The finest composer in the English choral tradition since Purcell (until Stanford), Samuel Sebastian Wesley's irascible character overshadowed much of his greatness as a composer. Highly acclaimed as an organist and improviser (he was hailed in 1843 as the greatest living organist), his compositions for the Anglican church, to the exclusion of nearly all other genres, has prevented all but a localized appreciation for his talents.
Wesley was the illegitimate son of Samuel Wesley and Sarah Suter. He was born in London on 14 August 1810 and was named after his father's favourite composer, J S Bach. He became a chorister of the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace and often sang at St Paul's Cathedral. Upon leaving in 1826 he held several posts as an organist in the London area and published his first compositions, including songs and pieces for piano and organ. In 1832, Wesley left London, beginning a long career as a cathedral organist.
Wesley's appointment at Hereford cathedral had a strong effect on his development as a composer. It was for Hereford that he wrote his famous and important anthems The wilderness and the solitary place and Blessed be the God and Father. Wesley also conducted the Three Choirs Festival in 1834 but sowed the seeds of his downfall when he ran away with the dean's sister, Mary Anne, marrying her on 4 May 1835.
After a move to Exeter cathedral that began well but soon deteriorated when constant disagreements occurred between Wesley and the dean, Wesley took the degrees of BMus and DMus at Oxford. This allowed him to apply for academic appointments, for all of which he either withdrew or was defeated, a result no doubt of Wesley's combative personality at a time when influence was more important than ability.
The offer of the post of organist of Leeds Parish Church with a salary of £200 tempted Wesley away from Exeter, a move he was later to regret. While at Leeds, he completed the service in E, one of his masterpieces. It was published in 1845 with a lengthy preface that argued vehemently for reform in cathedral music.
In 1847 Wesley fell and broke his leg on the way back from a fishing trip. During his recovery, he composed the anthems Cast me not away and The face of the Lord, both of which contain references to injury and bones, with descriptive crunching discords. In 1849, Wesley took a post at Winchester cathedral so he could send his sons to Winchester College, and in August 1850 became the first professor of organ at the Royal Academy of Music.
In 1853 he finally published his Twelve Anthems, made up of works from the previous 20 years, but when a new precentor was appointed to Winchester in 1858, tension between Wesley and the cathedral authorities began to grow. Asked by Gloucester cathedral to help them choose a new organist, he offered his services instead, and in his new role found himself conducting the Three Choirs Festival again after 30 years. At the 1871 festival he introduced Bach's St Matthew Passion for the first time.
Wesley's last years were marred by illness and bitterness, though he was financially secure: he refused a knighthood but was granted a Civil List pension. In 1875 Wesley began to suffer from respiratory difficulties. He played the organ for the last time on Christmas Day and died on 19 April 1876 from Bright's Disease.
Despite a career marked by conflict and suspicion, Wesley was loved by choir members and pupils. He also seems to have been particularly supportive of young musicians. An admirer of Bach, Spohr and his own father, his music contains much that is profoundly beautiful and innovative in the context of Anglican church music.