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ClassicsOnline Home » WESLEY, S.S.: Anthems
Samuel Sebastian Wesley was the pre-eminent organist-composer of the early Victorian
era. During his career he worked tirelessly for over forty years to raise the standard of
music offered in English cathedrals, and this collection of his most popular anthems,
including the exquisite Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, reflects the culmination of his
achievements in this field. Unashamedly Romantic yet original in style, Wesley’s music
speaks with a powerful and wholly distinctive voice.
By David Denton
The son of Samuel Wesley, a famous composer of sacred music,
and the grandson of Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer, Samuel Sebastian
Wesley became the most important figure in English cathedral music in the 19th
century. In his early years he tried composing in many genres, but found he
had a ready market and steady income working as a cathedral organist who provided
a regular flow of music for his choristers to perform. You would be forgiven
in placing Ascribe unto the Lord far later than its 1851 origins, but
the modern harmonies used were not typical of a composer who seemed intent on
pleasing his audience. The present disc is devoted to Anthems written through
much of his career, his love of writing for solo voice creating many works including
the beautiful O give thanks unto the Lord and Wash me throughly.
Many of his scores in this format are in a number of sections creating a much
larger piece, Let us lift up our heart created from five sections that
can be performed separately. I could not claim the uninitiated will find this
music driving itself into the memory, but those who enjoy English church music
will find the disc indispensable. It uses a mature choir without that special
quality of young choirboys, though the accompanying booklet validates the use
of sopranos by relating that Wesley always preferred their added vocal stamina.
The Clare College Choir does justice to the music, though I am happier when
the full choir is employed rather than in the solo passages. Not really top-drawer
sound quality by Naxos standards, but quite agreeable.
Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810–1876)
Samuel Sebastian Wesley was a towering figure in the history of English cathedral music. No other composer between Purcell and Stanford came close to his achievement. He was a son of Samuel Wesley, another important composer of sacred music, and a grandson of Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer and one of the founders of Methodism. He was a chorister at the Chapel Royal, though no doubt he gained much of his musical knowledge and skill from his father. He certainly inherited or acquired Samuel's mastery of counterpoint, harmony, and the organ, his respect for older styles (especially that of J.S. Bach), and his independence of spirit. To these qualities he added some kinship with the Continental composers of his own time, a passionately romantic temperament, and a genius for the dramatization of biblical words.
Although Wesley tried his hand at many kinds of music both sacred and secular, in the end he devoted his main creative efforts to music for Anglican church choirs, which also provided his steadiest source of income. Between 1832 and his death he was organist at four different cathedrals, with an interlude at Leeds Parish Church, where there was an efficient and well-endowed choir.
It was a time when few cathedral chapters were willing to provide the resources that were sorely needed to bring the music of the services up to a respectable standard. Wesley was constantly complaining of absenteeism and incompetence, especially on the part of the adult choir members, and of inadequate time for rehearsal, deficient organs, and other woes, but he also laid down a positive challenge in the form of his magnificent series of anthems and services. Adequate performance of the more difficult specimens may well have been beyond the capacities of the choirs he directed; but in course of time, and with the marked improvement in cathedral choirs that was getting under way at the time of his death, they came into their own. Nowadays the large-scale anthem, like the Lutheran cantata, has only a marginal function in religious life, but Wesley's anthems, as much as Bach's cantatas, can benefit from today's high standards of performing and recording, and their excellence can be appreciated as never before.
Wesley wrote for the standard choir of six to eight men, including countertenors on the alto line, and twelve to sixteen boy trebles. A cathedral choir was supposed to be able to divide into two halves, facing each other in the choir stalls and chanting the psalms and other texts antiphonally. Many earlier anthems had taken advantage of this feature with passages for double choir. Apparently the only one of his choirs that Wesley could rely on for this practice was at Exeter, where he officiated from 1836 to 1840. At Exeter he wrote three anthems for double choir with soloists, including ' Let us lift up our heart' for four solo voices, eight-part choir, and organ.
Clare College Choir, like the majority of Oxford and Cambridge choirs today, is composed of mixed voices. Some listeners may miss the famous fluty tone of English choirboys, but Wesley, if he had had any choice in the matter, would probably have preferred to write for adult female sopranos, which, he said, had 'vastly superior quality and power' to the voices of children. As for countertenors, the present recording combines them with female contraltos, thereby assuring a reasonably uniform tone quality in all parts of the rather wide range that Wesley demanded of his altos. Henry Willis's organ at Tenbury, built in 1873–4, replaced the original Flight organ of 1856, but its sound qualities are probably very much of the kind that Wesley had in mind.
The baroque or 'Restoration' full-with-verse anthem, which Wesley inherited and transformed, was a spacious work in several linked sections, some homophonic, some declamatory, some fugal. It placed great emphasis on the solo voice, which we find playing an unexpectedly prominent role in some of his earlier works. He also drew on a newer, late-Georgian type, pioneered by Crotch and Attwood: the contemplative or prayerful anthem in one movement, predominantly for full choir, and with little independent writing for the organ. Gems of both categories are well represented in the present selection.
