Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wesley, Samuel Sebastian
WESLEY, SAMUEL SEBASTIAN (1810–1876), composer and organist, natural son of Samuel Wesley (1766–1837) [q. v.], the musician, by Sarah Suter, was born in London on 14 Aug. 1810. He was named Sebastian after John Sebastian Bach, his father's idol. At the age of nine he became one of the children of the Chapel Royal, St. James's. In that capacity he was one of two or three specially selected boys who went to Brighton every week during the sojourn there of George IV to sing at the Sunday services in the private chapel of the royal pavilion. ‘The soprano of Master Wesley [in the anthem ‘O Lord, our Governor’] was remarkably clear; his shake was open, his every intonation distinct and correct. The king's band, with Mr. Attwood at the organ, were on duty’ (Morning Post, 30 Dec. 1823). The king presented the boy with a gold watch. Wesley was appointed organist of St. James's Chapel, Hampstead Road, in March 1826 at the age of fifteen (Addit. MS. 35019, f. xx). On 12 Jan. 1829 he became organist of St. Giles's Church, Camberwell. In the same year, probably on the death of Benjamin Jacob [q. v.], he was appointed to St. John's Church, Waterloo Road, Lambeth; and in 1830, attracted by the opportunities for fishing which the place afforded, he became evening organist of Hampton parish church. The duties at St. John's were discharged deputywise by his father; but as there was complaint made about S. S. Wesley's holding three posts at the same time, he resigned that of St. John's.
On 10 July 1832 Wesley was appointed organist of Hereford Cathedral in succession to John Clarke-Whitfeld [see Whitfeld]. He began duty on 6 Nov., when he reopened the organ after its renovation by Bishop; his masterly anthem, ‘The Wilderness,’ was in all probability first performed on that occasion (a foot-note on the current folio edition of the work states that it was ‘composed for the reopening of a cathedral organ, 1831,’ but this is doubtless a lapsus calami for ‘1832’). In the following month (15 Dec. 1832, Addit. MS. 35019, f. xv) he sent in his ‘Wilderness’ in competition for the Gresham prize (London)—a gold medal value five guineas, given annually by Miss Hackett for the best composition in church music—but without success. ‘It is a clever thing,’ wrote Richard John Samuel Stevens [q. v.], one of the adjudicators, ‘but not cathedral music.’ ‘The Wilderness’ was performed with orchestral accompaniment at the Birmingham Musical Festival of 1852 under the composer's conductorship. Another of Wesley's famous anthems, ‘Blessed be the God and Father,’ was composed while he was at Hereford. The state of the choir at that time may be estimated by the following note printed on the folio edition: ‘This anthem was written for an occasion (Easter day) when only trebles and a single bass voice were available.’ By virtue of his office Wesley conducted the festival of the three choirs, held at Hereford 9–11 Sept. 1834, when a manuscript overture of his, ‘which evinced great talent,’ was performed. In 1835 he resigned Hereford and became organist and sub-chanter of Exeter Cathedral. This post he held for six years, during which period his fame as a composer of church music and as an organist became established. On 21 June 1839 he accumulated, by special dispensation of the congregation, the degrees of bachelor and doctor in music at the university of Oxford. His ‘exercise’—the fine eight-part anthem, ‘O Lord, Thou art my God’—was performed in Magdalen College chapel (20 June), on which occasion the composer presided at the organ. He sought the degree of ‘doctor’ solely because he thought it would be useful to him in any candidature for a university professorship of music. Three opportunities of this nature presented themselves to Wesley, in all of which, however, he was either unsuccessful or he withdrew his candidature—at Edinburgh in 1841 and 1844, and Oxford in 1848, on the death of William Crotch [q. v.]
Early in 1842, attracted by a liberal offer made to him by Walter Farquhar Hook, afterwards dean of Chichester, but then vicar of Leeds, Wesley became organist of Leeds parish church. During this period (1842–9) he gave a course of illustrated lectures on church music at the Liverpool Collegiate Institution, March to May 1844, and again in 1846. At Leeds he wrote his fine service in E, the copyright of which he sold on 5 Feb. 1845 to Martin Cawood, an ironmaster, for fifty guineas. The musical heterodoxy of this service was assailed by the critics, who at all times roused Wesley's susceptibilities and became his deadly enemies. He opened Walker's new organ at Tavistock parish church on 25 June 1846, and it was stated that he had accepted the appointment of organist; but in any case it must have been only of a temporary nature, as he did not quit Leeds until 1849 (cf. Plymouth Weekly Journal, 2 April, 25 June, 2 July 1846; Plymouth Herald, 11 April 1846; and Times (London), report of action Burton v. Wesley, 16 July 1852). In order to secure special educational advantages for his sons, Wesley accepted the organistship of Winchester Cathedral in the latter part of 1849, and remained there for the next fourteen years. Previous to his departure from Leeds the gentlemen of the choir presented him with his portrait painted in oils by W. K. Briggs, which is now in possession of his eldest son, F. G. Wesley, vicar of Hamsteels, Durham. On 10 Aug. 1850 he was appointed a professor of the organ at the Royal Academy of Music.
