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notes © 2002 Redcliffe recordings


Voluntary in C minor, Op.6 No.3

Voluntary in C, Op.6 No.6 Largo e maestoso
- Andante larghetto
Voluntary in G minor, Op.6 No.9 Larghetto- Quasi
Voluntary in A, Op.6 No.11 Larghetto maestoso
- Allegro commodo
Voluntary in F, Op.6 No.12
With spirit but not quick
Moderately slow

Voluntary in B flat

for Thomas Attwood
Moderately slow
Lively Allegro

From Twelve Short Pieces

No.8 in F
No.9 in F

Wesley’s friend Vincent Novello said of him: "Samuel Wesley was one of the greatest musical geniuses that England ever produced."

This is true. He was the most important composer of the classical period in England, the very opposite of insular and provincial. We see in him the meeting-point of many traditions: mediaeval plainchant, Renaissance polyphony, Bach, the Viennese School of Haydn and Mozart. His output, which is very large, covers every genre except opera.

He was born on 24 February, 1766 in Bristol, the youngest of three surviving children of Charles Wesley the hymn writer, and Sarah Gwynne. His uncle John Wesley was the founder of Methodism. Samuel was a precocious and prolific composer. His early compositions were heard in the subscription house-concerts, arranged by him and his brother Charles jnr., in the family home in Marylebone, 1779-1787. These concerts were an important stage in his developing musicianship, his first contact with a live audience. But his burgeoning musicianship found its first creative outlet in the elaborate ritual of the Roman Catholic liturgy, still practised in London at certain foreign embassy chapels. Most notable was that of the Portuguese Embassy, where the musical director Samuel Webbe was receptive to the genius of Samuel Wesley.

So it was that, starting in 1784 with the Missa de Spiritu Sancto, the first work of his maturity, choral works, many of them Latin, occupy his chief attention until about 1800. Exultate Deo. Confitebor, Ode to St Cecilia, Ave mans stella all fall within this period. Thereafter the range of his compositions broadens to include instrumental, orchestral, chamber music, with innovatory work in different categories - symphony, overture, string quartet, chamber music, solo song, and keyboard music for organ and piano - the first for many a year by a British composer to respond in classical vein to the many-sided European tradition.

Yet Vincent Novello, for all his eulogy, seems to have been unable to influence the musical ethos of his day In his lifetime the composer was largely ignored, certainly by the Establishment. Das Land ohne Musik gave scant place to Wesley. After his death in 1837 the arbiters of Victorian taste disowned him. To us today he is all but unknown.

All but, yet not quite entirely. The 20th century re-discovery of Wesley’s music began in the early 1970s, with the first performance in modem times of Confitebor in York Minster. Further performances, broadcasts, and the serious publication of some of the chief works, continued gradually over the following years, peaking in September 1997 with the spectacular world premiere - 213 years after its composition - of the Missa de Spiritu Sancto in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

The organ figured prominently in Wesley’s life. Indeed his reputation, like that of Bach, rested mainly on his excellence as an organist, though this was not enough to earn him a church appointment. Nevertheless, in addition to Organ Concertos, he composed over 100 works for solo organ. If we exclude incomplete fragments and easy teaching pieces, his most important, characteristic organ works fall into two main categories;

1 Large-scale pieces, in one or more movements, calling for a developed instrument, with independent manual divisions and pedals. Chief under this heading are the Twelve Voluntaries Op. 6 (1805-18 18), and pieces written for the leading organists of the day, notably the Prelude, Arietta and Fugue in C minor (1826) for Thomas Adams, and the Voluntary in B flat (1829) for Thomas Atrwood, organist of St Paul’s Carthedral.

2 Small-scale pieces, suitable for an instrument of the period, such as one by Snetzler or Elliot, with one or more manuals and no pedals. Chief in this category are the Twelve Short Pieces (1815), and Duet (1812).

The big Op.6 set were first published singly, beginning in or before 1805, by W Hodsoll (1-VI, Xl and XII) and Robert Birchall (VII-X). The last of the set, No. XII, was published in 1818 or afterwards. Following Birchall’s death in 1819, Hodsoll brought out a complete edition, in two books of six, using the same plates. The autograph of one of the Volunraries, No. X, is in the British Library, Add 35008, f. 1, dated January 1814.

Wesley was impeded by restrictions in organ composition. He had no cathedral or church appointment. He was viewed askance by the ecclesiastical Establishment, and was only able to gain access to an instrument through the good offices of friends, when they obtained their own appointments; Benjamin Jacobs to the Surrey Chapel, Blackfriars in 1794, and Vincent Novello to the Portuguese Embassy in 1797.

A further restriction, and more far-reaching, was inherent in the instrument for which he had to write. The organ of his day had two chief limitations; first, the absence of a pedal organ, even if some instruments had pull-down pedals, or couplers, for the lowest notes; second, the absence of a tonally distinctive character for the divisions other than the Great. It was essentially a one- manual instrument, in spite of a second, and occasionally (as in the Portuguese Embassy Chapel) a third manual.

But Wesley was a cosmopolitan, visionary musician, whose contacts with the German community in London made him aware of the instrument and the tradition for which Bach wrote. lt was a wholly different world from that by which he was constrained in England. Bach’s works could not adequately be performed even on the best organs in England, and Wesley went to extreme lengths in recitals to try to meet this deficiency.

