Organist and composer Samuel Sebastian Wesley was born on the 14th August 1810 in London, England. He was the oldest child of Samuel Wesley, also a composer and grandson of Charles Wesley, who himself wrote over 6500 hymns! So, composing really was in Wesley’s family. His father was an admirer of the composer Bach, hence Wesley’s middle name Sebastian.
As a boy, Wesley used to sing in the choir of Chapel Royal (an establishment of the Royal Family) under choirmaster William Hawes. Hawes though so highly of Wesley that once his voice broke, he decided to employ him at the English Opera House as a pianist and also as a choral conductor.
He decided that he wanted to pursue a musical career and in 1832, he gained an appointment as the organist for Hereford Cathedral, so left London. He also began composing anthems and hymn tunes. A notable composition from 1832 was The Wilderness.
While working at Hereford Cathedral, he met, eloped with and married the sister of Dean, John Merryweather and they went on to have 6 children. Like his father before him, on the 17th September 1833, Wesley was initiated into the Freemasons Palladian Lodge Number 20.
In 1835, he moved jobs to Exeter Cathedral and joined their local Freemason lodge, St George’s Lodge Number 129 on the 10th December 1835. The next few years were busy for him as he studied hard for his Bachelor of Music degree and a Doctor of Music also. He achieved both qualifications from Oxford University in 1839.
His career in churches and cathedrals continued, holding firstly a post in Leeds Parish Church from 1842. In 1847, he had an accident on a fishing trip, falling and breaking his right leg. This meant playing the pedals on the organ became difficult for him. However, he moved on to Winchester Cathedral from 1849. In 1850, he became the first Professor of the Organ at the Royal Academy of Music. While he was at Winchester, he was instrumental in securing the acquisition of the Father Willis organ in 1854. This had been on show at The Great Exhibition of 1851. Wesley, along with Henry ‘Father’ Willis, is credited with inventing the concave and radiating organ pedalboard.
In 1864, he composed one of his most popular hymn tunes entitled Aurelia, which in 2011, was arranged for brass band by James McFadyen. It is usually sung to the words ‘The Church’s One Foundation’ and is particularly popular in the USA. After Winchester Cathedral, he gained appointments at Winchester College and Gloucester Cathedral between 1865 and 1876.
He sadly died of Bright’s Disease aged 65, on the 19th April 1876 at his Gloucester home. He is buried in St Bartholomew’s Cemetery in Exeter next to his daughter. Gloucester Cathedral commissioned a special stained-glass window as a memorial for Wesley. Further memorials are in Winchester and Exeter Cathedrals in the form of tablets. He leaves a legacy of being one of the England’s best choirmasters, organists and composers of music for the Church of England. In addition to anthems, services and hymn tunes, he wrote many pieces for the organ too. He did write the occasional orchestral, piano and secular piece.