'Ascribe unto the Lord', composed at Winchester in 1851, is one of Wesley's larger works. Its opening chorus is a fine example of his highly individual style of choral declamation, which is only distantly related to operatic recitative. Forceful as well as tuneful, these passages are generally made up of balanced phrases which can be adapted (as here) to different sets of words by careful attention to the rhythms of English prose. This feature is already to be found in earlier anthems like ' The wilderness and the solitary place' (1832) and ' Blessed be the God and Father' ( c.1835: estimated dates follow the work-list in Peter Horton's book Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life ). These large-scale works also contain exciting, freely contrapuntal movements for full choir, displaying his command of diatonic dissonance and often climaxing in an electrifying modulation to an unexpected key, as at ' And the ransomed of the Lord ' in ' The Wilderness'. A particularly good example of Wesley's structural inventiveness is the eight-part opening chorus of ' Let us lift up our heart' ( c.1839). (This anthem, unusually, ends with a movement set to a metrical text — a verse of one of Wesley's grandfather's hymns.)
Another type of movement at which Wesley excelled was the melodious treble solo. The best-known example is to be found in ' Blessed be the God and Father', from his time at Hereford ( c.1835). The solo ' Love one another ' is particularly happy in its use of an antiphonal answering phrase, somewhere between an echo and a refrain, by the choir trebles; the originality of phrase structure overcomes the initial impression of Mendelssohn's influence. The treble voice is associated with the idea of holiness, and here perhaps we may miss the cherubic choirboy. The solo in ' O give thanks unto the Lord' (also written in Hereford ) is, by contrast, an aria of almost operatic proportions. Its wide-ranging melodic line seems either to require a mature voice or, as is frequently the case, tutti trebles. Wesley often used the solo bass voice for songs of anguish and passion. None is finer than ' Thou, O Lord God ' in Let us lift up our heart.
There are four examples of the short, self-contained anthem scored largely, or entirely, for unaccompanied choir. O God, whose nature and property originated in 1831, but in this recording a much-revised version of 1870 has been chosen; it is hymn-like in character and is chiefly remarkable for a florid ' Amen'. In ' Wash me throughly' ( c.1840), for four-part choir with treble solo, Wesley uses chromaticism to express a longing for Christ's taking away of guilt. The piece is in a clear ternary form, but the theme of the contrapuntal middle section returns in the modified repeat of the opening; the coda is an oddly unpredictable succession of slow chords. The six-part ' Cast me not away' (1848) is also penitential in mood, and its climax comes with a harmonic 'crunch' on the words ' the bones which thou hast broken ', partly inspired by a leg injury Wesley had sustained on a fishing expedition.
The most exquisite example of this genre, and still perhaps Wesley's best-known anthem, is ' Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace' ( c.1850), where the serene opening eight-bar phrase returns almost unchanged twice more, though with different words in the middle statement. The episodes bring some sense of a contrasting restlessness: in the first, the men's voices sing a phrase in three rising keys, each time ending with a surprising major chord; in the second, the counterpoint is somewhat disturbing, but the mood of peace prevails with the final statement of the main theme, and is then confirmed by the coda's beautiful resolution of a highly dissonant chord.
© Nicholas Temperley
The Organ in the Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels, Tenbury
When Sir Frederick Ouseley founded his choir school, St Michael's College, in 1856, a good versatile organ was required for the chapel so that the music and liturgy of the Anglican Church could be performed to the highest possible standard. Sir Frederick commissioned the London firm of Flight and Robson to build an organ which he himself designed. After about ten years this instrument proved unsatisfactory due mainly to water penetration from the roof which damaged the soundboards. Thomas Harrison of Rochdale, the founder of today's Harrison & Harrison of Durham was approached to rebuild the organ. This rebuild dragged on for seven years with Harrison frequently asking for more money. Sadly this organ proved unsatisfactory, so in desperation Sir Frederick approached Father Willis in 1873. He agreed to take the whole instrument back to his factory in London, revoice the existing pipework to sound like Willis pipes, and re-erect the organ within five months for a sum of £1000. There were to be four manuals with fifty-five speaking stops and a fully developed pedal organ: true to his word he installed it within the prescribed time.
In 1895 the solo organ was enclosed and in 1916 the Barker lever action was replaced with pneumatic action which still works to this day. In 1953 the organ was thoroughly cleaned, the Victorian sharp pitch lowered, and balanced swell pedals were installed. Although essential maintenance and a few tonal changes have been carried out over the years, the organ sounds exactly as it did when Henry Willis installed it in 1873.
Sung texts may be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/570318.htm
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WESLEY, S.S.: Anthems