Thomas Linley: how the ‘English Mozart’ died aged 22 in a boating tragedy

We explain how a tragic boating accident in the 18th century robbed England of Thomas Linley, one of its most promising composers, who was set to rival Mozart

Thomas Linley the younger

An aspiring young landscape gardener named Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is said to have visited Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire in 1741 (where he certainly returned in 1771), and set in train a number of changes to the layout of the estate surrounding it.

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These included creating a ten-acre lake, which 37 years later had tragic consequences for English music. There, on 5 August, 1778, the English composer Thomas Linley the Younger perished in a boating accident, just three months after his 22nd birthday.

Who was Thomas Linley?

Even by that age, Linley had already blazed a brilliant trail in his professional activities. Born into a highly musical family – his father, Thomas senior, was a composer and teacher – Linley was performing in public by the age of seven, playing a violin concerto at the Hot Wells near his home in Bath. He could sing too: aged ten, he played Puck in a masque at Covent Garden.

‘His singing, playing on the violin and dancing the hornpipe are all beyond expectation,’ a reviewer wrote, ‘and discover extraordinary abilities in one who must be considered a child.’ A child indeed, yet one who was about to stretch his musical experiences further by travelling to Italy.

Did Linley and Mozart get on?

Aged 12, Linley went to study with the violinist Pietro Nardini in Florence, eventually spending three years there. In April 1770, another youthful prodigy passed through the city: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Linley met him at a musical evening, and the pair (both born in 1756) immediately warmed to one another.

‘The two boys took turns performing all evening while constantly embracing,’ Wolfgang’s father Leopold wrote. They played together again the following day, and Linley apparently ‘wept the bitterest tears’ at the Mozarts’ departure. It was around this time that Linley was nicknamed ‘the English Mozart’, though originally due to his prowess as a violinist, not as a composer. Linley played ‘absolutely beautifully’, Leopold Mozart thought, and the music historian Charles Burney bracketed Thomas and Wolfgang together as ‘the most promising geniuses of this age’ when it came to performing.

Linley would, though, shortly show his mettle as a composer too. His jubilant anthem Let God arise premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in 1773, when he was 17. There followed a clutch of works related to the Drury Lane theatre in London, where he led the orchestra and his father was music director. His A Lyric Ode on the Fairies, Aerial Beings and Witches of Shakespeare was first heard there in 1776, and hailed by The Morning Chronicle as ‘an extraordinary effort of genius in so young a man’.

Incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest followed the year after, as did Linley’s rousing oratorio The Song of Moses. These have all been successfully recorded, and while the influence of Handel, Purcell and Linley’s teacher William Boyce is evident, the emergence of a new, vibrantly distinctive voice in English music is unmistakable.

When did Thomas Linley die?

That voice, however, was destined never to be fully developed. On an August day in 1778, Linley and two friends went boating on the lake at Grimsthorpe Castle, where he was staying with the Duke of Ancaster. Somehow the boat tipped over, perhaps because of choppy weather, and though his friends survived Linley unfortunately did not. ‘He remained under water full 40 minutes,’ The Morning Chronicle reported, ‘so that every effort made to restore him to life proved ineffectual.’

Linley’s loss was keenly felt among those who knew him and recognised his immense potential as a composer. And the teenage wunderkind whom Linley briefly met in Florence never forgot him. ‘Linley was a true genius,’ Mozart reportedly commented. ‘Had he lived, he would have been one of the greatest ornaments of the musical world.’ 

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Top image: Thomas Gainsborough, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons