(b Bristol, 24 Feb 1766; d London,11 Oct 1837). Composer and organist, younger son of (2) Charles Wesley (i). Like his elder brother he was a child prodigy. According to his father's account, he was able to play his first tune before he was three, at four had taught himself to read from a copy of Handel's Samson, and at five ‘had all the recitatives, and choruses of Samson and the Messiah: both words and notes by heart’. He had his first organ lessons at the age of six from David Williams, a Bristol organist, and at seven was able to play a psalm tune during the service at St James's Church. He also became proficient on the violin. His fame rapidly spread, and in 1774 William Boyce came to visit the family, saying to Wesley's father, ‘Sir, I hear you have got an English Mozart in your house’. Shortly afterwards Wesley presented Boyce with the score of his oratorio Ruth, which he had composed two years earlier, but had only recently learnt to write down.
In 1771 Wesley's father acquired the lease of a large house in Chesterfield Street (now Wesley Street), Marylebone. For a while, the family divided their time between London and Bristol, but in 1776 they moved permanently to London. By this time Charles Wesley had become reconciled to the idea of his sons becoming musicians, despite his own misgivings about the suitability of music as a profession and the disapproval and open criticism of his brother John and many of his Methodist friends. In 1779 the two brothers began to give subscription concerts at the family home, where there was a large room with two organs and a harpsichord. The concerts included instrumental and vocal solos, duets, and orchestral pieces played by a small professional ensemble; they attracted fashionable audiences numbering sometimes over 50, and continued for nine seasons, the last being in 1787. Both ‘ancient’ music (by Handel, Corelli etc.) and modern works were performed, including compositions and improvisations by both brothers. Among the works written by Wesley for the concerts were symphonies, violin concertos, a Sinfonia obbligato for violin, organ, cello and orchestra, and an organ concerto.
The concerts provided invaluable opportunities for Wesley and his brother to perform a wide range of music and to hear their own compositions. At the same time they were protected from full exposure to London's public music-making; the concerts thus substantially fulfilled their father’s aim to provide for his two sons ‘a safe and honourable opportunity of availing themselves of their musical abilities’, while at the same time keeping them ‘out of harm’s way: the way … of bad musicians who by a free communication with them might corrupt both their taste and their morals’.
Around 1778, when he was 12, Wesley began to attend services at one or more of the Roman Catholic embassy chapels. It was initially the music rather than the doctrines of Roman Catholicism which attracted him, for it was at the embassy chapels that the most elaborate church music in London was to be heard, performed in surroundings of considerable splendour. At the Portuguese and Sardinian embassy chapels Wesley would have been made welcome by Samuel Webbe (i), who was organist of both chapels and the teacher of a whole generation of Catholic church musicians. The services provided further opportunities for Wesley to compose. His first dated piece of Latin church music was written in November 1780, and many further works for the Roman rite followed in the next four years or so. In 1784, much to the distress of his family, Wesley converted to Roman Catholicism, marking the event by composing an ambitious setting of the Mass which he dedicated to and sent off to Pope Pius VI. The Missa de Spiritu Sancto, for six soloists, chorus and orchestra and lasting some 90 minutes, is Wesley's longest choral composition. It appears not to have been performed either in Rome or in London at the time, and the first known performance was in Dublin in 1997.
Wesley's period of wholehearted adherence to Roman Catholicism appears to have been short, and his conversion a cause of subsequent embarrassment to him. In later life he denied that he had ever been a convert, saying that although the Gregorian music had seduced him to their chapels, the tenets of the Romanists had never obtained any influence over his mind. His attitude to Roman Catholicism was characterized by a fascination with its music and liturgy coupled with distaste for its doctrines, well summed up in his remark in a letter to Benjamin Jacob that ‘if the Roman Doctrines were like the Roman Music, we should have Heaven upon Earth’. His association with Roman Catholic church music continued for much of the rest of his life, most notably during the period c1811–24, when he was assistant to Vincent Novello at the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy, for which he wrote further large amounts of Latin church music.
In 1787, according to his obituary in The Times, Wesley suffered a serious accident in which he fell into a builders’ excavation and severely damaged his skull. According to this account, the accident, and Wesley's subsequent refusal to follow his doctors' advice and undergo the operation of trepanning, was the cause of the attacks of depression to which he was subject for the rest of his life. It is unlikely, however, that such an event could have been the sole cause of Wesley's considerable mental health problems, which in any case appear to have begun well before this date. A more plausible diagnosis, supported by the evidence of other events in his life, his letters, and the pattern of his creativity, in which periods of great productivity alternated with periods of inactivity, is that he suffered from bipolar or manic-depressive illness, the first manifestations of which appeared during his adolescence.
