The Church Music Society

Registered Charity No. 1200306

President: The Most Reverend Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham

CMS Millennial Year Lecture

'A clever thing, but not Cathedral Music'

The church music of Samuel Sebastian Wesley

Dr. Peter Horton
Given at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea on 1 July, 2000

‘One Copy is written so close, that I have had much trouble in understanding it. It is a clever thing, but not Cathedral Music. (The Wilderness).1.

And such was the opinion of R.J.S Stevens, Gresham Professor of Music, when confronted with an anthem by the twenty three year old Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Wesley had written the work a year earlier to commemorate the opening of the rebuilt cathedral organ in Hereford and had then entered it for the Gresham Prize medal for a newly-composed anthem or service setting. In the event he was too late and it was held over until the following year when, as Stevens’ comment suggests, it was not successful.

Yet it was precisely because it was not ‘cathedral music’ in the accepted sense that The Wilderness proved to be such a landmark. This study aims to look at Wesley’s church music and see how his style evolved during the course of a forty-year career as a cathedral organist and church music composer. But first a glance at his background to help place him in perspective.

Born in London on 14 August 1810, Samuel Sebastian was the fourth child of the celebrated organist and composer Samuel Wesley, and grandson of Charles Wesley the hymn writer. Despite his distinguished lineage, the circumstances of his birth and upbringing were anything but conventional, as he was born to his father’s teenage housemaid and spent his childhood under the shadow of strong family disapproval of Samuel’s separation from his wife and liaison with a servant.

Yet although Samuel found considerably more domestic happiness than he had with his lawful wife, he was burdened by substantial maintenance payments and, with an ever-growing family and a seeming inability to spend less than he earned, frequently found himself in debt. Dark clouds of depression also hovered threateningly and in 1817 he jumped from a first floor window to escape imagined creditors and for his own safety was placed in a private asylum for close on twelve months. It was at this juncture that his seven year old son’s formal musical education began with his acceptance as a Child (chorister) of the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, by the Master of the Children, William Hawes.

Here he remained for the next eight and half years, singing in the chapel services and at the various musical societies and city banquets for whose music Hawes was responsible. Any fees the boys might earn invariably went into their master’s pocket! Hawes’ choir training involved the use of a lady’s riding whip to impose discipline, but he was sufficiently impressed with his charge to choose him as one of the two choristers to go down to Brighton to sing in the services at the Royal Pavilion when the King, George IV, was in residence and later declared him to have been ‘the best boy he had ever had’.

No less significantly, he also maintained contact with his former pupil after he had left the choir and as early as 1829 we find Wesley acting as pianist and conductor of the chorus at the English Opera House at the Adelphi Theatre where Hawes had charge of the music. In 1830 he was also appointed organist at the Lent Oratorio concerts at Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres (conducted by Hawes), and there can be no doubting the importance of these early musical experiences on a budding composer.

Indeed, despite the absence of native composers worthy to rank alongside Mozart or Beethoven, London ranked as one of the foremost centres of musical life in Europe and attracted a steady stream of eminent foreign musicians. Weber, Spohr and Mendelssohn all came in the 1820s or 30s, bringing recent or specially commissioned works with them and audiences were regularly able to hear a wide range of new music. But it was not only his exposure to the work of contemporary composers which marked these years for Wesley, but the fact that, as two colleagues later bore testament, he also gained invaluable experience of writing for and conducting in the theatre.

John Barnett commended his ‘ability as Choragus (or Conductor of the Chorus) having had frequent opportunities of witnessing the able and masterly manner in which he conducted the chorus at The English Opera House some years ago’,3 while another early acquaintance was H.J. Gauntlett who extolled his ‘perfect knowledge of the extraordinary combinations to be met with in the modern Opera’.4

By the late 1820s Wesley was also beginning to make a name for himself as a composer and his earliest compositions include a virtuosic set of variations for organ on ‘God save the King’ (which he played at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol in October 1829), a short anthem ‘0 God, whose nature and property’ (published by Hawes in 1831), a setting of the Benedictus qui venit for solo quartet and organ sung at the Oratorio concerts on 30 March 1832 and an overture and melodramatic music for Edward Fitzball’s The Dilosk Gatherer, produced at the English Opera House in July the same year. With songs and piano pieces to his name as well, it looked as though he was set to embark on a career as an organist and composer, entitled to expect further successes in the theatre and concert hall.

Within six weeks of the premiere of The Dilosk Gatherer, however, he had left the bustling cosmopolitan atmosphere of London for the rural isolation of Hereford where he had been appointed organist of the cathedral. It was a move he was bitterly to regret in later life, and there can be little doubt that had he known the reality of life at a provincial cathedral he would have thought long and hard about leaving the capital. Encouragement, one suspects, had come from the new Dean, Dr John Merewether, who had previously been curate of Hampton Parish Church where Wesley had been evening organist.

