The Legacy of the Wesleys

Posted by Tinsley.Silcox on August 22, 2017

Winchester Cathedral

When Brent asked me to write about the Wesleys, I immediately thought about the plaque in the south transept of Winchester Cathedral, where the St. Mark’s Choir recently sang for a week as their choir in residence. It is a tribute to Samuel Wesley, who served as Organist/Choirmaster at Winchester in the late 1700s, and was responsible for the installation of the cathedral organ, which we were privileged to use during our services. What an amazing experience – to use the instrument installed and played by Samuel in the Cathedral where he served.

Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), younger son of Charles Wesley was, like his brother, a fine musician and child prodigy. Samuel, according to his father, was able to play his first tune before he was three, and by four had taught himself to read music. At the age of five, he “had all the recitatives and choruses of Messiah, both words and notes by heart.” He was often referred to as the English Mozart. By 1776, when the family moved to London, Charles Wesley had resigned himself to the idea that his sons were going to be musicians, despite his misgivings about the suitability of music as a profession, and to the disapproval of their Methodist friends. Samuel’s career was marred and disrupted by periods of depression. His largest output of music is Latin church music, spanning over 40 years. 

John Wesley (1703-1791) was a clergyman and one of the founders (along with his brother Charles) of Methodism. His views on music were of great importance in English and American musical history. The Methodist movement began in the religious group he founded at Oxford in 1729.  His first collection of music, Collection of Psalms and Hymns contained translations of German hymns. In 1742, he issued the Foundry Tune Book, which contained the first collection of Methodist church music.  John believed in “the great power of music over men’s hearts” and wanted to harness this power for good. In fact, he often spoke of his personal conversion as having occurred while listening to an anthem in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

In 1761, in the back of his Select Hymns with Tunes, John wrote the following: “If a choir sang, they must sing words with a clear meaning and appeal, and so that all could hear them. If the congregation sang, they must sing heartily, standing up, not too slowly, and without vain repetition.”

By 1757, Wesley was able to boast of the great superiority of Methodist singing: “Their solemn addresses to God are not interrupted either by the formal drawl of a parish clerk, the screaming of boys who bawl out what they neither feel nor understand, or the unseasonable and unmeaning impertinence of a voluntary on the organ. When it is seasonable to sing praise to God, they do it with the spirit and the understanding also… all standing before God, and praising him lustily, and with a good courage.”

Charles Wesley was the main hymnist in the family, but John translated a number of hymns (mostly German) himself. It is the hymnody of Charles (1707-1788), who wrote hundreds of hymns, that we recognize and still sing today. Among them are many of our favorites:

A Charge to Keep
And Can It Be That I Should Gain
Christ the Lord is Risen Today
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Jesus, Lover of My Soul
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
O for A Thousand Tongues to Sing
Rejoice, the Lord is King
Ye Servants of God

Tinsley Silcox is Director of Music at NorthPark Presbyterian. During his tenure, the Sanctuary Choir has performed numerous large works with orchestra, including Handel’s Messiah, Faure’s Requiem, Rutter’s Gloria and Requiem, Duruflé’s Requiem, and Beethoven’s Mass in C Major.  Choirs at NorthPark under his direction have sung for the AdventSing in Vienna, Austria, where the choir also performed at Schönbrum Palace, for the Festival Chorale Toscana in Montecatini Terme, Italy, and at cathedrals across the United Kingdom, including St. Paul’s in London, Glouchester Cathedral, and St. Jiles in Edinburgh.


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