On 5 April 1793 Wesley married Charlotte Louisa Martin, whom he had known since 1782, and with whom he had been living in rural seclusion at Ridge, a small village near St Albans. Wesley and Charlotte had objections to the ceremony of marriage, and their determination to remain unmarried seems to have come to an end only with Charlotte's pregnancy. Their eldest child, Charles, was born on 25 September 1793; two further children (John William and Emma Frances) were born in 1799 and 1806. The marriage was stormy and unhappy from the start, but survived until early 1810, when Wesley's liaison with his 16-year-old housekeeper Sarah Suter precipitated a final separation. Wesley and Sarah subsequently set up house together, and they lived together unmarried until his death. Their eldest child (5) Samuel Sebastian is treated separately below; among six subsequent children to survive to adulthood were Eliza (1819–95), who edited her father's letters to Benjamin Jacob (the Bach Letters) and bequeathed many of his manuscripts to the British Museum; Matthias Erasmus (1821–1901), who was treasurer of the College of Organists between 1875 and 1893; and Robert Glenn (1830–1915), who was for a time organist of Wesley's Chapel in City Road.
Wesley's career, particularly in early adulthood, was badly disrupted by periods of depression. The high productivity of the early 1780s, probably coinciding with a hypomanic phase in his illness, was followed by a period in the later 1780s and early 1790s in which he appears to have withdrawn almost completely from public music-making and from composition; the only notable work from this time is the Ode to St Cecilia of 1794. During this period he continued to earn his living by teaching at a number of London girls’ schools, an occupation he hated and despised as ‘ABC drudgery’. A crop of new compositions and concert appearances in the late 1790s indicates his return to an active involvement in London music-making, on the concert platform, in the Roman Catholic chapels, and in more informal contexts. In 1799 he composed his magnum opus, Confitebor tibi, Domine, a large-scale setting of Psalm cxi for soloists, choir and orchestra which he may have intended for performance at one of the Lenten oratorio concerts. No performance materialized, however, and it had to wait until 1826 for its première. But Wesley's brilliance as an organist was by now generally recognized, and on 21 April 1800 he was the soloist in one of his own concertos between the acts of one of the first London performances of Haydn's The Creation.
The most active and successful period in Wesley's career was from around 1808 to early 1817, when he played a major role in almost every aspect of London's music. He was much in demand as an organist, both as a recitalist and as a soloist in his own concertos. From 1813 to 1817 he was the regular organist at the Covent Garden oratorio concerts, for which he later recalled that he was paid 6 guineas per concert, or 10 guineas if he played a concerto. He also appeared frequently in the provinces: he directed and performed at festivals in Tamworth in 1809 and Birmingham in 1811, and also played at Margate, Ramsgate, Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Ipswich. In addition he promoted his own concerts, gave lectures on music at the Royal and Surrey Institutions, and wrote reviews of music in the European Magazine. Although not a founder-member of the Philharmonic Society, he was elected to full membership in June 1815, became a director in November of the same year, and for a short time played an active role in its affairs. It is notable, however, that he never directed a concert of the society, and that only one of his compositions was performed by the society during his lifetime. He was also involved in freemasonry. He had originally joined the Lodge of Antiquity in December 1788; in May 1812 he was appointed Grand Organist (a post created for him by the Duke of Sussex) and in December of that year was organist at the important ceremony marking the union of the two Grand Lodges of England.
Wesley was also a leading member of the English Bach movement. According to his own account in his manuscript Reminiscences, he had first been introduced to Bach's music by the violinist and composer George Frederick Pinto, who lent him a copy of Das wohltemperirte Clavier. This was probably in 1804 or 1805. Wesley's wholehearted ‘conversion’ to the Bach cause (to adopt the religious language he himself habitually used) seems to have occurred some time later, probably in the spring or early summer of 1807. From then on, in conjunction with Karl Friedrich Horn, Vincent Novello, Benjamin Jacob and others, he did everything he could to promote Bach's music. He included the keyboard music and the violin music at his own recitals and at a celebrated free concert which he organized with Jacob at the Surrey Chapel on 29 November 1809. In collaboration with Horn he published the six organ trio sonatas in 1809, and the Wesley-Horn edition of Das wohltemperirte Clavier followed in four instalments between 1810 and 1813. He subsequently planned to publish an edition of the Credo of the B minor Mass, but failed to receive sufficient subscriptions and had to abandon the enterprise. His enthusiasm for Bach also led to the blossoming of his friendship with Charles Burney from late 1807 until Burney's death in 1814, and to Burney's own involvement with the English Bach movement in the final years of his life.
