See below for a recording of John Alcock’s music
John Alcock was born in London on the 11th April, 1715, in Crane Court, St Peter’s Hill, between St Paul’s Cathedral and the River Thames. This was in the parish of St Peter’s, but since the church had been destroyed in the Great Fire of London, 1665, and not rebuilt, so the parish was merged with that of St Benet, Paul’s Wharf, and John was baptised in St Benet’s Church, which had been rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.
When he was aged seven, his parents, Daniel and Mary, succeeded in getting him into the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral which gave him both a musical and a general education and provided him with board and lodging. At a time when it was common for boys to share beds, his sleeping companion was William Boyce who went on to become one of England’s most celebrated composers after Handel in the 18th century.
Under normal circumstances, the coronation of George II in 1727 would not have involved the boys of St Paul’s, the duties falling on the choristers of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey. But the sudden death of one of the Chapel Royal boys resulted in John Alcock being chosen to fill his place for the occasion. Not only did he take part in the coronation procession he also got to sing in the first performance of anthems such as the celebrated “Zadok the Priest” especially composed by Handel for the event.
Alcock’s musical education was further advanced in 1729 when he became an apprentice to the 16-year-old John Stanley, the highly talented organist and composer who already held the post at St Andrew’s Church, Holborn. Stanley was going blind and Alcock also acted as his amanuensis, writing out his compositions for him.
His apprenticeship over, and about to marry, Alcock needed a job. Having failed to secure a post at any of the London churches and at Salisbury Cathedral, he finally accepted the post at St Andrew’s Church, Plymouth, in 1737, marrying Margaret Beaumont, who was a few years older than him, at the Church of All Hallows, London Wall, on the 20th May. He was there for four-and-a-half years when his former master, John Stanley, recommended him for St Laurence’s Church, Reading, where the organist was dying. Having been invited to take the post by the Mayor and Corporation, and the Rector, and because of the town’s proximity to London, he accepted.
In 1749 he was offered the post of Organist and Master of the Boys at Lichfield Cathedral, together with a freehold post (that is, he could hold it for life) as a lay Vicar Choral. This was to prove a great problem ten years later when he fell out with his cathedral colleagues. Alcock appears to have been a controversial and intolerant character at Lichfield. He was highly critical of the lax standards he claimed to have found among those who choral and other duties to perform. He was prone to venting his frustration very publically in print in the prefaces to his published works. He was also accused by his colleagues of insulting and abusive behaviour and of puerile tricks, such as setting an impossibly slow or fast pace when accompanying the singers, to show them up.
When he resigned as organist around 1760, he played a trump card by refusing to resign his freehold as a Vicar Choral, which meant the cathedral was unable to appoint (and pay) a successor as organist until one of the Vicars Choral died or resigned. It was a classic “Trollopian” situation and a neat revenge by Alcock.
While remaining a Vicar Choral until his death in 1806, he took up two further posts as organist, one at Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire (1761 – 1786), and another at St Editha’s, Tamworth (1766 – 1790). He was assisted by two of his sons, John junior and William, who deputised for him.
Around 1760 he also published a novel under a pseudonym called “The Life of Miss Fanny Brown”. While intended as an improving work for young people (initially, his children), it draws on plenty of the scurrilous goings on he found in his cathedral dealings, and to that extent could be considered partly autobiogaphical. Ironically, he was later to have a granddaughter who eloped to Gretna Green to get married.
One of his daughters, Theresa, married a successful London lawyer, Henry Cooper, and it was he who possessed the original portraits from which the only two known engravings of John Alcock were made.
Sample PDF download of Alcock’s music available HERE
Listen to a recording of John Alcock’s music