In 1865 Wesley was consulted by the dean and chapter of Gloucester in regard to filling up the appointment of organist at that cathedral, with the result that he offered himself for the post. His offer was accepted, and he retained this appointment until his death. After an interval of thirty-one years he again, in his official capacity as organist, conducted the festival of the three choirs in 1865, and subsequently in 1868, 1871, and 1874, all at Gloucester. On the recommendation of Mr. Gladstone a civil list pension of 100l. per annum was conferred upon him on 14 Jan. 1873, ‘in recognition of his musical talents.’ He accompanied a service for the last time in the cathedral on Christmas day, 1875. At its conclusion he played Handel's ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. He died at his residence, Palace Yard, Gloucester, on 19 April 1876, his last words, addressed to his sister, Miss Eliza Wesley, being, ‘Let me see the sky.’ He was buried at his own request in the old cemetery, Exeter, beside his only daughter. On 4 May 1835 at Ewyas Harold church, near Hereford, he was married to Mary Anne, sister of John Merewether [q. v.], dean of Hereford. By her he had four sons and one daughter. Wesley's civil list pension was continued to his widow until her death in London on 28 Feb. 1888.
Wesley had a very remarkable personality, and many extraordinary tales are related of his eccentricity. All his life long he waged war with cathedral dignitaries and music publishers. The cathedral precentor was perhaps his pet aversion. His views on the subject of cathedral music and deans and chapters may be found in his pamphlets, ‘A Few Words on Cathedral Music and the Musical System of the Church, with a Plan of Reform’ (London, 1849); ‘Reply to the Inquiries of the Cathedral Commissioners relative to Improvement in the Music of Divine Worship in Cathedrals’ (London, 1854); the caustic preface to his service in E (original edition), 1845; and the ‘Lute’ (May 1885, p. 97).
He showed his antipathy to music publishers by publishing most of his compositions on his own account. In 1868, however, he sold the copyrights of his anthems, organ and pianoforte pieces, &c., to the firm of Novello & Co. for the sum of 750l.
As a composer of English church music, Wesley stands in the front rank. His daring modulations and unconventionalities staggered the dryasdusts of his time, who, blinded by their own contrapuntal orthodoxy, could not discern the deep poetic feeling, the devotional utterance, united to the highest musicianship, which eminently characterise Wesley's compositions for the church. He was an excellent performer on the organ; his extempore playing was in the highest degree masterly. Although so pronounced an innovator in regard to compositions for the church, Wesley was in other respects very conservative. He advocated the G compass for the organ; and when in 1855 the huge instrument in St. George's Hall, Liverpool (in the construction of which he was the chief musical adviser to the corporation), was built, he wanted both manuals and pedals to begin at G; but a compromise was insisted upon by ‘Father’ Willis, the builder, whereby the manuals began at G and the pedals at C! His views on ‘equal temperament’ were diametrically opposite to those held in the present day. He wrote: ‘The practice of tuning organs by equal temperament is, in my humble opinion, most erroneous’ (Musical Standard, 1 April 1863 p. 242, 15 June 1863 p. 321, 1 July 1863 p. 337).
In addition to those already mentioned, Wesley's compositions include:
- Eleven other anthems and three collects.
- Services in E, F; chant services in F (two), G, &c.
- ‘The European Psalmist: a Collection of Hymn Tunes’ (dedicated to the queen), 1872.
- An Ode, composed for the opening of an exhibition, Agricultural Hall, Islington, 17 Oct. 1864.
- The Hundreth Psalm, arranged for performance at the laying of the foundation-stone of Netley Hospital, 19 May 1856.
- The Psalter, pointed for chanting, 1843.
- Words of anthems, 1869.
- Organ music.
- Pianoforte music, including a set of classical quadrilles.
- Glees and songs.
- Many hymn-tunes and chants.
His familiar hymn-tune ‘Aurelia’ first appeared in ‘A Selection of Psalms and Hymns, arranged for the Services of the Church of England,’ by Rev. C. Kemble of Bath, 1864.
[Grove's Dict. Music and Musicians, iv. 447; Addit. MSS. 11730 ff. 225–8, 34573 ff. 25, 35, 41, 35012–20, 35026, 35038; Musical Times, June 1876, July 1894, June 1899; Brit. Mus. Cat.; authorities cited; private information.]