Samuel Sebastian Wesley
About Samuel Sebastian Wesley
Samuel Sebastian Wesley, in part named after Johann Sebastian Bach, was the son of prolific English composer and keyboardist Samuel Wesley and the great-nephew of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church. While his output was modest compared to that of his father, Samuel Sebastian Wesley is considered by some as the greatest figure in English cathedral music between the death of Henry Purcell and the advent of Charles Villiers Stanford. Born in London, Wesley began his career as a choirboy at the Chapel Royal at St. James' Palace. Wesley's choirmaster, William Hawes, took such a liking to Wesley that once his voice broke Hawes continued to employ him as a choral conductor and pianist at the English Opera House.
Wesley departed from London in 1832 to accept a post as cathedral organist, one of many, at Hereford Cathedral. Although he only stayed there three years, this turned out to be an important position; although he had been publishing his own music since the mid-1820s at Hereford, Wesley found his muse, producing the anthems "Blessed Be the God and Father" and "The wilderness and the solitary place." In 1835, Wesley eloped with the sister of the Hereford cathedral dean, and thus began his reputation as a difficult and unreliable character when it came to maintaining a routine as a cathedral organist.
Within the next 30 years, Wesley held posts at Exeter, Exmouth, at Leeds Parish Church, Winchester Cathedral, and Winchester College, all appointments that ultimately led to his termination, resignation, and to poisonous relations with his superiors within the church. Wesley tried to diversify his options through applying at teaching positions within universities, but was turned down for every one -- his "difficult" reputation had preceded him. Toward the end of 1847, Wesley fell and broke his right leg after a fishing trip; the injury never fully healed and inhibited his pedaling at the organ. Nevertheless, he remained famous as an improviser throughout his life; one contemporary critic identified Wesley "with apologies mostly to Mr. Mendelssohn, the greatest organist now living."
Wesley accepted the secondary position of organist at Winchester College in addition to his duties at Winchester Cathedral largely to put his sons through school; when he resigned from Winchester Cathedral, Wesley went to Gloucester Cathedral, which is where he was serving when he died of Bright's disease in 1876. He regarded his publication "Twelve Anthems" of 1853 to be his "most important work" and all of these pieces would become cornerstones of the Anglican Church repertoire. Wesley produced 38 anthems in all, and slightly less than 20 works for the organ, and though these genres remain the most significant ones on his work list, he composed service music in both Latin and English, secular songs and glees, a tiny bit of orchestral music, and a handful of works for the piano.