Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wesley, Samuel (1766-1837)

WESLEY, SAMUEL (1766–1837), musician, son of Charles Wesley (1707–1788) [q. v.], the hymn-writer, was born at Bristol on 24 Feb. 1766. He showed remarkable musical gifts from his earliest childhood, and, although not so pronounced a prodigy as his brother Charles Wesley (1757–1834) [q. v.], he far outshone him in musicianship in after years. His father records: ‘He was between four and five years old when he got hold of the oratorio of “Samson,” and by that alone he taught himself to read. … The airs of [his oratorio] “Ruth” [Addit. MS. 34997] he made before he was six years old, laid them up in his memory till he was eight, and then wrote them down.’ He attracted the attention of Dr. William Boyce [q. v.], who said to the boy's father: ‘Sir, I hear you have an English Mozart in your house.’ Daines Barrington (Miscellanies, 1781, pp. 291–3) gives a full account of the remarkable precocity of Samuel and his brother Charles.

Wesley was a harpsichord pupil of David Williams, organist of St. James's, Bath, in which church, at the age of seven, he (Wesley) played a psalm-tune. He also studied the violin under Bean, Kingsbury, and Wilhelm Cramer [q. v.]; he was, however, mostly self-taught, and throughout his life he does not seem to have received any instruction in the theory of music. He showed a special predilection for the organ.

About 1771 his father removed to London, and occupied a house in Chesterfield Street, Marylebone. Here, in the spacious music-room which apparently contained two organs, the brothers Wesley as boys gave subscription concerts during a series of years (beginning in 1779), which were well attended by many members of the nobility. A transcript of the subscribers' names, programmes of the concerts, list of refreshment expenses, payments to performers, &c. is contained in Additional MS. 35017.

About 1784 Wesley became a Roman catholic, to the grief and consternation of his father as well as of his uncle, John Wesley. He composed a mass (Addit. MS. 35000) dated at the end ‘May 22, 1784,’ which he dedicated and sent to Pius VI. The pope acknowledged the receipt of the manuscript in a Latin letter addressed (presumably) to the Rev. Dr. Talbot, then the chief representative of the vatican in this country (Notes and Queries, 6th ser., iv. 147, 196, 251). A series of six letters from Wesley to Miss Freeman Shepherd (the originals of which are in the National Archives, Paris) throws further light upon the Roman catholic period of his life (transcripts in Addit. MS. 35013; see also Thomas Jackson's Life of Rev. Charles Wesley, 1841, ii. 357 et seq., and Life of Adam Clarke, 1833, ii. 231, for references to Miss Freeman Shepherd). In later life Wesley repudiated the Roman catholicism of his early days, and he is stated to have returned to the ‘faith of his father.’ He said: ‘The crackers of the vatican are no longer taken for the thunderbolts of heaven: for excommunication I care not three straws.’

In 1787, at the age of twenty-one, Wesley met with an accident when passing along Snow Hill one evening. He fell into a deep excavation, with consequences that affected his brain for the remainder of his life. To this cause are to be attributed the erratic and eccentric habits for which he became remarkable. He refused to undergo the process of trepanning, and for seven years suffered from despondency and nervous irritability; even his favourite pursuit of music had to be abandoned.

The great event of Wesley's life was his vigorous propaganda of the works of John Sebastian Bach in this country, with which his name will ever be associated. It was about 1800 that Wesley began his enthusiastic crusade in favour of the great Leipzig cantor. During 1808 and 1809 he addressed a series of characteristic letters on the subject to Benjamin Jacob [q. v.], then organist of Surrey Chapel. These letters, edited by his daughter, Eliza Wesley, were published in 1875. The originals, bound up with programmes of organ performances at Surrey Chapel, are preserved in the library of the Royal College of Music. Wesley also played Bach's violin sonatas at some of Jacob's organ performances at Surrey Chapel, and threw himself into the cause of ‘The Man,’ as he styled Bach, with extraordinary enthusiasm. In 1810–12 he issued, in conjunction with Karl Friedrich Horn [see under Horn, Charles Edward], the first English edition of Bach's ‘Das wohltemperirte Clavier’ (see a series of articles on ‘Bach's Music in England’ by F. G. Edwards, Musical Times, September–December 1896).

In regard to the practical part of his professional life Wesley frequently lectured on music at the Royal Institution and elsewhere. The earliest known date of these lectures is 1811 (Addit. MSS. 35014–5). He was also a teacher of music, and gave frequent concerts, at one of which (Hanover Square Rooms, 19 May 1810) his fine motet ‘In Exitu Israel’ was performed for the first time. In 1811 he conducted the Birmingham musical festival, and was in great request for organ performances in different parts of the country. He became an associate of the Philharmonic Society in 1813, and was a member from 1815 to 1817. In 1816 Wesley suffered a relapse of his old malady, and was compelled to abandon the exercise of his profession until 1823, when he resumed his ordinary pursuits until 1830.