The fact that there were only three candidates also suggests that the election was biased in Wesley’s favour - although this could equally well have been a reflection on the miserable salary of £60 on offer, no less that £40 having been diverted to provide a pension for his elderly and infirm predecessor, John Clarke-Whitfeld, who, at the Dean & Chapter’s insistence, had been forced into offering his resignation. Writing many years later Wesley painted a grim picture of the conditions he had encountered:

Painful and dangerous is the position of a young musician who, after acquiring great knowledge of his art in the Metropolis, joins a country Cathedral. At first he can scarcely believe that the mass of error and inferiority in which he has to participate is habitual and irremediable. He thinks he will reform matters, gently, and without giving offence; but he soon discovers that it is his approbation and not his advice that is needed. The Choir is "the best in England" (such being the belief at most Cathedrals) and, if he give trouble in his attempts at improvement, he would be, by some Chapters, at once voted a person with whom they "cannot go on smoothly" and "a bore."5

In one respect, however, the move was the making of him as a composer in that it triggered the composition of his first masterpiece, the anthem The Wilderness. On reaching Hereford in September, Wesley had found himself with nothing to do as choral services had been discontinued while the cathedral organ was enlarged and repaired by IC. Bishop whose alterations included the addition of an octave of new pedal pipes.

Yet his time was well spent and on 10 November, the day after the organ came back into use, the congregation were treated to the first performance of his new anthem. What, one wonders, did they make of it, for nothing remotely like it had been heard at Hereford before? Wesley himself had no doubts as he wrote a few weeks later to his friend WH. Kearns: ‘I liked the music very well, it was done here in the Cathedral’.6 It is with The Wilderness that this brief survey of Wesley’s church music begins, although a glance at a few works which immediately preceded it will place it in context.

As most of Wesley’s earliest works have remained unseen and unheard for a century and a half, it has been widely assumed that with The Wilderness he miraculously stepped on to the stage as a fully-fledged composer. Yet while it does indeed represent a remarkable achievement for a young man, it had some significant antecedents which show him already experimenting with chromatic harmony and displaying his love of dissonant counterpoint.

Particularly interesting in this respect is the Benedictus which included the same chromatic approach to a perfect cadence as that found midway through the final quartet ‘And sorrow and sighing. We also find a characteristic sequential passage whose combination of passing and changing notes results in entirely logical but strongly dissonant part-writing, surely inspired by the music of J.S. Bach of which his father was such an ardent champion.

When Wesley arrived in Hereford he thus already possessed a more than competent technique as a composer and was thoroughly at home with the contemporary musical lingua franca. No less significantly, he clearly saw no reason why he should not transfer such idiom from concert hall or theatre to cathedral — and it was this which so confused Stevens and his fellow Gresham umpires, William Crotch and William Horsley. For while the framework of The Wilderness was that of the multi-movement verse anthem as used Greene, Boyce and their successors, its content had but a tenuous link with the English cathedral school.

Instead it paid homage to the music of Mozart and his early-Romantic successors — the music of 1830s London. Nothing like the sequential modulations through keys a third apart in the verse ‘For in the wilderness’ (pre-figured in the Benedictus) or dramatic recitative ‘And a highway shall be there’ with its depiction of the ‘unclean’ in the dark key of B flat minor and the ‘redeemed’ in ethereal B major had been attempted in a piece of cathedral music. Even the ‘traditional’ fugue And the ransomed of the Lord’ v developed along decidedly un-traditional lines before being crowned by the triumphant ser of bold modulations which bring it to a close.

In his elevation of the role of the organ to that of equal participant Wesley also made a significant break with precedent. Only a generation earlier the accompaniment to an anthem would often have consisted of no more than a figured bass line or at most a thin-textured part for manuals only, yet the solo ‘Say to then a fearful heart’ makes vivid use of the new pedal pipes for its famous stalking bass line. Indeed, it is probably not fanciful to see the hand of a composer who had learned his trade in the theatre in Wesley’s use of the organ to add force and drama to the sentiments of his texts. Yet there were reminders too of the cathedral school, none more so than the inclusion of ‘English’ cadence.

While not so obvious as an earlier example in ‘O God, whose nature and property’, there can be no mistaking the pattern of a descending minor third over suspended fourth in the organ part of ‘Say to them’. Even more striking, however, is appearance of what could be called the ancient chord par excellence at the climax of the work — the triad on the flat seventh. Here indeed was a sound of which Crotch and his fell Gresham umpires would have approved — but not in such a context.

