Samuel Wesley, 1766-1837

Samuel Wesley (1766-1837)  250th Anniversary of his Birth

Samuel Wesley, composer, organist & 19th century reviver of Bach's music in England

Samuel Wesley, composer, organist, conductor & 19th century reviver of Bach’s music in England

In our enthusiasm to market our own music projects today, we should  also take a moment surely to remember those who have gone before. Without their commitment and dedication, their trail-blazing,  the musical risks they took and, considering the different musical environment in which they worked, we should not be in the position we are today when promoting our concerts, especially of Bach’s music.

Today, we can readily turn to all the extant works when programme planning – passions, cantatas, masses, chamber music, organ works, chorales. All are in the public domain and most are in carefully prepared editions.  However, over 300 years later there are still some pieces to find to complete the Bach jig-saw puzzle and I am always optimistic that our friends the very able researchers at the Leipzig Bach Archiv www.bach-leipzig.de will find them.

Son of the famous hymn writer Charles Wesley,  organist, conductor and composer Samuel Wesley was born 250 years ago this year on 24 February 1766, a child prodigy who became the leading British ‘light’ in the early 19th century Bach ‘awakening’ in this country.  His life spanned the late Georgian and elegant Regency period and Mozart was a contemporary. There was a rich concert life especially in London with the opening  of the Hanover Square Rooms in 1775 and the Bach-Abel public concerts that provided an alternative (and even a counterpoise) to Opera and the elite. The industrious Wesley not only thrived in this atomsphere, but also used his experiences to promote Joh. Seb. Bach, a composer whose music he held in the highest regard and wanted to establish here.  At the age of 71, after a fairly colourful private life and fulfilling public one, Wesley died in October 1837 just a few months after Queen Victoria succeeded to the Throne. One of his anthems was sung at her Coronation.

Wesley’s Bach revival

A case can be made that the date when Wesley’s contribution to the Bach revival in England began eclipsed even the Germans. Reports** from 1800-1810 for example reveal that he regularly  included items from Bach’s organ works and chamber music in his recitals.  Wesley was also determined to ensure that the music was available in decent editions and, with his collaborator Charles Frederick Horn, he worked to provide an ‘analysed’ edition of the ‘48’ published from 1810-1813, nearly 20 years before a young Felix Mendelssohn revived Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on 11 March 1829 in Berlin.  (They eventually became friends after Wesley and Mendelssohn had met in connection with the Birmingham Festivals of the 1830s).  Samuel Wesley energetically circulated editions of Bach’s music by subscription, withstood the reticence with which Bach’s music was sometimes received and his 250th provides an appropriate excuse to remind everyone of the more than unusually large Bachian toe Wesley dipped into the water in his lifetime.

The first Bach choral work to be performed in Britain

The first performance of any Bach choral work in Britain took place on 3 June 1809 in the Hanover Square Rooms, London’s main concert venue at the time and situated in the heart of Mayfair. It was part of Wesley’s ‘musical morning party’.  On this occasion Wesley directed Bach’s vocally challenging five-part motet  ‘Jesu meine Freude’  BWV 227 in a programme for a “benefit concert” aimed at “playing Bach into fashion”.  He was lent a score of the piece by Horn and translated the text of the motet into Latin because he was of the opinion that “the original ones (words) are German, always harsh, and mostly unintelligible to an English audience”.   Wesley entitled the motet ‘Jesus, decus meus’, but his intentions were clear “to provide a demonstration of Bach’s prowess as a composer of vocal music.”

LBS begins…

Inspired by this, Paul Steinitz directed the London Bach Society choir (1947-89) in a performance of  Jesu, meine Freude sung in English on 2 June 1947 as part of the Society’s inaugural series of public recitals and concerts. LBS later made the controversial move to sing Bach in German from 1950, controversial politically just five years after the end of WW2  and musically because English audiences were used to hearing their Bach sung in English!

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Society’s foundation and as part of the LBS annual Bachfest, a performance of the same motet, sung in German, was given on 2 November 2006 in the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall at the Royal College of Music, sung by the choir for whom Bach composed the lion’s share of his vocal music and which he directed from 1723-1750 – Bachfest guests, the Leipzig Thomanerchor directed by their Cantor Georg Christoph Biller www.thomanerchor.de

The London Bach Society’s seminal contribution and raising of the bar in the promotion of Bach’s music in this country, building on the achievements of Samuel Wesley and William Sterndale Bennett in particular, will be reflected in a contemporary way during the 70th anniversary celebrations at Bachfest in November 2016.  © Margaret Steinitz

**Reference book:  “The English Bach Awakening”  Knowledge of J S Bach and his Music in England 1750-1830. Edited by Michael Kassler, with chapters contributed by Yo Tomita, Philip Olleson and Michael Kassler. It is published by Ashgate Publishing Limited www.ashgate.com

Factfile:

  • Samuel Wesley was a contemporary (just) of Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian Bach who lived in London from 1762-1782 and who, with Frederick Abel, established the Bach-Abel concerts. These were forerunners of the public concert format we enjoy today.
  • The Bach-Abel concerts were presented in the Hanover Square Rooms from 1775 onwards, a venue later used by Samuel Wesley and a hub for the leading musicians of the day until the late 1800s. Sadly, the Rooms no longer exist.
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