Samuel Sebastian Wesley was born two hundred years ago â€” to be exact, on August 14, 1810. I will never forget hearing his anthem, “Blessed be the God and Father,” for the first time, as a schoolboy at Eton College, where a cathedral-type choir sang the services every Sunday. The combination of sweetness and power overwhelmed my feelings, and began my lifelong fascination with Victorian music. As my studies developed I learned that S. S. Wesley composed many wonderful things besides church music; that his father, Samuel, was also a composer of genius; that Samuel’s father, Charles, was the greatest of English hymn writers; and that Charles’s brother, John, was the founder of Methodism. The final surprise: John’s wife, Mary, was an ancestor of mine! â€” along with her first husband, Anthony Vazeille.
All these things (except for my personal story) are brought together in Music and the Wesleys, which I have edited jointly with my colleague Stephen Banfield. Stephen started the ball rolling with a 2007 conference at Bristol University in England, celebrating another anniversary, that of Charles Wesley’s birth in 1707. He asked me to give the keynote lecture, and then to edit the proceedings, which we eventually decided to do jointly. Most of the leading authorities on the various members of the family are among the contributors.
The first half is about the seminal importance of music in the work of John and Charles Wesley, and in the growth of Methodism in Britain and the United States. The second half deals with the younger generations of Wesleys who made music their calling. Between the two lies the fascinating crisis that faced Charles Wesley when he found that he was blessed (or burdened) with two sons, Charles junior and Samuel, who were musical prodigies. Their gift, he was sure, came from God. Yet the musical profession was linked with worldly temptations and ambitions. Could he allow his boys to enter such a dangerous world? This is one of many religious, musical, and personal issues that our authors have raised and discussed in the pages of this book.
Nicholas Temperley is professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-editor of the new book Music and the Wesleys.