But if The Wilderness was not ‘Cathedral Music’, what was cathedral music supposed to like in the early 1830s? Opinions differed widely and it is instructive to see what Gauntlett wrote on the subject in 1836. Five years Wesley’s senior, he had begun to make a name himself as a widely-read and progressive-minded critic and had a particular dislike of narrow-mindedness of the Gresham Prize umpires. The failure of The Wilderness provided him with a weapon with which to attack them and, in the course of three wide-rang articles in The Musical World, he elevated it into something of a cause célebre, declaring ‘we would have given a dozen Gresham medals’7 to have written the fugal chorus ‘And ransomed of the Lord’.

Yet his was not simply a negative assault on reactionary opinion, but also included an interesting analysis of the current state of church music composition as saw it. In his view there were no fewer than five current schools, ranging from the ultra conservative ‘pure sublime’ style based on sixteenth and early seventeenth century mod (and advocated by Crotch and his supporters) to the avante-garde — ‘The school (yet in infancy) founded on a union of Purcell, Bach, and Beethoven, of which the Exeter Wesley may be said to be the inventor’8.

Between these extremes lay three groups of more traditional composers, represented by Samuel Wesley, Thomas Attwood and Vincent Novello, and those like Robert Cooke and Thomas Forbes Walmisley who were as well-known for their glees for their church music. But if Wesley, Attwood and Novello represented tradition, it was a tradition in which ‘intense feeling takes the precedence of school-boy imitation’,9 and with this we come to the nub of Samuel Sebastian’s own approach to church music — ‘that most important feature in vocal composition, expression’.10 Elsewhere he noted that composition of church music involved the setting of ‘words which seem, in the musician’s judgment, to demand of him the most exalted efforts of which his art is capable’11 and if it could only be achieved by appropriating the means from outside the cathedral tradition, so be it.

It should thus come as no surprise to discover that, far from being diverted by his Gresham Prize failure, Wesley adopted an even more unashamedly contemporary (and secular-sounding) style in the works he wrote over the next few years. The setting of the Creed later incorporated in his Service in E and the anthems ‘Blessed be the God and Father’, ‘Trust ye in the Lord’ and ‘O give thanks unto the Lord’ not only share an idiom with his contemporary songs, piano pieces, glees and larger-scale choral works, but also reveal a strong debt to the music of ‘the pure and beautiful Spohr’12 so popular in England during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

A few examples of Spohr-like chromaticism had already appeared in The Wilderness, but his influence and that of his contemporaries now moves to centre stage. As anyone familiar with ‘Blessed be the God and Father’ will know, the anthem’s stylistic connection with previous generations of cathedral music is tenuous. Even the pattern of a succession of short sections could as plausibly be linked with that of the operatic scena as with the English verse anthem, and it is worth bearing in mind that in Wesley’s avoidance of internal cadences we can probably see — and hear — a further example of the influence of Spohr.

‘Blessed be the God and Father’ also provides an extremely good illustration of the way Wesley frequently revised his works. You will recall that the central treble solo ‘Love one another’ unusually falls into seven bar phrases — four bars (soloist) answered by three bars (full cantoris boys). So natural does this seem that it comes as a surprise to discover that the answering phrase was originally one bar longer (albeit in the organ part). But the most important point is the fact that unlike so many composers, Wesley did not automatically think in terms of regular four-bar phrases in which musical rather than verbal considerations frequently predominated. Although his music is not blameless, we rarely find such faulty accentuation as mars the opening of Henry Smart’s Magnificat in F or phrases packed with short note values to accommodate a multitude of syllables.

Words and word-setting were of the utmost importance to Wesley and his care extended to the choice of texts. Only very occasionally did he take verses from a single source, usually preferring to assemble a selection which he then had no compunction about altering to suit his purpose. Sometimes he did no more than omit a single word, but his changes invariably improved the verbal rhythm or helped understanding and in this context it is instructive to look at The Wilderness and compare it with John Goss’s setting, written nearly thirty years later.

The most significant differences are that Goss did not choose his own text — it was selected by the Precentor of St Paul’s — and that he only omitted one verse from Isaiah xxxv. Wesley in contrast took only six of the ten verses and then proceeded to cut them further. While we might regret his omission of references to ‘foolish wayfaring men’, ‘lions’ and ravenous beasts’, no one could deny that his succinct contrast of the ‘unclean’ and the redeemed’ possesses far more dramatic impact than the lengthy and somewhat confusing original.


And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those; the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.

No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there.


And a highway shall be there: it shall be call’d The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it, But the redeemed shall walk there.

