, 1774, within a few doors of the house in which he taught his pupils; and with the exception of seven years, when in the army, he never elsewhere than the neighbourhood of Miller's Lane.

W. D.
Sugar Lane.

Mr. R. E. BIBBY has rather overblown his trumpet in the praise of Massey, his system, and his pupils. I knew a few of them, including the vocalists of repute mentioned, but I never suspected them of being sound contrapuntists, as they kept their knowledge very dark. Of the Manchester Choral Society, with its sixty efficients, I am afraid if we heard them now we should very much smile at them. All large towns and cities now possess a large number of efficient choralists, and they do not require Lancashire vocalists to form one of the greatest attractions at their festivals or musical gatherings. As to the veteran's pupils versus the Mainzerites, the Hullahites, and others, reading at sight in thirteen lessons, and the thousands who attended the Free Trade Hall under the tuition of Hullah and Mainzer in the full belief that the millennium of music was at hand — such fancy pictures are mere dreams existing only in the imagination to Mr. Bibby, who is evidently musically oblivious of the many great changes which have taken place in matters musical during the last twenty-five years. Hullah never taught in Manchester; Mainzer had his public classes at Newall's Buildings and at the old Town Hall. Mr. Bibby must be thinking of the late Robert Weston, who was rather enthusiastic, and of his great choral demonstrations which took place at the old Free Trade Hall some thirty years ago. Of the numberless societies which had newly sprung up, the members of which never became even passable choralists, this assertion is so delightfully vague that I cannot reply to it, but I can comfort Mr. Bibby with the assurance that it is quite possible, at the present moment, to raise a body of six hundred efficient choralists in Manchester and district equalled by few, excelled by none.

William Peters.
Hulme, October 1, 1878.

pp274-275 (19 October 1878)
Along with many other musical readers I was much hurt and surprised at the tone of Mr. W. Peters's severe criticism on poor old Massey, the composer and vocalist. There can be no doubt, whatever he may say to the contrary, but that he was one of those quiet unobtrusive geniuses to be met with only on rare occasions; and further, there can be no question that he helped to lay the foundation of the musical knowledge of Manchester to a very large extent. His method was very simple, his teaching capacity was great, and his own knowledge of the fundamental principles of music so extensive that he made his pupils sound, solid, and thorough musicians. His classes may have been small and insignificant, his fees may have been less, but don't let us despise the old man for that; he did his best, and therefore may fairly be looked upon as one of the lesser Manchester worthies.

W. D. makes a slight mistake when he says that none of Massey's tunes were ever published. If he will turn to Holford's Voce de Melodia he will find no less than half a dozen tunes and a few glorias. Some of these tunes were very popular thirty years ago, notably Ascension, s.m., and Saratoga, 8 7 4's. They have cheered the heart of many a Christian; and although their style is out of fashion now, it is refreshing to turn to them as an agreeable change from the humdrum, monotonous, and drawling system of these modern days.

Levi Crankshaw.
12, Pall Mall. Manchester.

In their comments on my Note, W. D. and William Peters display a strange diversity of character and animus, the latter evaporating in a cantankerous denial of the merits claimed for the veteran teacher, Mr. John Massey; while W. D., on the other hand, writes to the point and with the true feeling of a gentleman. It is consolatory to find that the latter elicited that the old maestro finally reposes in his own family grave, where it is to be hoped a suitable memorial tablet will shortly distinguish his last resting-place, to which, I feel assured, there will be many willing contributors.

Mr. Peters' assertion that I am oblivious of the many great changes which have taken place in musical matters during the last twenty-five years only served to raise a smile at his assumption, seeing that even during this period, and also for a period bordering upon twenty-five years prior to that, I have been a pretty active worker and devotee in not a few societies; and can give very good reasons why, after struggling for existence a few years, they have died a natural death. One society, formed under the conductorship of a high-class professor, probably nearly thirty years ago, is certainly still before the public. Of this I was one of the original members, and it was to have been strictly an amateur society, wholly unsupported by professionals. Admission was gained by efficiency; a thorough test both of voice and education was gone through. How far this was adhered to I never knew, but when our first rehearsal came off, the disappointed professor stared aghast to find that out of perhaps seventy or eighty members, not ten per cent could claim to be even moderate readers at sight, and these few had to drag along, as best they could, the remainder of the class, who, of course, by an outrageous trespass upon the talented professor's time and patience, managed to obtain by ear such knowledge as eventually passed muster. To come before the public, however, with such shaky support was not to be thought of, and paid help had to be called in. Under such circumstances, the efficient members left the society, or struck for pay, as being equally entitled to it with the professionals. My complaint is that all these pretenders to musical knowledge (excuse me applying this term) might, with an intelligible system of tuition such as John Massey taught, and made palatable and easy to his pupils, have been made into good, or at any rate passable scholars, and have taken a respectable stand in any society, instead of being a clog and probably bringing their class to grief.

The "reserves" named by Mr. Peters, which he puts down as "six hundred efficients, equalled by few, and excelled by none," is certainly rather a startling piece of information. Should such a phalanx exist, except upon paper, by all means let us have them withdrawn from their dormitories, and once more restore to Lancashire its former prestige as possessing the foremost choral body in England. The late Mr. Andrew Ward, I have no hesitation in saying, had a very good system of tuition, and, next to Massey, he turned out more sound scholars than any other local professor. His loss was a loss to Manchester in more respects than one; fostering as he did several societies, and by his presence and encouragement giving much zest to such meetings.

R. E. Bibby.

List of choral works

Metrical psalm and hymn tunes


  • I heard a voice from heaven
  • O praise the Lord, all ye nations
  • There were shepherds abiding in the fields

Click here to search for this composer on CPDL


External links