Wesley's long run of success came to an end with a serious breakdown following the death of an infant child in August 1816. Following an incident in May 1817 in which he threw himself from a window in a fit of delirium, he was confined for some time in a private lunatic asylum. His recovery was slow and at first only partial. Although he was back in his usual position as organist of the Covent Garden oratorio concerts by the beginning of the 1819 season, he remained for some time severely depressed and unable to compose. fig.2 By 1823, however, he had regained much of his former confidence and optimism. In 1824 he published his Anglican Service in F, parts of which dated back to 1808, and in May 1826 he promoted the first performance of Confitebor tibi, Domine at the Argyll Rooms. In 1824 he was appointed organist at the Camden Chapel, his first paid church appointment following many unsuccessful applications elsewhere.
In early 1826 Wesley followed Vincent Novello in obtaining permission from the University of Cambridge to publish music from the collection bequeathed to it by Lord Fitzwilliam in 1816. During a visit to Cambridge in September 1826 he discovered three tunes by Handel to hymns by his father, which he transcribed and published later in the same year. This venture reopened his contacts with Methodism, and in 1828 he published a volume of tunes suitable for the hymns in the Methodist hymnal then in use. During the later 1820s he gave frequent organ recitals and further courses of lectures, at the Royal Institution and elsewhere in London. In 1829 he visited Bristol, the city of his birth, and gave three recitals to open the new organ at St Mary Redcliffe. During this visit he also played at a number of other Bristol churches including St James's, the parish church of his boyhood, where his friend Edward Hodges was now organist. He returned to Bristol for the last time in January 1830 to give a course of lectures at the Bristol Institution.
Later in 1830 Wesley suffered another attack of depression which brought his active career to a close. In his final years he rarely performed in public; one of his last public appearances was at his brother Charles's funeral in 1834, where his anthem All go unto one place was first performed. In or around early 1836, probably with the encouragement of his family, he wrote his Reminiscences, which in their lack of structure, repetitiveness and laboured handwriting show all too clearly his declining mental and physical powers. At around the same time, as his final piece of musical journalism, he contributed an article on the history of music in England to the first issue of the Musical World.
Shortly before his death Wesley had a final late flowering of activity. In July 1837 he was able to write out from memory the full score of his Ode to St Cecilia, which he had thought lost. On 12 September he attended Mendelssohn's recital at All Saints, Newgate Street, and afterwards was persuaded to play. Mendelssohn was generous in his praise, but Wesley could only say, ‘Oh, Sir, you have not heard me play; you should have heard me forty years ago’. He died a little over four weeks later after a short illness.
Wesley was an anomalous and maverick figure in English music of the period. Although widely recognized as the most brilliant organist of his age, he never received the recognition that his abilities merited. Unlike his brother Charles he had no taste for court life and manners, held no official appointments, and did not hold a church position until late in his life. His outspoken manner, disrespect for authority and scandalous private life all no doubt contributed to his lack of advancement, both in church and court circles and within the music profession. Despite his very great abilities as a performer, which were apparent to all, he was never fully part of the innermost circle of professional music-making in London. His mental health problems contributed to the erratic and haphazard progress of his career, both as a performer and as a composer. Because of extended periods of depression in early adulthood he was not able to build on the considerable achievements of his compositions of the early 1780s and to consolidate them through the following decade. Although he enjoyed a long period of success between 1808 and 1817 his breakdown in May of that year was a major setback to his career from which he never fully recovered.
In common with most of his London contemporaries, Wesley pieced together a living from a number of different musical activities, of which teaching was the most dependable and regular, if also the most tedious and routine. The range and variety of these activities are reflected in copious quantities of letters to his friends and colleagues in the music profession. Almost half are to Novello, with smaller numbers to Jacob (the Bach Letters), the Norwich organist Alfred Pettet, Burney and others. Entertainingly and stylishly written and frequently displaying Wesley's caustic wit, they are the largest and most important collection of letters by an English musician of the period, and are a particularly rich source of information on all aspects of London's musical life during the early 19th century.