There is in fact a story behind Goss’s setting. When Wesley published his collection of Twelve Anthems in 1853 the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s declined to subscribe, but some years later requested the loan of copies to perform The Wilderness. Given their earlier behaviour, Wesley refused whereupon Goss was commissioned to set the words himself.

But to return to Wesley’s church music. While ‘Blessed be the God and Father’ is universally known, very few people are aware of ‘Trust ye in the Lord’ or the setting of the Creed. Yet the latter is a fascinating work, replete with what is in effect an operatic aria for the words ‘Who for us men and for our salvation’ (and incidentally using the same material as the opening of the Benedictus) and employing such modern effects as a diminished seventh to depict ‘God of God, Light of Light’. The latter may sound hackneyed today, but we only have to turn the music of Weber — the Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischutz for example — to remind ourselves of what a powerful device it was at the time. Both Creed and anthem also continue the pattern found in The Wilderness of an accompaniment laid out — at least in part — on three staves and including an important obbligato part for the pedals.

And here we might usefully divert to consider what else Wesley was writing at this time. He had gone to Hereford having completed several works for the concert hall or theatre and with the strong intention of continuing in this field. Indeed, shortly after submitting The Wilderness for the Gresham Prize we find him writing to his friend Kearns in London to tell him of his intention to submit two works for the consideration of the Philharmonic Society — an Overture and an orchestral version of the Benedictus. He had been spurred on by what he described to the Philharmonic secretary as ‘the liberal patronage you have lately bestowed on a foreigner, ‘of distinguished merit truly",13 i.e. Mendelssohn, and he must have been bitterly disappointed when, after securing a performance of the Overture at a trial night in January, it was never programmed in a concert.

The Three Choirs Festivals did, however, provide opportunities for the performance of orchestral works and one suspects that Wesley had never entirely relinquished the hope of success on a larger stage than a cathedral choir. The importance this for our purposes is twofold — firstly that his early organ parts are clearly influenced by experience of orchestral writing and secondly that his writing for the instrument began change after he had moved to Exeter in 1835 and more or less abandoned orchestral composition. I should add that you only need to glance at the full score of the orchestral version of The Wilderness to see how little Wesley needed to augment the accompaniment when transferring it to a new medium.

Exeter in 1835 could boast a fine organ and a cathedral choir which had the reputation being one of the best in the country. Wesley, newly married to the Dean of Hereford’s sister (by all accounts without her brother’s approval) arrived in the city re-invigorated and determined to build on his growing reputation as a composer. Within a year he had completed his most substantial anthem yet, a setting of verses from Isaiah xxv interspersed with others from Psalm xxxiii, I Corinthians xv and the Book of Wisdom, ‘O Lord, Thou art my God’.

From its stern opening through to its triumphant conclusion one detects a new seriousness of purpose, only partly explained by his intention to submit it as an exercise for the degree of D.Mus at the University of Oxford. That this change of emphasis was accompanied b lessening of the influence of Spohr and the growing influence of J.S. Bach cannot be coincidental, and it marked the beginning of a second phase in Wesley’s compositional career in which he began to turn away from the overly-secular style of his Hereford anthems and Creed.

From childhood the music of Bach had been a constant factor in Wesley’s life. Not only had his father, Benjamin Jacob, Vincent Novello, William Crotch and others been leading lights in its discovery in early nineteenth century England, but he had himself given what is reputed to be one of the two earliest solo performances in this country of the ‘St Anne’ fugue when he and Gauntlett played it at the trial for the post of organist at St Stephen, Coleman Street in 1827. We find Bachian influence too in his Selection of Psalm Tunes Adapted expressly to the English Organ with Pedals (published in 1834) and in the substantial organ postlude to the first movement of ‘Trust ye in the Lord’.

With ‘O Lord, thou art my God’, however, we encounter a work both more consistently contrapuntal than anything he had written hitherto and employing diatonic dissonance as both expressive and structural device. The Iatter means to imply that Wesley understood the importance of dissonance and consonance in providing a sense of forward movement. Listening to the very opening where the music gradually unfolds from three octave E flats, propelled forward by dissonant appogiaturas, truly gives one the feeling (as Watkins Shaw memorably put it) ‘of being launched on some great matter’.14

No less impressive is the weighty triple fugue (perhaps modelled on the ‘St Anne’) with which the work concludes. A second large-scale anthem, ‘Let us lift up our heart’ also sets a highly personal selection of verses, but there is one interesting difference between it and ‘O Lord, thou art my God’ in that its lengthy opening movement is entirely through-composed, with no recapitulation of musical material. Its structure is therefore dictated by its text and therein lies both the strength and the weakness of Wesley’s work. When his imagination was firing on all cylinders the effect could be remarkable, but if he had an off day he had no well-developed technique to fall back upon — and looking at his output as a whole, lack of thematic development is one its main weaknesses.

