John Miller, Handel’s Bassoonist

Monday Concert at the Oxford Room, 1780

Monday Concert at the Oxford Room, 1780

The original aim of this website was to explore the lives and careers of obscure eighteenth century musicians, actors, or indeed anyone who had ever placed one foot inside the green room door during the early days of London musical theatre. The main focus would be an exploration of Handel’s ‘band’, his little group of cultivated experts who would perform at his beckoning and become so ensconced in his work, their expertise would be sought time and time again long after his parting. 

   Aims and ambitions are more often guided by outside influences than by the steering of the author, and the popularity of this website has meant almost by its own volition, it has encompassed so much more than a handful of eighteenth century musicians. I can empathise with the novelist who writes, ‘the novel wrote itself.’ Whilst I am happy to let popularity and the desires of Adcock’s readership dictate the direction of the website, it is a comfort to return to the original ambition of the project and focus on another cynosure of 18th century concert life. Our gaze shifts towards the musician or musicians known as ‘Miller’, but which one? There were at least three who had associations with Handel’s happy troupe, though for now it is worth looking at one of them: John Miller the bassoonist whose relationship with instrument maker Caleb Gedney will tie in nicely with a future article.

   The origins of Miller the bassoonist and his familial relationships are all unknown, but his date of birth can be placed at circa 1701. He was one of the original two hundred and twenty-eight subscribers at the formation of the Royal Society of Musicians in 1738 and along with Arne, Boyce, Carey, Festing, Greene, Pepusch, Edward Purcell (son of Henry), Roseingrave, Sammartini, and Stanley contributed his services towards raising money for the Fund for Decay’d Musicians. The story behind the foundation of the Society is a maudlin almost mythical tale of three like minded associates meeting at the Orange Coffee House in the Haymarket and witnessing the children of a deceased friend in distress and privation. The social gathering of musicians Michael Festing, Thomas Vincent and Charles Weideman at the famous – and notorious – coffee house famed for its patronage by ‘opera dancers, and castratas’, initiated one of the great philanphropic acts of the eighteenth century. Standing in the doorway or seated by the window (versions are blurry), Festing and his pals Vincent and Weideman observed the two children of their late colleague and oboe player Jean Kytch selling brickdust and driving donkeys through the Haymarket. The three musicians were inspired to formulate plans for a society where members or widows could apply to the governors for support. Their first annual concert in aid of the Fund was performed under Handel’s direction at the King’s Theatre in 1739; Miller performed at the concerts in 1743, 1744, and for a number of years following.

   Miller also performed at Hickford’s Music Room in Brewer Street and at Vauxhall Gardens throughout the 1730s and 1740s. Hickford’s Music Room or Hickford’s Great Room was one of the most important and influential concert rooms of the 18th century; it had evolved from a dancing academy founded by John Hickford (dancing master to Queen Anne) to an early venue for subscription and benefit concerts. It was originally situated in James street, but outgrew its premises and eventually moved to a larger room (50 feet by 30 feet) in 1739. Unfortunately, the concert room gradually lost prestige throughout the 18th century, but not before hosting concerts featuring some of the most influential musicians of the era: Carl Friedrich Abel, Johann Christian Bach, Michael Christian Festing, Francesco Geminani, George Frideric Handel and of course Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1764.

   Handel’s charitable influence did not stop with the Royal Society of Musicians, he also had a long association with the Foundling Hospital. He conducted a performance of the Messiah at the Foundling Hospital chapel in 1754, but declining health meant he could no longer continue conducting the orchestra. It was to his credit he remained a benefactor of the hospital and continued to support the charity until his death in 1759. John Miller’s name does not appear in the programme of musicians who participated in the 1754 performance, but it is believed he performed at the 1758 Messiah concert for a fee of 10s. 6d.

   Around 1754 Miller forged an association with Caleb Gedney and assisted the instrument maker by testing and finishing bassoons; after Gedney’s death in 1769 Miller became guardian, albeit for a very brief time, to Gedney’s two daughters. The two girls had been apprenticed, probably informally, to their father’s craft and advertised their trade following his death; they continued to make instruments under Miller’s supervision until his death a year later.

   On Saturday 22 November 1760 Miller played bassoon at the Oxford Music Room and was cited on the Covent Garden paylist in 1767; he was employed by the Covent Garden theatre until the very end of his life, the Middlesex Journal or Chronicle of Liberty noting on 24 March 1770:

 

‘DIED…. Near South-Audley chapel, Mr. John Miller, musician, belonging to Covent-Garden theatre, aged 69. He was for many years reckoned the best performer on the bassoon, and always presided at the Italian operas, as the principal on that instrument, ’till about four years since, when Mr. Beard engaged him on a good salary at the above house’.

 

  Even though the Middlesex Journal does not quote him directly, it was Dr Burney who described Miller as ‘the best bassoon I can remember.’

 

 

Sources:

Mee, John Henry. The oldest music room in Europe; a record of eighteenth-century enterprise at Oxford 

Forsyth, Michael. Buildings for Music: The Architect, the Musician, the Listener from the … 

Highfill, Philip H.  et al. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors: Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800 

British History Online

Royal Society of Musicians

 

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