Friday, August 14, 2009

Samuel Sebastian Wesley

Samuel Sebastian Wesley was born today in 1810, the son of composer Samuel Wesley and the grandson of hymnwriter Charles Wesley. The circumstances of his birth must have been considered shocking at the time (and maybe to some today). The younger Samuel and three of his siblings were the children of Samuel the elder and a young female servant, Sarah Suter; the elder Mrs. Wesley (mother of three older children) having left the household upon discovering the relationship (which never resulted in marriage). Samuel Wesley, though apparently called "the English Mozart" in his time, was not to retain that fame; Samuel Sebastian is surely the more well-known Wesley composer in our time.

Samuel Sebastian, his middle name coming from Johann Sebastian Bach, was a chorister at the Chapel Royal as a boy, then became an organist who served at several churches and cathedrals, each successive one generally more prestigious than the last. He wrote pieces for organ and several anthems over the years, and many of those are still sung today. Nearly every church choir in existence has sung the short and simple Lead me, Lord, taken from a longer anthem, Praise the Lord, O my soul. In 1872 he published a collection of hymn tunes, The European Psalmist, which contained 733 tunes, 130 of which were his compositions. Several of Wesley's anthems and hymn tunes can be seen and/or heard at the
Choral Public Domain Library online. This tune, still universally known, was number 451 in The European Psalmist, set there to our old friend Jerusalem the golden, but used for many other texts over the years.

O living Bread from heaven,
How well you feed your guest!
The gifts that you have given
Have filled my heart with rest.
O wondrous food of blessing,
O cup that heals our woes,
My heart, this gift possessing,
In thankful song o’erflows!

Jesus, you here have led me
Within your holiest place,
And here yourself have fed me
With treasures of your grace;
For you have freely given
What earth could never buy,
The bread of life from Heaven,
That now I shall not die.

You gave me all I wanted,
This food can death destroy;
And you have freely granted
The cup of endless joy.
I thank you that I merit
The favor you have shown,
And all my soul and spirit
Bow down before your throne.

O, grant me that, thus strengthened
With heavenly food, while here
My course on earth is lengthened,
And that I feel you near;
And when you call my spirit
To leave this world below,
I enter, through your merit,
Where joys unmingled flow.

Johann Rist, 1651;
tr. Catherine Winkworth, 1858; alt.
Samuel Sebastian Wesley, 1864

By nearly all accounts, Wesley was a difficult man, not usually happy in his organist positions and often battling with the clergy and others as to the circumstances of his employment. After he left Exeter Cathedral, a clerk appended a note to a bundle of his papers: "The most to be avoided Man I ever met with." Hymnologist Ian Bradley, in Abide With Me: The World of Victorian Hymns, also recounts instances where Wesley wrangled with hymnal editors, insisting that he be paid more than any other composer for the use of his tunes (you will not be surprised to hear that this attitude is alive and well to this day among some composers and copyright owners).

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