Pearsall’s Music

The compositions of R L Pearsall fall into three distinct episodes. Prior to his departure for Germany in 1825, no compositions are extant, except a small sketch in a notebook of a melody for a minuet and trio. It is dated 14 July 1825 at Willsbridge, the family home.

Pearsall must have felt that he had a musical vein to explore, but perhaps he knew he would not find his muse in Bristol. It was in Mainz, where the family first settled after leaving England, that he made his earliest attempts at composing. It seems that they were not small-scale either; a performance of an orchestral overture at Mainz in 1828 is recorded by Pearsall’s most extensive biographer, Edgar Hunt. It also appears that Pearsall received some compositional tuition with Joseph Panny, a virtuoso violinist, who spent some time in Mainz.


During the period 1828 to 1837, Pearsall’s attention appears to have been focussed principally on chamber and orchestral music; a variety of compositions came from his pen, more so after the family’s move to Karlsruhe in 1830. Undoubtedly Pearsall had a better chance of performance of his works in Karlsruhe. It was a much smaller city than Mainz, but enjoyed the artistic patronage of the Grand Duke of Baden, around whom a small circle of musical professionals made their living through the opera house and its orchestra. Pearsall befriended the Grand Duke’s Kapellmeister, the celebrated violinist Jan Kalliwoda, to whom Pearsall dedicated his string quartet at its publication in 1834.

However, Pearsall is most famous in the twenty-first century as a composer of vocal music. His most frequently sung work is an arrangement of ‘In Dulci Jubilo’ (1834)—published London, 1837—for unaccompanied vocal octet, which gained such popularity in the last century thanks to its regular inclusion by Boris Ord in the BBC’s broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge each Christmas Eve.

Pearsall in a sketch by his wife, Harriet

(Reproduced from Hunt’s biography)


Pearsall’s greatest skill as a composer is apparent in his madrigals and partsongs.

In Bristol in January 1837, Edward Taylor, an eminent music historian, delivered a series of four lectures on English vocal harmony at the Bristol Institution.  Taylor’s visit inspired the formation of the Bristol Madrigal Society, of which, Pearsall was one of the founding members. The lectures galvanised Pearsall into serious study of madrigal composition, and the BMS profited from the works written for them.

Pearsall was, at the time, on what would transpire to be his his longest stay in England after 1825 (some fourteen months), and had already begun toying with words taken from ­Morley’s First Booke of Balletts, setting them very simply, in a hymn-like fashion, but exploring the modal possibilities by which madrigals composed in the early 17th century were characterised. Taylor’s visit—and the subsequent new vocal group to compose for—launched Pearsall into an outpouring of works of exquisite beauty. Turning again to Morley, he took instruction in madrigal writing from the Plaine and Easie Introduction to Prackticall Musick (1597).

Between 1837 and 1842, Pearsall wrote some twenty-two madrigals and other partsongs, many of them composed for the Bristol Madrigal Society. The most notable of these works are the two eight-part madrigals, ‘Great God of Love’ (1839)—words by Pearsall, dedicated to J D Corfe, first Director of the Bristol Madrigal Society; and ‘Lay A Garland’ (1840)—words adapted by Pearsall from Beaumont and Fletcher. Both of these pieces display Pearsall’s genius in writing small-scale works for large forces. Eight voices (two sopranos, altos, tenors and basses) allows polyphony in many combinations—two choirs of four, four choirs of two, one choir of eight, etc.—but across these relatively short works, Pearsall interweaves his counterpoint with ravishing harmonies and dissonances, leaving the listener breathless and wanting more. And yet all of this is built upon an Elizabethan model, but clothed in the sumptuous harmony afforded by the 19th century.

The cover of Morley’s Balletts – Pearsall drew on earlier musical forms


This last period of composition accounts for those works of Pearsall that are most frequently overlooked. So much of the music from this time was written for use at the cathedral at St Gallen, in whose diocese Pearsall lived. He had moved to the castle at Wartensee in Switzerland in 1843, and a period of no composition ensued for three years. Only through the encouragement of the Chancellor of the Diocese of St Gallen did composition begin again—specifically to provide music for the enthronement of a new bishop.

At this time he also wrote several partsongs, and a number of services for Anglican use. The ceremonial music that was commissioned for St Gallen uses a peculiar combination of forces: voices, brass band (evidently the St Gallen town band) and organ. The organ gallery in the cathedral is a huge space above the west door, capable of accommodating a modern symphony orchestra. It would have been a wonderful spectacle when crowded for the great occasions for which Pearsall wrote.

One of the most unusual works of Pearsall from this period is a contrafactum setting in 1854 of his eight-part madrigal ‘Lay a Garland’, re-set to the Latin words ‘Tu Es Petrus’. It was dedicated to the bishop, Johann-Peter Mirer, for whom Pearsall had composed music for his enthronement in 1846.

The last work he completed was a setting of the requiem mass, intended for use at a commemoration of the bishops of St Gallen, but it was never used. It was only in 2006, in time for the 150th anniversary of his death, that the Pearsall Requiem was first performed and made available as a working edition.

After Pearsall’s death, the entirety of his manuscripts was given to the Benedictine monastery at Einsiedeln, where the archive remains to this day. It includes some 150 original compositions and over 700 other works in score and manuscript acquired by Pearsall during his lifetime.

Manuscript of Pearsall’s Tu Es Petrus  of 1854

(Reproduced from Hunt’s biography)

Pearsall’s (Known) Compositions:

  • 8 works for four voices, wind instruments and organ, 1846–1856, including Requiem, completed 1856
  • 47 other Latin works
  • 7 services for Anglican rite
  • 23 madrigals
  • 60 English partsongs, including the 10-voice ‘Sir Patric Spens’ (1838), and ‘Who Shall Have My Lady Fair’ (1839)
  • Ballet ‘Die Nacht eines Schwärmers (1834)
  • Three orchestral overtures: Die Schwärmer, Macbeth and Kenilworth
  • 2 string quintets
  • 1 string quartet