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Carte-de-visite photograph by H.N. King, Bath, c.1865

Dr. Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-1876)

August 2010

WESLEY , Dr. Samuel Sebastian (b.London, 14 August 1810; d.Gloucester, 14 April 1876), the 200th anniversary of whose birth falls this month, was the leading organist and church composer of his generation.

Wesley was the son of the organist and composer Samuel Wesley and grandson of the hymn-writer Charles Wesley. After serving as a chorister of the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, he embarked on a varied career as organist, pianist, composer and teacher, composing principally for the concert hall or home: it was not until after his unexpected move to Hereford as cathedral organist in 1832 that he began to concentrate on church music. The completion of his first important anthem, ‘The Wilderness’ (1832), however, marked the start of a series of works that, with their use of an up-to-date harmonic idiom – which Wesley simply transferred from his early secular works – revolutionised Anglican cathedral music. Other notable compositions include the anthems ‘Blessed be the God and Father’ (1834), ‘Cast me not away from thy presence’ (1847) and ‘Ascribe unto the Lord’ (1852), and his A Morning & Evening Cathedral Service (published 1845). He revised the end of ‘Cast me not away’ before the issue of a new edition in 1870.

In addition to his compositions, Wesley is remembered for his lifelong campaign to raise the standard of cathedral music. In A Few Words on Cathedral Music and the Musical System of the Church (1849) he called for better remuneration for cathedral musicians and for the encouragement of church music composers, both of which gradually took place.

Even as a youth Wesley’s organ playing was considered to be remarkable, and he was generally considered to be the leading organist of his generation, renowned for fine performances at the 1843 and 1849 Birmingham triennial festivals.

Peter Horton