That said, the broad opening of ‘Let us lift our heart’ proceeds with the same inevitability as ‘O Lord, thou art our God’ with contrasts of tonality and scoring being used to underpin the music’s structure. No less effective are the central baritone aria ‘Thou, O Lord God’, perhaps the most powerful of all Wesley’s solos, and the final two movements – the chorale-like ‘Thou judge of quick and dead’ and concluding fugue ‘O may we thus ensure’. Both show the harmonic warmth of Wesley’s mature music at its best.

To some ears the sound is somewhat Mendelssohnian but we can, I think, be certain that both composers had proceeded along parallel paths and, in one respect, dissonance, reached different destinations. There is nothing in Mendelssohn’s music like those closely packed dissonances with three adjacent notes sounding together which Wesley made so much his own and whose logic is entirely contrapuntal. Indeed, they are one of the features which came to the fore in the mid 1830s as the influence of Bach deepened and his harmonic idiom became increasingly idiosyncratic. Two works which demonstrate this admirably are the third large-scale anthem written at Exeter, ‘To my request and earnest cry’, and that minor masterpiece ‘Wash me throughly’.

Despite containing some of Wesley’s finest music ‘To my request and earnest cry’ was allowed to remain unpublished, the victim of a failed publishing enterprise in 1840. Yet its extended final movement – a mixture of sonata form and fugue – builds up to a wonderful climax before, as so often with Wesley, closing quietly. In ‘Let us lift up our heart’ and ‘To my request and earnest cry’ we see Wesley experimenting with his own brand of chromatic harmony which he was to develop further in ‘Wash me throughly’.

Although we have no information about when it was written, I have dated it c.1840 on stylistic grounds and it is surely not fanciful to think that it could have been written as an expression of Wesley’s grief after the death of his infant daughter Mary in February of that year. Be that as it may, it remains a remarkable work to have been written by a provincial English organist with few chances to hear new music and provides a tantalising hint of what might have been if things had turned out differently.

Recording only one solitary performance of ‘O Lord, thou art my God’ at Exeter during Wesley’s five and a half years there (on 1 August 1841) and none at all of ‘Let us lift up our heart’, ‘To my request and earnest cry’ or ‘Wash me throughly’ while his setting of the Creed was sung 57 times, one might reasonably suppose that there was more to it than meets the eye. Taken in conjunction with what are surely autobiographical comments in his celebrated pamphlet A Few Words on Cathedral Music and the Musical System of the Church one can certain that this was so:

The work of a few days produces for the artist a sum of money greater than the work of a life (of the lives of many) would to the Church musician. Mr. Landseer, it is said, has in eight days painted the picture of a horse for which he has received a thousand guineas.

Turn we to Cathedrals. Were the musician who should produce a work of the highest merit in eight days, to ask, not a thousand guineas, but a thousand shillings, pence, farthings, the reply would be, invariably, "NO!" Let him study hard in his art, from the age of eight to thirty-five [i.e. Wesley from the Chapel Royal until 1845], sacrificing every interest to this one sole pursuit, let him offer his work as a present to some Cathedrals, and they would not go to the expense of copying out the parts for the Choir!15

After the elevation of the Precentor – with whom he did not get on – to the Deanery in 1838 things had started to go wrong for Wesley at Exeter and by the time he left for Leeds in February 1842 he could not get away fast enough. Neither, one can be certain, could the Dean and Chapter see the back of him. But for all his success in Yorkshire, something seemed to have died in him in Devon and never again would he attempt to work on such a large canvas.

You may ask whether the great Service in E, completed in Leeds, is not an equally memorable achievement and in some ways it is, but the very different demands of setting the canticles rather than a freely-chosen text inevitably give it a different character and a more piecemeal structure. Wesley was fully aware of this, as he explained in his preface:

To these [the music critics], then, he would suggest, how essentially unlike every other species of musical composition such a work must be; designed as it is for performance during the very brief space of time allotted to our daily Cathedral Worship; a period so brief – while the subjects to be treated are so various, of such grand and universal application – as necessarily to divest composition of its ordinary features; rendering almost every species of amplification of a particular subject either difficult or impossible; and this, too, in connection with words which seem, in the musician’s judgment, to demand of him the most exalted efforts of which his art is capable.’16

We are thus presented with the paradox that while Wesley’s harmonic style continued to develop, it was now only in the context of the very insular forms of anthem or service – and even in the former in works on a very different scale from the large-scale anthems written at Exeter. The Service in E, with its frequent mood changes tailored to the quickly changing sentiments of the words, illustrates this change of emphasis perfectly, for despite its breadth it leaves one with the impression of a succession of shorter sections rather than a single large movement. In this we can perhaps sense the final death of Wesley the universal composer and recognise the rebirth of Wesley the church music composer.

