Warwick's West Gallery Quire

James Kempson



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James Kempson
Father of the Choral Society, and Assistant Conductor at all the Musical Festivals performed in Birmingham from their Commencement [in 1778] to the Year 1817.

Engraved & Publish'd by T. Carnier 4 Aston Street, Birmingham, Jany. 1824.
From a Painting by H. Wyatt, in the Possession of the Musical Society.
Sold by J. Bumpus Holborn Bars London, & all Printsellers. Subscribers Proof.
Engraving, scarce. Image 330 x 271mm. 13 x 10¾". Trimmed, foxing and laid on album page.

James Kempson (1742-1822) was the first choir master at St Paul’s, Birmingham and was a well known figure in Birmingham’s musical circles during his long and active life. Kempson was offered the post of clerk and choir master of St. Paul’s in 1777, soon after the laying of the foundation stone. He had already a considerable reputation as a choir master in Birmingham having been associated with St. Philip’s all his life  - he was baptised there in 1742. In 1762, the age of 20, he was directing the choir at St. Bartholemew’s and had combined the choirs of St. Philip’s and St. Bartholemew’s into a singing group which met at Cooke’s Tavern in the Cherry Orchard; this merry band of musicians became known as The Musical and Amicable Society.

Such musical societies often met in taverns and consequently were mainly given over to a 'conviviality' which was typified in the preamble to the printed rules of the most important of them, the Birmingham Musical and Amicable Society, which included the lines:

'May the catch and the glass go about and about
And another succeed to the bottle that's out'.

This association was, however, remarkable in being also a friendly society and engaging in charitable works. Its founder, James Kempson, was associated with Michael Broome who had set up a music-publishing business in Lichfield Street, Birmingham, in 1734.Broome is credited with being the first such publisher in the town.

Three years later in 1765 saw the formation of the Chappell Society, an offshoot of the Musical and Amicable Society, and in 1766 when the building of the General Hospital began, James suggested to friends on the board that there should be a Musical Entertainment to raise money for the building fund. Thus, in 1768 there was the first Music Festival. There were performances in the theatre, and at St. Philip’s there was a performance of Handel’s Messiah with James as chorus master.  He is credited with having started, in 1766, the Birmingham Choral Society that gave annual performances in St. Bartholomew's Chapel for the "Distressed House-keepers' Charity".

Twelve years later in 1778, James arranged another Festival, this to raise money for the building funds for the unfinished hospital and for St. Paul’s. Another Festival was held in 1784 and so began the Triennial Musical Festivals in Birmingham raising money for the General Hospital. This tradition continued until 1912, attracting new works by famous composers, many now being in the standard choral repertoire.

The Chappell Society continued its existence until 1847, providing a large group within the massed choirs of the festivals. It is likely that the remaining members became the nucleus of the recently formed Birmingham Festival Choral Society which began life in 1843 and is still one of the main choral societies in Birmingham today.

James `Daddy` Kempson was held in great affection by his choirs and in his later years the Chappell Society commissioned a portrait of him by Henry Wyatt (above). Many special musical events were held in subsequent years, Handel being the favoured composer. Some of the performances were an integral part of a church service. Some were to raise money for charity or a new organ, of which there were several.

James Kempson died on 10th March 1822, was buried in St. Paul’s churchyard, aged 80.

In the catalogues of Birmingham Public Libraries, on the Birmingham Collection page, we find copies of sssome of James Kempson's publications:

  • Kempson, J - Eight anthems in score, for three and four voices. pp 39. 8vo
  • Kempson, J - [ed.] A choice collection of thirteen anthems, set by R Bishop, etc.  pp 30. 4to.
  • Kempson, J - [ed.] A collection of psalm tumes in four parts. (2nd edn., revised.) p. 50. obi. duo.