Hudleston Music

The case of the forgotten talent: J. A. Nüske

I am sure that many of you researching 19th century guitar music have come across works by J. A. Nüske. A few of his works are found in most of the major collections, especially his arrangements of popular opera excerpts for piano and guitar. Unfortunately, though more commonly found, these are not the best examples of his work; the solo guitar pieces are of much higher quality – very high quality, in fact, and deserve further examination. Biographical information about Nüske is very scarce, and I will show that much of it is incorrect.

Philip Bone, in The Guitar and Mandolin, states that Nüske was “a German musician and guitarist who visited England during the early part of the nineteenth century where he resided as a teacher of the guitar. He composed many short, simple pieces for the guitar, which enjoyed popularity, several appeared in The Giulianiad for the year 1833.” Bone then goes on to list several works, all published in London, including an Easy Method for the Guitar, a copy of which is in the Hudleston Collection.

As he is so brief, I will quote everything Stuart Button has to say about Nüske, in his thesis The Guitar in England, 1800-1924:

“Except for reviews of his music, there are only two pieces of evidence concerning his stay in London. In 1825 The Harmonicon noted: ‘Nüske is, we believe, a native of St. Petersburg and well known in private society as an excellent performer on the Spanish Guitar.’ It is possible, however, that he had arrived much earlier, as in 1815 he published his Andante for Violin, and in 1821 his Waltz for Piano.

The second piece of evidence is a letter Nüske wrote to the editor of The Giulianiad on 26th April, 1833: ‘Nothing I assure you will give me greater pleasure than to see the Giulianiad successful – a work that must eventually as well as beneficially be in the hands of every guitarist.’ His address is given as 54, William Street, Regent's Park.

It seems likely that he was only an amateur guitarist, and it was his compositions that brought him to the attention of the public.”

Neither Philip Bone, Stuart Button nor the writer in The Harmonicon, whom Button quotes, is completely correct, and they all underestimate Nüske’s talents. I was able to track Nüske through the some of the English census returns, and found his death certificate, all of which supply several important biographical details about this shadowy figure.

First of all, his name, unknown until now, was John Abraham Nüske. Bone was incorrect in stating that he was German, but the claim in The Harmonicon of 1825 that he was from St. Petersburg was closer to the truth. According to the 1861 census return for England, Nüske was born in Arkhangelsk, Russia, although by 1851 he had become a British subject. If the ages given on the 1851 and 1861 census returns are correct – and they both agree, which makes it likely that they are correct – then he was born in 1796. Nüske married twice, both times to women who were born in Farnham, Surrey. He married Hannah Fraser in 1849, and a year after Hannah’s death in 1855, he married Elizabeth Andrews. Elizabeth outlived Nüske, and must have remarried after Nüske’s death, because no Elizabeth Nüske appears in the English register of deaths. It does not appear that Nüske had children with either of his wives. Nüske himself died in 1865, in Wandsworth, Surrey. His death certificate states that he was a ‘teacher of music’ and the cause of death was ‘senile bronchitis’. His age is given as 80 years, but this is most likely incorrect; according to ages on the census returns, he would have been 69 or 70.

Button states that Nüske may have arrived in England much earlier than 1815. Considering the fact that Nüske was 19 years old in 1815, I think the chance he arrived much earlier than that is very unlikely. If I can find his application to become a British subject, it may state exactly when he arrived in the country, and from whence he came.

The first music by Nüske published in England was not for guitar, suggesting that he began his career as a composer more than as a guitarist. His Andante for violin, mentioned by Button – a copy of which is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University – was apparently published in London in 1815, but the Bodleian catalogue does not give any evidence for assigning this date to the work. Two arrangements from Weber’s opera Der Freyschütz – a Cavatina, and the Spanish Patriots’ Song – arranged for voice and piano by Nüske – now in the library at Aberdeen University – were published by Boosey & Co. in London, and bear watermarks of 1817. Also, a Grand quartetto for two violins, tenor and bass (i.e. a string quartet) – now in the library of Cambridge University – was ‘Printed for the Author by Astor & Co.’, apparently in 1819.

As the Hudleston collection contains by far the greatest concentration of Nüske’s guitar music, even if we exclude those works in other collections not represented there we can form a clear picture of Nüske’s activities as a composer of guitar music. Although it is impossible to establish an exact chronology, all of the guitar works were published between 1816 and 1840, with the greatest number appearing between 1824 and 1833. No less than nine publishers printed works by Nüske, indicating more interest in his music than has been previously thought.

The solo guitar works are as follows:

Published by Boosey & Co., between 1816 and 1840:
Fantasia in A major
Fantasia on “God Save the King” in C major

Published by J. J. Ewer, around 1824:
Fantasia on the Air “My Lodging is on the Cold Ground” in G major. This work was dedicated to Ferdinand Pelzer.

