Date of Birth: 14 August 1810
Date of Death: 19 April 1876
Period/Era/Style: Early Romantic-era
Born in London, he was the eldest child in the composer Samuel Wesley’s second family, which he formed with Sarah Suter having separated from his wife Charlotte. Samuel Sebastian was the grandson of Charles Wesley. His middle name derived from his father’s lifelong admiration for the music of Bach.
Famous in his lifetime as one of his country’s leading organists and choirmasters, he composed almost exclusively for the Church of England, which continues to cherish his memory. His better-known anthems include Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace and Wash me throughly. He also wrote several rather late examples of verse anthems, which contrast unison and contrapuntal sections with smaller, more intimate passages for solo voice or voices. Blessed be the God and Father, The Wilderness and Ascribe unto the Lord are of considerable length, as is his Service in E.
The popular short anthem Lead me, Lord is an extract from Praise the Lord, O my soul. Several of his pieces for solo organ have enduring value and continue to be played in recitals now and then.
Of his hymn tunes the best-known are “Aurelia” and “Hereford”, but “Cornwall” and “Harewood” are also particularly fine. “Aurelia” has been widely adopted in the United States, and is regularly heard there. Usually now sung to the words “The Church’s One Foundation”, Wesley composed the tune for the hymn “Jerusalem the Golden”, hence the name “Aurelia”.
One notable feature of his career is his aversion to equal temperament, an aversion which he kept for decades after this tuning method had been accepted on the Continent and even in most of England. Such distaste did not stop him from substantial use of chromaticism in several of his published compositions.
While at Winchester Cathedral Wesley was largely responsible for the Cathedral’s acquisition in 1854 of the Father Willis organ which had been exhibited at The Great Exhibition, 1851. The success of the Exhibition organ led directly to the award of the contract to Willis for a 100-stop organ for St George’s Hall, Liverpool built in 1855. Wesley was the consultant for this major and important project, but the organ was, arguably, impaired for some years by Wesley’s insistence that it was initially tuned to unequal temperament.
Wesley, with Father Willis, can be credited with the invention of the concave and radiating organ pedalboard, but demurred when Willis proposed that it should be known as the “Wesley-Willis” pedalboard. However, their joint conception has been largely adopted as an international standard for organs throughout the English-speaking world and those exported elsewhere.