Or, to put it another way, while one could imagine music from the great Exeter anthems being transferred to another medium, it is much harder to envisage this happening with the Service in E. Could Wesley have still managed to create a broad structure had he been unencumbered by such a text? I am beginning to doubt it and, much as I admire the works of the 1840s and early 1850s, I have come increasingly to believe that his best work had been accomplished before he left Devon.

From that point increasing discouragement and the burden of bringing up a family began to weigh more heavily upon him, and the drive to succeed which had characterised his dealings with the Philharmonic Society had begun to evaporate. But having said that, we must look in more detail at the Service in E whose completion was due to one of the few strokes of luck he encountered in his often turbulent career:

... a gentleman, Mr Martin Cawood, of Leeds, on hearing the Creed performed, proposed to the Author the completion of the entire Service, undertaking to remunerate him for his work, and incur the sole risk and responsibility of its publication: the following is the result of this kind offer’.17

As in his anthems Wesley gave the organ a prominent role and made considerable use of unison and octave textures (much as T.A. Walmisley was to do in his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in D minor a decade later), while his other break with tradition was to abandon the multi-section format with its constant stream of double bars and changes of time signatures. The full extent of this can be seen in a comparison between the Te Deum of Wesley’s service and an early nineteenth setting, that in F by John Clarke-Whitfeld. The latter is divided into no fewer than ten sections, Wesley’s is in only four. Within these, however, he used variations of texture and deftly managed tonal transitions to create the impression of a kaleidoscopic pattern of shifting colours.

No less effective and much better known today are the evening canticles, and what can be more glorious than the final bars of the Magnificat where voice is piled upon voice at the words ‘Abraham and his seed for ever’! It is a sound one wishes would continue for much longer than the few seconds it lasts and, to my ears at least, brings to mind such passages as the middle section of Bach’s G major Fantasia for organ.

Although it was not finally issued until 1845 Wesley had probably completed the service by the end of 1843, with publication planned for early the following year. A few copies were certainly printed and distributed, with one reaching the critic C.L. Gruneissen who wrote a damning review for The Morning Post. As this makes clear, Wesley had made some unwise references in his lengthy preface to the problems he had encountered at Hereford and Exeter Cathedrals, which laid him open to the charge of being ‘a grumbler and a Radical Reformer, a rater of the clergy, and particularly of the dignitaries of the Church’.18 Even the generosity of ‘guileless Martin’, the ‘simple-minded Yorkshire amateur’ was turned into a matter of mirth.

Neither was the music itself any more to Gruneissen’s liking and he complained that the work had ‘no imitation — no use or parallelisms of the harmonic ratios, none of the secret mingling of the ancient rhythm – no change of the old church gamuts, no unity of feature but the composer makes way by a series of cadences, some strained, and others wanting in symmetry’ while the music rushed into ‘strange keys and disconnected harmonies, which sound very disagreeably’.19 Encouragement had come from Edward Holmes who welcomed it for ‘giving a carte blanche admission into the English cathedral-service of the modulations and transitions of the modern school’ and drew attention to its ‘dependence ... on the prominence and effect of the organ accompaniment’.20

Whether such reviews had any bearing on the matter will never be known but in the mid 1840s Wesley’s concept of what was appropriate in cathedral music underwent a profound change, for how else could a composer who had written some of the finest solo movements of the century declare ‘Solo singing in the Church, I confess, I do [not] think should be much encouraged’?21 From henceforth any aspects which might be construed as contributing to display, particularly arias and obbligato organ parts, were most notable by their absence. The different liturgical climate Wesley had encountered at Leeds where the vicar was the high church (but not Tractarian) Dr Walter Farquhar Hook had doubtless also contributed to his change of heart, but one only has to look at the three works he wrote during the late 1840s to appreciate what a transformation had taken place.

The evening canticles from the Chant Service in F and the anthems ‘Cast me not away’ and ‘The face of the Lord’ are all restrained works with a clear debt to the past – Gregorian chant in the service and the vocal works of the late Renaissance in the anthems. Yet the latter were not in the artistically dead pseudo-antique style of the Gresham prize winners of twenty years earlier, but combined contemporary harmony with timeless vocal textures to achieve a wholly satisfying synthesis of ancient and modern.

