Samuel Sebastian Wesley

14 August 1810–19 April 1876



Samuel Sebastian Wesley, oil painting, 1830s, Royal College of Music.

SAMUEL SEBASTIAN WESLEY, Mus. Doc., third son of the [Samuel Wesley], whose genius he inherited, was born August 14, 1810. Educated at the Bluecoat School, in his 14th year he was elected chorister of the Chapel Royal, St. James’s; in 1827 organist at St. James's Church, Hampstead Road; two years later organist of St. Giles’s, Camberwell, of St. John’s, Waterloo Road, and of Hampton-on-Thames, holding these four appointments simultaneously. In 1832 he became organist of Hereford Cathedral, conducting the festival there in 1834, and a year later marrying the sister of Dean Merewether, when he migrated to Exeter, and remained at that cathedral several years, during which period his reputation as the first English church composer and organist of his country became established.

About 1842 he was induced by a good offer from Dr. Hook to accept the organistship of Leeds Parish Church. In 1844 he was a candidate for the Professorship of Music in the University of Edinburgh, then vacant by the resignation of Sir Henry Bishop. Among Wesley’s testimonials on that occasion was the following from Spohr: — ‘His works show, without exception, that he is master of both style and form of the different species of composition, and keeps himself closely to the boundaries which the several kinds demand, not only in sacred art, but also in glees, and in music for the pianoforte. His sacred music is chiefly distinguished by a noble, often even an antique style, and by rich harmonies as well as by surprisingly beautiful modulations.’

Before his candidature at Edinburgh, Wesley took a Doctor’s degree, by special grace, at Oxford, and wrote, as exercise, his fine anthem in eight parts, “O Lord, Thou art my God.” In 1849 he was appointed to Winchester Cathedral, where the school offered facilities for the education of his sons. After fifteen years in Cathedral and School Chapel, Wesley, being consulted by the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester as to the claims of candidates for that organistship then (1865) vacant, intimated that he would himself accept it, an offer which was naturally taken advantage of. This post brought him more prominently forward in the musical world, as conductor ex officio, once in three years, of the Three-Choir Festivals, and the change seemed for a time to reanimate energies and powers which had not received adequate public recognition. While at Gloucester, he received from Mr. Gladstone’s Government a Civil List pension of £100 per annum, in consideration of his services to Church music.

But the best years had been spent of a life which, to a less sensitive nature, might have been happier and more eventful; and long deferred hopes for restorations of founder’s intentions, and for thorough reforms in Cathedral matters generally — reforms which, both with pen and voice, he warmly and constantly advocated — combined with other disappointments and cares, shortened his days, and after some ten years tenure of his Gloucester post, he died there in April 1876, and his last words were “Let me see the sky” — words appropriate for one whose motto as a composer seemed always “Excelsior.” According to his own wish he was buried at Exeter, by the side of an only daughter, who died in 1840, and some eminent musicians were present at the funeral. A tablet to his memory has been placed on the north wall of the nave of the Cathedral, on which these words are inscribed — “This monument has been placed here by friends as an expression of high esteem for his personal worth, and in admiration of his great musical genius.”

But a more lasting monument, of his own creation, exists in his works. For as composer for the Church of England, Dr. Wesley may fairly be placed in the highest rank of his contemporaries, i.e. 1830-1860. In his elaborate Service in E major, published with an interesting preface whilst he was at Leeds, advantage is taken of modern resources of harmony and modulation, without departure, now so often the case, from the lines of that true church school to which the composer had been so long habituated. And this judicious combination of ancient and modern is characteristic of his church music, in which he gives practical illustration of the reform which he was always urging. His fame will chiefly rest on his volume of twelve anthems, published about the year 1854. Two of these, composed at Hereford, “Blessed be the God and Father,” and “The Wilderness,” are now universally recognised as standard works of excellence. Later in life Wesley soared even higher — for instance, in his noble “O Lord, Thou art my God,” above mentioned, in his “Ascribe unto the Lord,” composed in the Winchester period, and also in the exquisite little anthem, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace,” wherein knowledge and dignity of true church style is so conspicuous, and which is one of the brightest gems in the collection of choral jewels.

