A man out of tune with his world

Samuel Sebastian Wesley
December 10, 2004

The best-known English hymn tune ever written is probably Samuel Sebastian Wesley's Aurelia (The Church's One Foundation), largely through its secular use - for John Betjeman's poem The Church's Restoration , and the bowdlerised World War One song Forward Joe Soap's Army , among many others.

Ironically, Wesley, the brightest talent and leading church musician of the early Victorian age, spent a lifetime crusading to improve the quality of church music in England. For years after his death in 1876, his anthems were staple fare for cathedral and parish church choirs. Yet, by the end of the 20th century, most of this music was collecting dust in an organ loft or vestry.

Peter Horton is the leading authority on Wesley, having edited his church anthems for Musica Britannica . This study, in the acclaimed Oxford Studies in British Church Music series, is the first to combine a thoroughly researched account of Wesley's life with a critical analysis of his music. With its full list of works and an extensive bibliography, it is the definitive volume and an essential starting point for research. There is something for the general reader, too, for in Horton's lively narrative the ups and downs of Wesley's life unfold like a soap opera, revealing tensions beneath the calm surface of life in England's cathedral closes.

Wesley was illegitimate and disadvantaged from birth - his parents were ostracised by the Wesley family. He was given the name Sebastian after his father's musical icon J. S. Bach and grew up burdened by expectations that he found hard to realise. It was bad enough being a Wesley - his great uncle was John and his grandfather Charles, the apostles of Methodism, and his father Samuel and uncle Charles had been musical child prodigies. Over four generations, there were nine musical or hymn-writing Wesleys.

Nevertheless, Samuel Sebastian was undoubtedly the family's best musician. He was the finest organist of his age and gave inaugural recitals on 30 new organs, while his extempore fugues and fantasias attracted large audiences. In his early years, he wrote secular works, including an overture and symphony, reflecting the latest European trends. He seemed certain to dominate the English music scene. So what went wrong? His restless progress around England's cathedrals offers a clue. Wesley later wrote: "I have moved from cathedral to cathedral because I found musical troubles at each." He fell out with almost every dean, chapter and vicar who employed him, always regretting afterwards leaving his previous post.

English cathedral cities were very provincial, and their musical life distinctly parochial. Wesley soon met problems - clerical indifference and control, poor pay and lowly status, and mediocre organists and choristers - which he resolved to change. Thwarted by deans and chapters at Hereford and Exeter, he struck lucky at Leeds, where he found a vicar with a new parish church seeking an able musician to run its choral foundation. Within two years the honeymoon was over, but not before Wesley had instigated a national debate on church music, stressing that, if cathedral standards were to improve, control over music and choir should lie with a musical director, given proper and separate funding. Alas, Wesley did not help his cause, being frequently absent for long periods on fishing trips. The same pattern was repeated at Winchester, before his final move to Gloucester.

Wesley's biggest mistake was to leave his London home in the first place, cutting his ties with European music. Thereafter, he struggled to gain recognition for his compositions, and projected publications were delayed or never appeared. He became an outsider, alienated from the English musical establishment. His life was dogged by disappointment and lack of confidence. Money and family worries were never far from the surface. He was suspicious of fellow musicians, quick to take offence and given to violent outbursts. He was mercenary and not averse to double dealing. One chapter clerk described him as "the most to-be-avoided man I ever met".

Wesley composed more than 170 hymn tunes, a surprise since so few have impinged on the average chorister's experience. Only a handful appeared in contemporary hymnbooks, but as an exchange with Hymns Ancient and Modern reveals, Wesley could be awkward about adequate remuneration. He openly expressed disdain for other "hack writers" such as J. B. Dykes and W. H.

Monk. As with poets, however, it was not always the best musicians who succeeded in a genre that is notorious for its doggerel and sentimental tunes.

Horton's advocacy establishes Wesley as a composer of striking originality and ability in a sea of mediocrity and insularity. He played a major role in rescuing English cathedral music from years of neglect and abuse. But whether his anthems will be dusted down, and whether the sounds of Samuel Sebastian Wesley will ring out from the choir stalls again, is another matter. Somehow it seems doubtful, given the bad luck and capacity to self-destruct that dogged Wesley's career and haunts his legacy. Time has moved on and the resources his music demands no longer readily exist outside the leading cathedrals. While they exemplify the best of romantic early Victorian church music, they remain, in essence, museum pieces.

In later years, Wesley wrote simpler anthems for parish church choirs, but these are unadventurous and dull. In the end, Wesley became a prisoner of the very establishment he despised.

David Johnson is a fellow in history, Leicester University.

Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life

Author - Peter Horton
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 385
Price - £63.00
ISBN - 0 19 816146 8

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