Singers and Musical Personalities ~ John Wilson (1800–1849)

1. Wilson

John Wilson 1800–1849

1.   John Wilson (1800–1849), c.1830.  Singer and Composer of Songs by Daniel Macnee.  Oil on millboard, 180 x 140 mm.  Original in collection of National Galleries of Scotland (Scottish National Portrait Gallery.)  Donated by A. W. Inglis, 1911.  [Image in the public domain]

John Wilson

The next vocalist from Scotland to visit these shores, and the grandest of them all, was John Wilson, who was born at Edinburgh in 1800, and at ten years of age was sent to learn the printing business. When his apprenticeship was over he became a proofreader in James Ballantyne's printing office, and is said to have been one of the few to whom the secret of the authorship of the Waverley Novels was made known. During this time, however, he was studying music and training his voice to speak as well as sing, and, in spite of the protestations of his friends, he made his first appearance on the stage, at Edinburgh, in 1830, assuming the character of Henry Bertram in the opera of 'Guy Mannering' his success was complete.

Wilson determined, in the height of his powers, to make an American tour, and he landed in the New World in 1838, and remained for two years.

He was beyond question one of the most accomplished vocalists of his time, and, though he had made a brilliant reputation on the operatic stage, and had won laurels as a writer and as a composer, he was never happier or better than when singing the sweet and simple songs of his 'ain countrie.'

Wilson's entertainments, such as 'A Nicht wi' Burns,' or 'Bonnie Prince Charlie,' proved wonderfully popular wherever he gave them, not merely among the Scottish auditors, whose enthusiasm knew no bounds, but among educated Americans and lovers of music of all classes. That he raised Scottish song to a high degree of popularity goes without saying, and he paved the way for the more complete financial success, long afterward, of the entertainments of the same class given by the late David Kennedy.

[Text based on Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 62 after James Cuthbert Hadden.]


2. Wilson

John Wilson

2.   John Wilson.  by W G Stevenson.  bas-relief 1894. From a panel containing three bronze portrait medallions of John Wilson, John Templeton and David Kennedy sited on the steps leading from the end of Waterloo Place to Calton Hill, Edinburgh.

David Kennedy, the Scottish vocalist, restored Wilson's tomb in Canada, and made a bequest for its permanent preservation.

Wilson published an edition of ‘The Songs of Scotland, as sung by him at his Entertainments on Scottish Music and Song,’ London, 1842, 3 vols.; and ‘A Selection of Psalm Tunes, for the use of the Congregation of St. Mary's Church, Edinburgh’ (1825), in which appears the popular tune ‘Howard,’ generally attributed to him, although it is anonymous.

Wilson composed several songs, notably ‘Love wakes and sleeps,’ and at his entertainments introduced many which, though unclaimed, are understood to be his own.

[Sources include Love's Scottish Church Music; Baptie's Musical Scotland; Dibdin's Annals of the Edinburgh Stage; Grove's Dictionary of Music; ]


John Wilson Anecdotes

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