The Organ

Samuel Sebastian Wesley: A Life

Peter Horton
Oxford University Press (Oxford Studies in British Church Music)
ISBN 0 19 8261468

Samuel Sebastian Wesley was one of the leading lights in the development of Victorian church music. A significant talent as both organist and composer, he campaigned vigorously throughout his career for improved standards in cathedral music and a higher status for cathedral organists. Despite his considerable stature, he never quite made the grade in terms of posts held or final influence on the composition and performance of church music. In terms of organ design, there were and are many who felt that his was a reactionary influence, with his stubborn and at times slavish adherence to G compass and unequal temperament.

Peter Horton's study is a substantial and high quality work. It is thoroughly researched piece of work that owes much to the fact that the author has been studying Wesley for some time - gaining a PhD in the subject on the way. There is a complete work list and index of works as well as a general index. The book is extensively illustrated with plates and musical examples. I was fascinated by the reproduction of Wesley's 'giving out' of the hymn tune 'St Anne'.

The approach is a chronological one, starting with Wesley's time in London and then moving through his various organist appointments: Hereford, Exeter, Leeds, Winchester and Gloucester. The final chapter - 'Wesley the Romantic' - sums up the organist-composer's musical position and impact in his day and subsequently. There is a significant drawing upon primary source material and the scholarship is of the highest quality throughout. The price might be off-putting to many, but I would recommend this study to all major libraries and to individuals particularly interested in 19th English church and cathedral music.