The famous Bach recitals (1808-18 13) which he and Jacobs presented at the Surrey Chapel coincided exactly with the years when the Op.6 Voluntaries were being composed (1805-1818). As he pointed out later in his Reminiscences (1837), English organs would not always be the limited ones he knew. Change however would be gradual, yet radical enough to address the two chief limitations already mentioned.

Wesley’s large-scale works for solo organ represent his creative, visionary response to the European tradition, and his conception of the direction that British organ-building would one day take. The free invention of these Voluntaries makes them Sonatas in all but name, as they burst asunder the tradition of the 18th century English Voluntary, inherited from Greene, Boyce and Stanley, which had become ossified since about 1790.

The pieces here performed cover the years 1805-1829, the centre of Wesley’s career. They exploit the nature and soul of the organ in a way no English composer had done before him - its ability to sustain a mood or sonority, its contrapunral capabilities, its capacity for keyboard virtuosity, its variety and range of tone colour, its unique sustained quietness, its ability to solo out a melody. By the time he came to compose his Op.6 Voluntaries, after 1800, the features of Wesley’s mature style were plain; chromaticism of the melodic line; harmonic subtlety, mastery of contrapuntal techniques, fondness for theme and variations, use of dotted rhythms, unisons, dramatic contrasts.

Voluntary in C minor, Op.6 No.3 is made up of two movements for full organ, played without a break. The first exploits the dramatic contrast of loud and quiet registration, and dotted rhythm. The second is a complex double fugue, based on the ascending chromatic fourth, like the traditional sixteenth century Hexachord Fanfasia.

Voluntary in C, Op.6 No.6 is another two-movement structure, in which the second movement follows the first without a break. The work opens with a bold unison for full organ, freely developed with runs and dotted rhythms. Wesley holds over the contrast of quiet registration until the main, chorale - like theme of the second movement, which consists of the alternation of the air with a fugue based on it. This procedure was adopted later by Mendelssohn in his first Organ Sonata in F, Op.65 (1844). Further evidence that Wesley and Mendelssohn knew each others’ work can be seen in the closing bars with which Mendelssohn concludes this sonata. They are interchangeable with the improvisation - chords which Wesley places at the close of the A major fugue, in his Voluntary in A, Op.6 No.11.

Voluntary in G minor, Op.6 No.9 is in three harmonically related movements, constructed on a variation basis. The concluding fugal movement in the major key is the final version of the earlier theme; its subject is a variant, with one note substituted, of the material of the opening movement. It’s nature is consistent with a subdued registration, allowing for the articulation to contribute its effect, like a Trio Sonata.

Voluntary in A, Op.6 No.11 consists of two movements for full organ, played without a break. The first uses brilliant keyboard figuration, with that most characteristic of all early English registrations, the five rank Cornet, short note runs and dotted rhythms. The second is a massive fugue whose subject, one of the most colourful Wesley ever wrote, is derived from the opening of the first movement.

Voluntary in F Op. 6 No.12 continues in its fugal central movement the fugue of the eleventh Voluntary. Evidently Wesley has not said all he wishes to say on this theme. The movement does not open with the fugue subject, but with a homophonic ritornello, which later recurs with harmonic variants, and acts as a framework for the contrapuntal sections. This fugue is framed by solo movements in the same key, like prologue and epilogue. The perfect symmetry of the third movement falls into three sections , A - B - A, consisting of 16 bars for each section, the solo mutation melody exactly repeated, and the flutes in thirds in the middle section.

Voluntary in B flat for Thomas Attwood This work, composed in 1829 is one of Wesley’s last organ compositions; it is also one of his grandest. His concept is a broad one, and the three movements represent a gradual growth of dynamic strength, and a gradual increase of speed. The strutting fugue subject is the goal to which the previous movements have led, and the sense of climax is further enhanced by the sequence of chromatically expanding intervals which make it up - diminished fourth, perfect fourth, diminished fifth. Many passages contain references to Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542; the brilliantly descending chordal passage (III, 105-110), the use of chromatic scale and abstruse tonal centres, such as B flat minor and E flat minor. In writing such a virtuoso work for the organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, Wesley was paying Attwood the highest compliment he knew.

Twelve Short Pieces, No.8, No.9 Since the Chorale Prelude of the German school was an impossibility in England, where the tradition lacked a popular repertoire of hymns, Wesley took instead, for his short pieces, the various tonal aspects of the 18th century instrument that was available to him, and used them as vehicles for 2-part studies: Full with the trumpet, Full without the trumpet, Comet, Flute etc.. The most striking feature of these polished, concentrated miniatures is the integrated use of chromaticism. The middle section o No. 8 is built on a chromatically ascending bass line.

©2002 Redcliffe Recordings


Kassler, Michael; Olleson, Philip
Samuel Wesley (1766-1837)
A source book
(Ashgate, 2001)

Routh, Francis
Early English Organ Music
(Barrie and Jenkins,1973)
The music of Samuel Wesley is published by Redcliffe Edition, London



The American organist David Herman is Trustees Distinguished Professor of Music and University Organist at the University of Delaware, where he served as department chair from 1987 to 2001. He is also organist of St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Newark. A native of Pennsylvania, he holds degrees from Wittenberg University, the University of Michigan and the University of Kansas. He made a special study of British music through a period in England with the late Susi Jeans.

He is an intemationally known recitalist, who has toured frequently in England, Wales, Ireland and Germany, and played on many of the significant organs of Europe and North America.

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