Samuel Wesley



Samuel Wesley was the younger son of the divine and hymn-writer Charles Wesley (1707–1788), ‘the sweet singer of Methodism’, and a nephew of John Wesley, the evangelist and leader of Methodism (1703–1791). He was born in Bristol on 24 February 1766. Like his brother Charles (1757–1834), whom he later affectionately described as ‘an obstinate Handelian’, he was a musical prodigy: when he was six he started taking harpsichord lessons, and a year later was accompanying psalms at St James’s Church under the watchful eye of its organist, Edmund Broderip. He also studied the violin with Wilhelm Cramer. In 1774 Dr William Boyce visited the Wesleys and said to the father, ‘Sir, I hear you have got an English Mozart in your house. Young [Thomas] Linley tells me wonderful things of him’; and was amazed when Sam presented him with the score of his recently completed oratorio Ruth. In 1778, the year in which a set of harpsichord sonatas appeared in print as Samuel’s Op. 1, the family moved to London, Charles senior having been given the lease of a large new (and furnished) house in Chesterfield Street, Marylebone (it no longer exists, and Chesterfield Street is now Wheatley Street, into which runs Wesley Street, formerly Little Weymouth Street). The music room contained two organs and a harpsichord, and between 1779 and 1785 regular concerts were given in it by a small professional orchestra of strings and two horns, devoted to ‘ancient’ music (by Handel, for example) and music ‘of later date’ (which also included improvisations by the young Charles at the keyboard and Samuel on the violin).

Despite his Methodist background, Samuel was strongly attracted to the music of the Roman Catholic Church and made many settings of Latin sacred texts; he once declared: ‘If the Roman Doctrines were like the Roman Music we should have Heaven on Earth’. Nevertheless, he became a Freemason in 1788 and in 1793 was married according to the rites of the Church of England. The marriage broke down after a few years (a bad fall in 1787, which affected his brain for the rest of his life, may have been a contributory factor) although it produced three children. He later lived with his former housekeeper, who bore him four more including the composer and organist Samuel Sebastian (1810 –1876), the most successful musical member of this remarkable family. Although he held no important salaried position Samuel was acknowledged as the finest English organist of his day. In 1837 he heard the young Felix Mendelssohn playing the organ in Christ Church, Newgate Street and when Mendelssohn pressed him to play, Wesley exclaimed, ‘Oh, Sir, you have not heard me play; you should have heard me forty years ago!’. He was also a central figure in the revival of interest in England of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (‘The Man’ or ‘our Demi-God’, as Wesley described him) and assisted in the publication of a scholarly edition of Das wohltemperierte Clavier in 1810 –12. He died on 11 October 1837 and was buried beside his parents and brother in the graveyard of the little old parish church of St Marylebone in Marylebone High Street; their tombstone now stands in the memorial garden marking the site of the church, which was demolished in 1949 – a stone’s throw from the building which, since 1911, has been the home of the Royal Academy of Music.

Wesley’s instrumental compositions include a large body of music for organ and for piano, chamber music and works for orchestra, including a dozen concertos (for violin, harpsichord, and organ), several overtures and six symphonies, the first five of which were composed for the Marylebone concerts. A thematic catalogue of the symphonies was compiled in 1983 by Richard Divall, in conjunction with The Symphony, 1720–1840 (Editor-in-Chief Barry S. Brook, Garland Publishing Inc., New York and London, 1986), which lists them in chronological order of composition, including one in A major (c. 1781) of which only the two violin parts have survived.

Symphony in D major ‘Sinfonia obligato’ (1781)

1. Allegro maestoso
2. Andante con moto
3. Allegro molto

The earliest symphony, in D major, is dated 27 February 1781 and is described, ungrammatically, as ‘Sinfonia obligato’, for violin, cello and organ, with an orchestra of strings and two horns, with ad libitum timpani. The score and parts (presented, together with those of the other symphonies, to the British Museum Library [now the British Library] by the composer’s daughter Eliza in 1895) are incomplete in many details. The unusual, if not unique, solo (obbligato) group is used only in the outer movements (a brilliant Allegro maestoso and a dramatic Allegro molto) but the technical demands on the three players (especially the violinist and the cellist) are considerable. In between comes a meditative Andante con moto in A major for strings only, with pervasive triplet figuration.

Symphony in A major (‘1784 or after’)

1. Andante
2. Andantino
3. Brillante

Symphony in D major (1784)

1. Allegro spiritoso
2. Andantino
3. Allegro molto

Symphony in E flat major (1784)

1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Allegretto – Presto – Tempo di primo

The next three symphonies, chronologically, are all modestly scored for strings (here with discreet harpsichord continuo) and two horns. The earliest, in A major (‘1784 or after’), begins with an extraordinary movement which vacillates between a gentle Andante that could belong to Mozart’s fourth Symphony in A major (if he had written one) and a taut, contrapuntal Allegro (not so marked) that could belong to Bach’s seventh ‘Brandenburg’ Concerto (if he had written one), but which is nevertheless completely original. The second is a shapely Andantino in E major for strings, and the third is marked, probably uniquely, Brillante and has, like the first, two contrasting elements. The first is staid and in A minor, the second vivacious and in A major, which briefly erupts into a concerto-like episode for solo violin.

The other Symphony in D major is dated 2 February 1784. The lively and unusual first movement is notable for its bold unisons and octaves, but these are separated by lyrical episodes of almost chambermusical delicacy. The second is a reflective, ternary-form Andantino in G major for strings, and the third a dashing gigue in compact sonata form, with a melodious second subject.

The Symphony in E flat major is dated 25 April 1784. It begins with a sonata-form Allegro that is exceptional, in Wesley’s symphonies, in its varied thematic material. Three distinct motifs are presented in the first fifty bars: a gentle, curving theme, a rushing tutti, and its syncopated, rhythmic pendant; there is also a graceful second subject. A taut and partly contrapuntal development section is followed by a severely curtailed recapitulation. The Andante in B flat major for strings is in ternary form with a shortened reprise, and the finale is a dancing Allegretto in 3/8 (with very prominent horns) containing a spirited Presto in 2/4 as its central episode.

Symphony in B flat major (1802)

1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Minuetto e Trio
4. Vivace molto

Wesley’s last Symphony, in B flat major, is dated 27 April 1802 and is scored for strings and pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and timpani. Its outer movements share the monothematic tendencies of the later Haydn, many of whose last dozen symphonies Wesley must have heard during Haydn’s sensational visits to London in 1791–2 and 1794–5. The lively, inventive and often contrapuntal first movement is almost entirely derived from the vigorous first subject, although there is a subsidiary theme introduced by the woodwinds, which are given unusual prominence throughout. A bold, dramatic development is followed by a substantially varied recapitulation. The imaginatively scored Andante in E flat major (without timpani) could be described as a sequence of meditations – rather than formal variations – on the eloquent theme introduced by the first violins. Next comes a sturdy Minuet, with a contrasting Trio in G minor, whose short first section is scored for strings only, the woodwinds joining in for the longer second section. The crowning glory of this extraordinary work is a dynamic finale in Wesley’s unorthodox, monothematic brand of sonata form, full of counterpoint and arresting modulations. At the end he wrote (in Greek): ‘Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give glory’.

Robin Golding (2000)