As an organist, Wesley was for a considerable period acknowledged the first in this country. His touch was eminently legato, his style always noble and elevated. At Winchester he was heard to great advantage on Willis’s fine organ. His extempore playing after the Psalms, before the Anthem, or after the Service, is a thing to be remembered, and various players after hearing him changed their style for the better, some of them catching a ray of the afflatus divinus which, as organist, may be fairly ascribed to him. His views, formed from early habit, on two important points in the construction of organs were curiously divergent from opinions widely held, for he was an advocate both of unequal temperament and of a ‘G,’ or ‘F’ compass — two bêtes noires to most organists and organ-builders. But in supporting such exceptional views, he could give not unpractical reasons for the belief that was in him.

Those well-acquainted with Wesley could not fail, notwithstanding a manner at times reserved, retiring, or even eccentric, to appreciate his kindness and sympathy. To those he liked and trusted he could be an agreeable and interesting companion and friend, and these will not forget their pleasant intercourse with him, even on occasions when music formed little or no part of conversation. That he felt deeply and aimed high is proved in the devotional and masterly works with which, at a period when our ecclesiastical music was at a low ebb, he enriched the choral repertory of the Church of England.

Herbert S. Oakeley
A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1889)
ed. George Grove


Featured Tunes:

AURELIA

Collections of Hymn Tunes:

A Selection of Psalms and Hymns (1864): Archive.org

European Psalmist (1872): Archive.org

see also:

Charles Hackett, National Psalmist (1839)

Vincent Novello, The Psalmist (1835–1843)

John Pike Hullah, The Psalter (1843)

John Grey, Hymnal for Use in the English Church (1867)

Hymns Ancient & Modern, with Appendix (1868)

Joseph Barnby, Hymnary (1872)

Arthur Sullivan, Church Hymns with Tunes (1874)

The Welburn Appendix (1875)

Note: For a partial accounting of Wesley’s tunes and where they were published, see James Love (1891) and Erik Routley (1981).

Other Notable Works:

A Selection of Psalm Tunes: Adapted Expressly to the English Organ with Pedals (1842): WorldCat

A Morning and Evening Cathedral Service (1845): WorldCat

A Few Words on Cathedral Music and the Musical System of the Church (1849): WorldCat

Reply to the Inquiries of the Cathedral Commissioners, Relative to Improvement in the Music of Divine Worship in Cathedrals (ca. 1854): WorldCat

Manuscripts:

For manuscript holdings, see lists in Grove Music Online and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Related Resources:

William Spark, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” The Musical Times, vol. 17, no. 400 (1 June 1876), pp. 490-492: JSTOR

George J. Stevenson, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” Memorials of the Wesley Family (London, S. W. Partridge and Co., 1876), pp. 544-550: Archive.org

Herbert S. Oakeley, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. George Grove, vol. 4 (London: MacMillan, 1889), pp. 447-448: HathiTrust

James Love, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” Scottish Church Music: Its Composers and Sources (1891), pp. 298-299: Archive.org

J. Kendrick Pyne, “Wesleyana,” The Musical Times, vol. 40, no. 676 (1 June 1899), pp. 376-381: JSTOR

F.G. Edwards, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” The Musical Times, vol. 41, no. 687 (May 1900), pp. 297-302; no. 688 (June 1900), pp. 369-374; no. 689 (July, 1900), pp. 452-456: JSTOR

J.S. Bumpus, “The Church Compositions of Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” Musical News, vol. 39 (1910), pp. 138-41, 159-60, 179-81, 199-200, 224-226, 240-241: HathiTrust

J. Kendrick Pyne, “Dr. Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” English Church Music, vol. 5 (1935), pp. 4-8.

A.J. Hiebert, The Anthems and Services of Samuel Sebastian Wesley, dissertation (Nashville, TN: George Peabody College for Teachers, 1965): WorldCat

Erik Routley, The Musical Wesleys (London: Jenkins, 1968): WorldCat

Paul Chappell, Dr. S.S. Wesley, 1810–1876: Portrait of a Victorian Musician (Great Wakering: Mayhew-McCrimmon, 1977): WorldCat

Erik Routley, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” The Music of Christian Hymns (Chicago: GIA, 1981), pp. 105-107.

Peter Horton, Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life (Oxford: University Press, 2004): WorldCat

Paul Westermeyer, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” Let the People Sing: Hymn Tunes in Perspective (Chicago: GIA, 2005), pp. 229-231.

Nicholas Temperley & Stephen Banfield, eds. Music and the Wesleys (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2010).

Peter Horton, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/29073

Nicholas Temperley & Peter Horton, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” Grove Music Online:
https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.44468

Peter Horton, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/samuel-sebastian-wesley

Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/person/Wesley_SamuelSebastian?tab=tunes