About this Recording
8.570410 - WESLEY, S.S.: Organ Works
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Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876)
Organ Works

 

'One great feature relieved the morning performances from dullness – the unequalled organ playing of Dr Wesley'. So wrote one critic after hearing Samuel Sebastian Wesley – 'the greatest organist now living' – perform at the 1843 Birmingham Festival. His reputation reflected not only his skill as a performer, but also his outstanding ability at improvisation. Herein lay the secret of his greatness. Yet in one respect his legacy is surprising: only a small number of compositions written for the organ which, as William Spark wrote, hardly seem 'worthy of the splendid talents of one who possessed sufficient inventive power to have written a hundred sonatas'. That said, these works occupy a pivotal position in the history of English organ music, straddling as they do two eras: the final years of the long tradition of organ music for manuals alone (or with very limited use of the pedals), written for an instrument with the idiosyncratic English 'long' compass, and the start of a new era, characterized by obbligato pedal parts and the adoption of the shorter continental 'C' compass. Musically, however, they point more to the future than to the past and remind us not only that Wesley was a contemporary of Mendelssohn, but also that his ears were receptive to everything he heard in the London of his youth.

Samuel Sebastian Wesley had been born in 1810, the son of the celebrated organist and composer Samuel Wesley. Named after his father's musical idol, Johann Sebastian Bach, he began his musical education when he was admitted as a chorister of the choir of the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, in 1817. The boys all received instruction in singing, keyboard-playing and elementary music theory, but Wesley's progress was such that after he left in 1826 it could be said of him that 'he manages the pedals well … [and] there are in all probability not a great many better organists in London '. After holding organists' posts at several London churches he was appointed to Hereford Cathedral in 1832, and embarked on a restless series of appointments at provincial cathedrals and churches: Hereford (1832-35), Exeter (1835-42), Leeds Parish Church (1842-49), Winchester (1849-65) and Gloucester (1865-76).

Although Wesley's compositions for the organ span his entire career, the majority date from before December 1847 when he suffered a serious fracture of his right leg. Given his skill as an improviser it is not surprising that many contain features that suggest an extempore origin – the use of unexpected chords or sudden shifts of key – or employ techniques that lend themselves to such performances, among them sequential phrases built up over a slowly rising bass line. Both can be seen in the Choral Song. Although published in 1842, it was probably written a decade earlier, and both its two-movement form, reminiscent of the early nineteenth-century English voluntary, and its lay-out, with sparing use of the pedals and frequent use of the left hand in octaves, imply an early date. Its sheer energy and bold use of colourful modulations at the climax of the fugue make it one of the most colourful organ pieces of its time.

Although the contrapuntal development in the fugal section of the Choral Song quickly breaks down, the fugue in the Introduction and Fugue in C sharp minor is a tightly-argued movement that reflects Wesley's admiration for the music of Bach. Its descending subject is admirably conceived in that it can be combined with itself in closely-placed stretto entries, both in its original form, augmented or inverted. Wesley's tour de force is to introduce it in all four parts simultaneously shortly before the end: in its normal form in the highest voice, augmented in the alto part, inverted in the tenor part and augmented and inverted in the pedal part. The Introduction and Fugue was originally published in 1836 as the first number of a proposed Studio for the Organ, and was reissued (with revisions to both introduction and fugue) in 1869.

Wesley's pupil George Garrett not only considered the Andante in F to be his master's finest work for the organ, but also a 'complete illustration of Wesley's extraordinary technical power', calling for 'clear, crisp, part-playing; the power of changing the position of the hand instantaneously and with certainty; and a touch of the closest and smoothest character'. But whereas both the Choral Song and Introduction and Fugue have clear links with established forms, the Andante is a large-scale recital movement whose harmonic language and sometimes pianistic textures point towards such works as Mendelssohn's Organ Sonatas, published three years later. Although both it and the Choral Song were published in Wesley's collection of Three Pieces for a Chamber Organ (1842), with a dedication to his pupil Lady Acland, they were clearly intended for a large two- or three-manual instrument and moreover proved to be too difficult for their dedicatee. Wesley responded by immediately issuing a Second Set of Three Pieces for a Chamber Organ, less demanding technically and conceived on a scale appropriate for the small two-manual organ in her home, Killerton House, Devon. Both the Andante in E flat and Larghetto in F sharp minor are taken from this collection, and the latter is particularly fine. Consisting of no more than a haunting theme, variation, short episode, recapitulation and coda, it is pervaded by a sense of introspection, strongest in the hesitant bars of the coda. The Andante, in contrast, is outward-looking, with a structure based on the varied repetition of the main theme (with some quixotic harmonies) that again suggests an improvisatory origin.

Wesley's recital programmes frequently included a 'Fantasia', consisting of an opening section to demonstrate the instrument's solo stops, followed by a fugue. Although no complete 'fantasias' survive – they were probably 'preconceived' improvisations – the Andante Cantabile began life as the opening section of such a work and was written for the opening of the new organ by Henry Willis in the Agricultural Hall, Islington, in November 1863. How much the audience heard is another matter, as it was performed during the interval in Messiah to the accompaniment of impatient members banging their walking sticks on the floor. It was, The Musical Standard dryly observed, 'like casting pearls before swine'.

Many years after Wesley's death one of his sons referred to the 'considerable amount of unfinished organ music' left by his father, and it is likely that the Voluntary: Grave and Andante (1872), Andante in C (1871) and Andante in E minor (1877) once formed part of that collection. Although all three were published in the 1870s, they belong stylistically more to the 1830s or 1840s and were probably only dusted down before publication. Like many of his works the Andante in E minor and Andante in C both 'borrow' material from earlier pieces – the former from the (then) unpublished anthem ' To my request and earnest cry ' and the latter from the 'trio' section of the Choral Song.

Wesley's final years were clouded by his increasing disillusion with life and gradually failing health, but one redeeming feature was a new friendship with the Devon GP Dr Linnington Ash. Ash had paid for the installation of a carillon at the parish church in Holsworthy, for which Wesley wrote two melodies. He later used one as the basis for An Air Composed for Holsworthy Church Bells (1874). With its simple, clear-cut textures and undemanding harmonies, it is a tuneful piece that bears all the hallmarks of Wesley's 'late' style and has remained one of his most popular works for the organ.

Tantalisingly small though it was, Wesley's contribution to the development of English organ music was of considerable significance, not least because he was the only major composer active over a period when the character of the native instrument, and the music written for it, was changing radically. As such he paved the way for the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century revival of organ music, and thereby provided a link between his father and such composers as Stanford, Elgar and Howells. But above all else, his music is the product of a remarkable musical mind and as such will always occupy an honoured place in the repertoire.

Peter Horton

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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.

Michael Hart

 


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