On its own terms ‘Cast me not away’ is a perfect work, written at a time of great personal difficulty for Wesley when a severe fracture of his leg confined him to bed for six months in Helmsley. As his pupil William Spark noted, the words ‘that the bones which thou hast broken’ must have had particular significance. Yet the contrast between ‘Cast me not away’ and ‘Blessed be the God and Father’ could not be more extreme and one is left with the realisation that within some fifteen years Wesley had gone from being the enf ant terrible of the avant garde to a much more traditional – but albeit highly original –composer.

Within a little over a year of completing ‘Cast me not away’ Wesley had left Leeds for Winchester, glad to escape from a situation where he had once again found himself at loggerheads with his clerical superior. ‘Disappointed as I was with Dr Hook & his powers to either aid his Church Music or me – I soon bitterly repented of leaving Exeter & when this place [Winchester] was vacant I offered for it & was elected’22 he later wrote, and although Winchester would ultimately prove to be no better, he initially enjoyed an amicable relationship with his clerical colleagues. His thoughts also returned to a long-delayed plan to publish a collection of his anthems.

As long ago as 1836 an advertisement for a volume of six Anthems had appeared in the press and publication apparently proceeded without incident until a fire at the engraver’s in 1840 destroyed the plates. Suffice it to say, having put up and lost the money for the project himself Wesley was now forced to withdraw. Not until his convalescence at Helmsley did he return to the subject and by the time the collection final appeared in 1853 it had grown to twice its original size. The final three works included were almost certainly written at Winchester and with these – ‘0 Lord, my God’, ‘Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace’ and Ascribe unto the Lord’ – we come full circle. Not only had Wesley turned his back on the harmonic experiments of the Leeds anthems but, in ‘Ascribe unto the Lord’, he had returned to the extended full-with-verse anthem he had last used in the 1830s.

But there was a difference and for all its length ‘Ascribe’ cannot quite compete with the earlier works. It was as though his vision had been circumscribed and this was perhaps sensed by the critic of The Times when he commented that he felt somewhat cheated by the lack of development in the final movement, ‘The Lord hath been mindful of us’.23 Although Wesley wrote a similar anthem for the opening of the new Willis organ at Winchester in 1854 ‘By the word of the Lord’, this is an uneven work which bizarrely introduces Samuel Wesley’s well-known Gavotte for organ and he allowed it to remain unpublished.

Thereafter he wrote almost nothing for some seven years and it seems as though the sense of discouragement under which he had increasingly laboured had finally got the better of him. The early 1850s had certainly not been a particularly happy period. When an orchestral version of The Wilderness was introduced at the Birmingham Festival in 1852 it was roundly slated, one critic dismissing it as a ‘weak, tiresome and pedantic exercise’ which was ‘not likely to again heard of’.24 

Three years later his design for the new organ in St George’s Hall, Liverpool was also the victim of barbed press attacks and thereafter we find him professing to take little interest in music. It is to be suspected that, like his father and his eldest son, he too was a victim of depression. Not until the early 1860s and the invitation to open the new organ in Holy Trinity Church, Winchester, in September 1861 did he seem able to shake it off, producing a new anthem for the occasion, ‘Praise the Lord, O my soul’ (which concludes with the well-known setting of ‘Lead me, Lord’). The best music, however, is found in the second movement where he skilfully weaves the voices in and out of a constantly changing texture of sound.

Similar contrasts of texture and scoring are found in the two other anthems written in the early 1860s, ‘All go to one place’ (in response to the death of the Prince Consort) and ‘Give the king thy judgements’, to commemorate the marriage of the Prince of Wales in 1863. Yet despite effective moments, both are uneven works and one is left with the sad realisation that Wesley’s best years were now well behind him. All too frequently he appears to have turned to old sketches which he was then unable to develop as he would once have done. Particularly interesting in this respect in ‘Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way’, published in 1875 but incorporating features which suggest a date in the 1830s.

Not only does it open with a substantial organ introduction (compare ‘O Lord, thou art my God’), it also includes a tenor solo, yet in comparison with works written thirty years earlier it exudes a feeling of ‘might have been’. Rather better is one of the two settings of ‘Let us n praise famous men’ (Edition B), written in 1873 for Commemoration Day at Clifton College. Despite his earlier strictures against solo singing this, too, contains a tenor aria and a spirited concluding fugue. If any of Wesley’s late anthems deserve revival, this and his short four-part setting of ‘Lord of all power and might’ do. Neither is pretentious and the latter in particular bears out his comment to Walter Parratt that ‘I, more and more, as I get older, dislike pretentious display, and would cling to the serious old Ch. School’.25 For all this, however one is left with the unmistakable impression of a composer who ultimately failed to real his full potential.