In 1824 he was appointed organist of Camden Chapel (now St. Stephen's parish church), Camden Town; but he was an unsuccessful candidate for the posts of organist of the Foundling in 1798 and of St. George's, Hanover Square, in 1824. At the Foundling John Immyns, an amateur, was elected through the interest of Joah Bates [q. v.], which caused Wesley to compose his humorous song (published anonymously) ‘The Organ laid open, or the true stop discovered.’ One of his latest public appearances was at a concert of the Sacred Harmonic Society, Exeter Hall, 7 Aug. 1834, when he accompanied the anthem, ‘All go unto one place,’ which he had composed upon the death of his brother Charles. The last time he ever left his house was on 12 Sept. 1837, when to his great delight he heard Mendelssohn (then aged 28) perform upon the organ in Christ Church, Newgate Street, and when he (Wesley) was also prevailed upon to perform. He died a month afterwards, 11 Oct. 1837, at Islington, and is buried in the churchyard of Old St. Marylebone church, in the same grave in which the remains of his father, mother, and other near relatives had been deposited.

On 5 April 1793 he married Charlotte Louisa, daughter of Captain Martin of Kensington, who survived him: she died 5 Feb. 1845, and is buried in Highgate cemetery. Of their three children Charles Wesley, D.D., was subdean of the Chapel Royal. Samuel Wesley subsequently (about 1809) formed a liaison with one Sarah Suter, by whom he had several children, of whom Samuel Sebastian Wesley [q. v.] was the eldest son, and a daughter Eliza Wesley, organist of St. Margaret Pattens, died unmarried in 1895.

Wesley was not only a very distinguished musician. Before he was twenty-one he had become a good classical scholar, and he successfully cultivated a taste for literature. He had remarkable conversational powers; he was a man of keen and brilliant wit, and an entertaining letter-writer. His character has been somewhat caustically summarised by Mrs. Vincent Novello, the wife of one of his most intimate friends, in the following words: ‘I knew him [Wesley] unfortunately too well. Pious catholic, raving atheist; mad, reasonable; drunk and sober. The dread of all wives and regular families. A warm friend, a bitter foe; a satirical talker; a flatterer at times of those he cynically traduced at others; a blasphemer at times, a purling methodist at others’ (Addit. MS. 31764, f. 33).

Wesley was the greatest organist of his day, and unrivalled as an extemporaneous performer on the instrument. De Quincey designated him ‘the great foudroyant performer on the organ.’ He was also a prolific composer, though much of his music is now out of date. His fine Latin motets, ‘Dixit Dominus,’ ‘Exultate Deo,’ and especially ‘In Exitu Israel,’ possess a strong vitality, and these works alone are sufficient to place him on the roll of illustrious English composers.

A full-length oil painting of Wesley at the age of eleven, by John Russell, R.A., is in the possession of his son, Mr. Erasmus Wesley. Another portrait in oils, painted by John Jackson, R.A., in 1826, is in the possession of the artist's nephew, the Rev. John Jackson, of Higher Broughton.

His published works, besides anthems, glees, songs, and organ and pianoforte music, include:

  1. Missa solemnis (Gregorian), for voices only.
  2. Six Latin motets.
  3. Morning and Evening Service in F, for the Church of England.

The large quantity of music in manuscript includes several motets, masses, four complete symphonies, three overtures, eleven organ concertos, and music for strings.

A large collection of Wesley's music, letters, and various other matter relating to him is preserved in the British Museum in Addit. MSS. 11729 (letters to Vincent Novello); 14339–344 (compositions); 17731 (pedigree list of compositions, &c.); 27593 (his reminiscences and autobiography); 31217, 31222 (antiphons); 31239 (chants, &c.); 31763 (tunes); 31764 (letters, portrait, &c.); 34007 (psalm and five letters); 34089 (organ voluntaries); 34996–35027 (many volumes of letters, compositions, documents, &c., bequeathed by Miss Eliza Wesley). Egerton MSS. 2159 (letters); 2512 (psalm-tunes); 2571 (motets and madrigals).

[In addition to authorities already cited, G. J. Stevenson's Wesley Family, 1879; Musical World, 20 Oct., 3 and 24 Nov. 1837; Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, iv. 445; Wesley Banner, September, October, and November, 1851; Proceedings of Musical Association, session xx. 1893–4, p. 125 (paper on Samuel Wesley by James Higgs); An Account of the remarkable Musical Talents of several Members of the Wesley Family … by W. Winters, 1874; Musical Standard, 6 Dec. 1890, p. 473; Methodist Recorder, 28 Oct. (p. 840) and 11 Nov. 1897, also 16 Feb. 1899; private information. Lists of Wesley's compositions will be found in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, iv. 446b; Musical World, 3 Nov. 1837; Letters referring to the Works of J. S. Bach, by Samuel Wesley, edited by his daughter Eliza Wesley (1875), pp. 53 et seq.; Addit. MS. 17731.]

F. G. E.