Published by N. C. Bochsa, between 1825 and 1830:
Brilliant Variations on a Venetian Waltz in A major

Published by C. Vernon, with a watermark of 1827:
The Three Celebrated Waltzes of Mozart, Beethoven & Weber [Reissiger], arranged for the Spanish Guitar

Published by Chappell in 1830:
Fantasia on a celebrated Irish Air, “Eveleen’s Bower”, in E major

Published by Cocks & Co. in 1832:
Instructions for the Spanish Guitar, Explaining in an Easy manner The Art of Playing upon that Instrument both as an Accompaniment for the Voice, and as a Solo Instrument, Illustrated with Arpeggios in the Principal Keys, together with a Selection of Twenty-Seven Popular Airs

In addition to the solo guitar music, Nüske made many arrangements for voice and guitar – including works by Mozart, Hummel, Charles Horn, and Caroline Norton – which were published by Clementi & Co., Monro & May, and B. Cramer. He also arranged Souvenirs de l’Opéra, Seventy-two Airs, for guitar and piano, published in 12 books by Cocks & Co. between 1833 and 1836. It is interesting to note that the piano parts of these Souvenirs all have lower plate numbers than the guitar parts, and can be dated to 1831, which may imply that Nüske was asked to make guitar arrangements of already existing works for piano and other instruments. This would perhaps absolve him of the sole responsibility for these rather unimaginative works. Whatever the case, Nüske should definitely not be judged by these works, but by his solo works, which are not, as Bone writes, “short, simple pieces”, but finely crafted works in the tradition of Sor and Giuliani.

After Hudleston returned to England, he was in contact with Madame Pratten and Regondi, and copied out many pieces in his collection for them. Several of Nüske’s works were among those copied out for Pratten and Regondi – two of the Fantasias, the Variations, and the Three Waltzes – which suggests that Nüske’s compositions were held in rather high esteem by other guitarists. It is also interesting to note that Hudleston considered Nüske’s arrangements of the Irish airs “Eveleen’s Bower” and “My Lodging is in the Cold Ground” to be similar in style to Sor, and superior to the arrangements of these very same airs by Giuliani, included in his op. 125. An excerpt of a work in C major by Nüske was included by Ferdinand Pelzer in his One Hundred and Fifty Exercises for Acquiring a Facility of Performance upon the Spanish Guitar, Composed and Extracted from the Works of the best Writers for that Instrument, under the heading “The following difficult passages, are inserted here as Exercises, in order that the Student may be able to perform them with facility, when he may happen to meet with them in their Works.” This excerpt is not from any of the C major works by Nüske that I have seen, indicating that there are (or were) more works by Nüske than those I know. The excerpt is reproduced here to illustrate the high quality of Nüske’s compositions. Notice the impeccable voice-leading, the gentle chromaticism, the three voice texture, and the way musical considerations take precedence over easy fingerings. This was obviously composed by someone with a profound understanding of the guitar, and even if Nüske did not perform publicly, this shows that he must have been a fine player. It does remind one of Sor’s style, as Hudleston suggested, and helps to explain the interest of other guitarists in Nüske’s work. This is music that deserves to be played.

An example of J A Nüske's music
An example of J A Nüske's music

Button suggests that Nüske and others turned their attention to other things when the popularity of the guitar began to decline in England, and in Nüske’s case that appears to be true. There is no evidence of publications of his music after 1840, and it appears that he left central London sometime after 1841. By 1851 he was living at 211 West Street, Farnham, Surrey, where he had a business as a ‘printer, [and] book and music seller’, according to the census returns. His business was successful enough for him to have a domestic servant and an employee, Hugh Cameron, a 23 year old Scot, who is listed as a ‘printer and compositor’, and who lived with Nüske. In 1850, Nüske published a book of poetry, his Free translations from the German of Gellert and other poets, a copy of which is in the British Library.

By 1861, Nüske had moved to 52 East Street in Farnham, and was no longer printing and selling books and music – the census lists him simply as a ‘professor of music’ – and Hugh Cameron was no longer with him. Thereafter he declined into mental instability, and died in the County Lunatic Asylum on 21 November, 1865. His music was apparently forgotten, although Andreas Stevens has found that as late as 1928, Hans Tempel, a member of the Münchner Gitarren Quartett, and a severe critic, wrote in Der Gitarrefreund ‘Does anybody know the compositions of Nüske whom serious English critics put on the same level as Sor?’ I have no idea to which ‘serious English critics’ Tempel was referring, but at least we can now answer his question in the affirmative.

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