Wesley himself considered that his best work was the 1853 collection of Anthems and it does indeed stand as a monument to the century’s most original composer of church music. For if there is one thing which stands out about the volume it is the originality of Wesley’s work. But it is an originality tempered with conservatism as he represented the summit of old traditions of composition, of musical technique and of organ design. Despite the modernity of his early works, his subsequent physical isolation and innate conservatism ensured that he ploughed his own lonely furrow largely oblivious of developments elsewhere. As suggested above, this was both a strength and a weakness in that it encouraged him to develop independently, but ultimately stifled him.

Had he received recognition for his music earlier things might well have worked out differently, but the long saga of discouragement from the failure of The Wilderness through the mauling his two volumes of Three Pieces for a Chamber Organ received at J.W Davison’s hands in the 1840s, Gruneissen’s attacks on the Service in E, the harsh press criticism of The Wilderness at Birmingham in 1852 to the almost universal lack of interest in the long-delayed Anthems ultimately wore him down. In the 1860s, however, justice was finally done, but by now it was too late and perhaps in an attempt to make amends we find a far from outstanding work like ‘God be merciful unto us’ praised for being of the ‘highest order’. Of particular interest, however, is the fact that the reviewer considered that while there were ‘longer and more pretentious works by the same composer . . . there can be none that more completely fulfil their aim, and thus are more entirely successful’.26 The moral seems to be clear — to be assured of success never veer too far from the accepted norms.

With hindsight we can recognise more clearly the real value of Wesley’s contribution to the history of English Cathedral Music. He was, in all senses of the word, an individualist who belonged to no school and left no real successors for, like Bach, he represented the final flowering of an old tradition. Even those few pupils like George Garrett who initially imitated some of his more obvious mannerisms soon realised that the world — and musical styles — had moved on. Let the final words be his own, addressed only a few months before his death to G.J. Stevenson, author of Memorials of the Wesley Family:

I think the style of my Anthems should have notice. I think they may claim notice for the manner in which the words are expressed and for the new use made of broad massive harmony combined with serious devotional effects. What it called the church style in these later days is merely a series of monotonous Concords suited to the abilities of uneducated country choirs. My church music never descends to this.27

1 Letter dated 30 November 1833 from R.J.S. Stevens to Miss Maria Hackett (Guildhall Library MS 10 189/2, F.346).
2 G.J. Stevenson Memorials of the Wesley Family (London, [1876]), p.545.
3 Testimonial dated 3 February 1844 (Author’s collection).
4 Testimonial dated 20 July 1835 (Exeter Cathedral Library MS D & C Exeter 7061/Wesley Papers/2). Gauntlett had been a pupil of Samuel Wesley and was an early champion of his son’s music. Both composer and critic were strong minded individualists and had fallen out by the early 1840s, although a comment in one of the former’s letters – ‘what an escape I have had about Gauntlett’ – suggests that he always viewed Gauntlett with some suspicion (see British Library (Reference Division) Add. MS 35019, f.13).
5 S.S.Wesley A Few Words on Cathedral Music and the Musical System of the Church (London, 1849), pp.11–12.
6 Letter dated 1 January 1833 (British Library (Reference Division) Add. MS 69435, f.5v).
7 H.J. Gauntlett ‘English Ecclesiastical Composers of the Present Age’, The Musical World ii (1836), 117.
8 H.J. Gauntlett ‘The Gresham Prize’, The Musical World ii (1836), 84.
9 Ibid., 84.
10 S.S. Wesley Preface to A Selection of Psalm Tunes, 2nd ed (London, [1842]), p.2.
11. S.S. Wesley A Morning and Evening Service (London, 1845), p. [i].
12 Ibid., p.vii.
13 Letter dated 1 January 1833 (British Library (Reference Division) Add. MS 69435, f7).
14 Watkins Shaw ‘The Achievement of S.S. Wesley’, The Musical Times cxvii (1976), 303.
15 S.S. Wesley A Few Words on Cathedral Music, p.52.
16 S.S. Wesley A Morning & Evening Cathedral Service, p.[i].
17 Ibid., p.vii.
18 The Morning Post, 26 February 1844.
19 Ibid.
20 The Spectator xvii (1844), 234.
21 Royal College of Music MS 2141f, f.18v. Wesley’s omission of ‘not’ is apparent from his original wording: ‘Solo singing in the Church I confess, I am not desirous to see promoted’.
22 Letter dated 19 September [1858] to Henry Ford (Royal School of Church Music manuscript album of letters, f.40).
23 See The Musical World xliii (1865), 590, quoting The Times of 8 September 1865.
24 The Athenaeum 11 September 1852, 976.
25 Letter dated 22 February 1873 An Illustrated Catalogue of the Music Loan Exhibihition (London, 1909), p.333.
26 The Musical Times xvi (1874), 482.
27 British Library (Reference Division) Add. MS 35019, f.125.
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