Wesley's reputation in his lifetime was chiefly as an organist. He was particularly noted for his improvisations, the brilliance and originality of which are recorded in a number of rapturous first-hand accounts. According to his obituary in The Times, ‘his resources were boundless, and if called upon to extemporize for half-a-dozen times during the evening, each fantasia was new, fresh, and perfectly unlike the others’. Edward Hodges, hearing him play at Bristol in October 1829, described his performance as ‘truly astounding … the most wonderful I ever heard, more even than I had before been capable of conceiving; the flow of melody, the stream of harmony, was so complete, so unbroken, so easy, and yet so highly wrought that I was altogether knocked off my stilts’.
During his most active period Wesley earned a good living from his various musical activities. Under the terms of a Deed of Separation drawn up in 1812 following the breakdown of his marriage he agreed to pay maintenance to Charlotte of £130 per annum: a figure which suggests an annual income of around £400. This was a considerable amount for a musician. But it was a precarious living, which continued only for as long as he was active: extended periods of illness, as in 1817–18, rapidly brought him to the verge of financial ruin, from which he had to be rescued by subscriptions organized by his musical and masonic friends. Maintenance payments to Charlotte were a continuing drain on his financial resources, and on at least one occasion he was imprisoned for a short time for non-payment.
Wesley's music reflects the wide range of influences to which he was exposed during his early years: the ‘ancient’ style of Corelli, Handel and other late Baroque composers heard during his childhood, the more ‘modern’ style of J.C. Bach and C.F. Abel, which he encountered after the move to London, and Gregorian chant and the idioms of continental Roman Catholic church music, which he heard at the embassy chapels. To these were added at various later stages the Haydn of the London symphonies and The Creation, and as much of the music of J.S. Bach as was available: the keyboard works, the solo and accompanied violin sonatas, and the Credo of the B minor Mass.
The largest category of Wesley's output is the Latin church music, spanning over 40 years from the early 1780s to the 1820s. Most remained unpublished in his lifetime (see ex.1), and only a tiny proportion is familiar to modern audiences: the deservedly celebrated setting for double choir, In exitu Israel, the eight-part Dixit Dominus, and a few others. These show Wesley's deep knowledge of Renaissance and Baroque polyphony, of Gregorian chant, and of more modern styles, and a willingness to combine them in a synthesis which is wholly individual.
Wesley largely abandoned his ‘ancient’ style in his three largest choral works with orchestra, although all contain large choral fugues at the expected points. In the case of the youthful Missa de Spiritu Sancto, the model is clearly a ‘cantata’ mass of particularly generous dimensions, although it is unclear what works in this genre Wesley could have encountered at this stage in his career. Performances of Confitebor tibi, Domine since its publication in Musica Britannica in 1978 have confirmed the accuracy of Wesley's own high opinion of it: of particular note are the extended choral fugue ‘Mandavit in aeternum’, with its wide-ranging modulations, apocalyptic timpani roll and concluding adagio, and the virtuoso soprano aria ‘Fidelia omnium’, probably written with the exceptional vocal talents of Elizabeth Billington in mind.
A large proportion of Wesley's instrumental music dates from the early 1780s, a particularly prolific period when the family concerts provided a regular outlet for new compositions of all kinds. Apart from the later organ concertos, his one mature orchestral composition is the splendid Symphony in B of 1802, written for an unsuccessful concert series and apparently never subsequently performed in his lifetime. It is an ambitious and wholly original work, which in the richness of its wind scoring and its well-integrated use of counterpoint nonetheless shows how much Wesley had learnt from the London symphonies of Haydn. The Overture in E formerly ascribed to him is now thought to be by his son Samuel Sebastian.
Given Wesley's fame as a keyboard player, it is not surprising that keyboard music should form an important part of his output, and the largest category of his music published in his lifetime. Despite a good deal of recent publishing activity, however, only a small proportion of his keyboard music is available in modern editions. In the organ music, Wesley's grand manner is heard at its best in the op.6 voluntaries, while a more intimate and miniaturist side to his musical character is apparent in the Twelve Short Pieces. The piano music, written for a burgeoning domestic market, divides into two categories: unashamedly opportunistic potboilers such as the battle-piece The Siege of Badajoz and the jubilee waltz The Sky Rocket on the one hand, and more serious and substantial works such as the Sonata in D minor and many of the rondos and variation sets on the other.