John Ravenscroft (b. London, 1664/5; d. Rome, 1697) is best known today from the twelve trio sonatas he published in Rome as his Op. 1 in 1695, which are among the closest imitations of Corelli's style produced anywhere.(1) This stylistic resemblance led, around 1730-33, to the publication of the first nine sonatas as early works of Corelli himself.(2) The historian Sir John Hawkins uncovered the misattribution, for which he unjustly blamed Ravenscroft himself, and ever since, the discourse around Ravenscroft has revolved around whether the English composer should be praised for imitating the Italian master so exactly, or censured for doing so too mechanically.(3)
How Ravenscroft found himself in Rome is an interesting story. His family were landowning gentlemen, with their main seat at Fold Farm near Barnet. Most members of his family were lawyers of merchants, but two of his uncles became famous for their achievements in other fields: George (1633-83) was a famous glassmaker, while Edward (1644-1704) became successful as a playwright in London. Their elder brother Thomas (1628-1708) was John's father.
The Ravenscrofts remained attached to Catholicism, which during the whole of the period under discussion was an officially proscribed religion in England and Wales, with penalties for non-adherence to the state religion, Anglicanism. How members of the family coped with this disadvantageous situation varied, but a typical solution was 'church papism', the disparaging term used for persons who observed Anglicanism outwardly, but practised Catholic rites clandestinely. Very often, sons were secretly sent abroad, especially to the English College at Douay in France, while some daughters took the veil at convents set up on the Continent specifically for English Catholics.(4)
Music-making was certainly part of Ravenscroft family life. The vast library of John's father Thomas, which was sold off in the year following his death,(5) contains several music primers and collections of psalms from the seventeenth century. However, there is no information about the nature of John's musical education. He must have learnt the violin (this instrument was certainly taught also at Douay College), and was probably also acquainted with keyboard instruments. In 1685 he was still in England, where on 30 July he became a partner in a joint lease of properties in Wiltshire. Perhaps he visited Rome in 1687/8 initially as a tourist but prudently decided to make his home there after the Glorious Revolution of late 1688 that overthrew James II.
We next hear of John in 1688 as a resident of Rome, occupying lodgings. His accommodation was situated in Via del Corso, lying in a part of the city favoured by English tourists and close to the districts in which instrument makers and artists were concentrated. A manuscript copy of Op. 1 in Vienna claims that John was actually a Corelli pupil,(6) which is not improbable. He lived a quiet bachelor's life in Rome, apparently in financial security, and indulged his taste for art by amassing a large collection of pictures. In 1697 he fell ill and drafted his will from his bed on 9 October, dying three days later. He was buried in his parish church of S. Maria del Popolo.
John's heir was his father Thomas in London, who must have received his effects, including the manuscript music referred to in only very general terms in the will, shortly afterwards. In 1708 an edition of six more trio sonatas, this time in the 'chamber' rather than the 'church' style, were published by Isaac Vaillant as Op. 2. A Latin inscription on the title page, 'Vivit post Funera Virtus' ('Virtue lives on after a funeral'), shows that this publication was conceived as a tribute to his memory. Among the music left after his death was presumably also the set of twelve organ fugues in open score transmitted by a manuscript copy from the end of the eighteenth century in the Royal Music Library. The free-standing fugue on a chromatic subject from the same manuscript,(7) which is also preserved, this time notated on two staves, in a keyboard anthology in the Fitzwilliam Reference Library, Cambridge,(8) may have reached England already before Ravenscroft's death: the Cambridge source, dating from the early eighteenth century, is in the hand of John Harris, son of the organ-builder Renatus Harris. Since the Harris family were prominent Catholics, they may have been directly or indirectly in contact with Ravenscroft during his years in Rome.
(1) This account of John Ravenscroft and other Ravenscrofts is based on the much more detailed account in Patrizio Barbieri and Michael Talbot, 'A Gentleman in Exile: Life and Background of the Composer John Ravenscroft', Early Music History, forthcoming.
(2) By Michel-Charles Le Cène, who may genuinely have believed in Corelli's authorship, since one contemporary manuscript of the sonatas, in Florence, names the latter as the composer.
(3) Sir John Hawkins, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, 5 vols. (London, 1776), vol. 4, 311 and 318.
(4) Male Ravenscrofts who studied at Douay College - they may well have included John - traditionally took the cover name 'Rider' (this was the surname of a Catholic family connected by marriage with the Ravenscrofts): 'Rederi', the alias of Ravenscroft given on the title page of Op. 1, is merely this name in Italianized form.
(5) Bibliotheca Ravenscroftiana, or a Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Ravenscroft Esq. deceas'd (London, Ballard, 1709). I am very grateful to Harry Johnstone for providing information on this volume in private correspondence.
(6) Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, EM 84.
(7) London, British Library, R.M.23.a.18.
(8) Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Reference Library, MU MS 652 (formerly 52.B.6), ff. 11v-13r. The manuscript is discussed in Andrew Woolley, 'English Keyboard Sources and their Contexts, c. 1660-1720', Ph.D. dissertation, University of Leeds, 2008, 154-5. The fugue is transcribed complete, under the title 'Voluntary', in vol. 2 of Geoffrey Cox, Organ Music in Restoration England, 2 vols (New York and London, Garland, 1989), 229-34. Cox makes good observations (vol. 1, 202-203) on the piece's use of invertible counterpoint and thematic inversion, which he associates with Italian style.