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 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

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