Old notes reveal life of musical 'hellraiser'

February 20, 2004

A Nottingham University musicologist has uncovered the colourful life of a "hellraiser" composer from a famous Methodist family whose genius has only recently gained recognition.

Samuel Wesley, whose turbulent life spanned the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was a child prodigy, the son of Charles Wesley, the hymn writer, and nephew of John Wesley, the preacher.

Wesley was a gifted organist and possibly the most important English composer of his generation, but he shocked his family by converting to Roman Catholicism and embarking on a love affair with a woman with whom he lived but did not marry.

He eventually married her but then deserted her for his 15-year-old servant girl, with whom he had seven children.

Philip Olleson, a reader in musicology at Nottingham, believes Wesley's unconventional behaviour may have partly been down to manic depression, which led him to be imprisoned in a lunatic asylum for a year.

Dr Olleson has spent ten years piecing together details of Wesley's life by analysing more than 600 letters he wrote to family, colleagues and friends.

He said: "It is clear he was a wild, wild man - something of a hellraiser. But it seems people were prepared to put up with it for the sake of his genius. We would not have known any of this were it not so well documented in his letters. For me, it was like piecing together a jigsaw."

Wesley wrote six symphonies, as well as concertos and numerous works for piano and organ. But he lived under the shadow of near-contemporaries Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. As a result, many of his achievements went unrecognised.

Dr Olleson said: "We are talking about a time in which music tended to be very transitory, and it was often a matter of chance whether it survived or fell by the wayside."

Philip Olleson's book, Samuel Wesley: The Man and his Music , is published by Boydell Press.

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