One of the most accomplished English composers of the 18th century, Boyce absorbed the Italian style of the late Baroque from his friend and mentor, Maurice Greene. His finest works include his collection of Eight Symphonies, though for years he was best known for his anthems and his editing of Cathedral Music.
Born in London and baptised on 11 September 1711, Boyce was admitted to the music school of St Paul's Cathedral in 1719 and, upon entering the choir, fell under the guidance of organist Maurice Greene. When his voice broke he became a pupil of Greene's and acted as his music copyist until 1736; he also studied with J C Pepusch who nurtured his interest in the great English and Italian composers of the Renaissance. In these early years, Boyce began to notice the tragic onset of deafness.
Boyce's first compositions began to emerge in the 1730s, while making a living as a harpsichord teacher and organist. By 1736 over a dozen anthems of his were in the repertory of the Chapel Royal, and Greene promoted his music wherever he could. Public recognition of his talents came with his appointment as a Composer to the Chapel Royal on the death of John Weldon in May 1736. In 1738, along with Greene, Handel and other prominent musicians, he helped found what became the Royal Society of Musicians.
With his reputation growing, Boyce achieved a notable success with the serenata Solomon, given in Dublin in the early 1740s, and followed it with the publication of Twelve Sonatas for Two Violins and a Bass in 1747. Descended from the Corelli model, they were soon recognised as the most distinguished English examples of the genre.
In 1748, Boyce became organist of All Hallows, the parish church of Joiners' Hall (his father had been a joiner and cabinet maker) and in 1749 he was awarded a doctorate from Cambridge. He continued to contribute music for London's theatres and in 1759 provided the popular patriotic song 'Heart of Oak' for a Garrick pantomine.
Marriage in 1752 followed before the death of his friend Greene in December 1755 opened up the post of Master of the King's Musick. When John Travers died in June 1758, he also became an organist at the Chapel Royal. With so many commitments and the problems of increasing deafness, something had to give and in March 1764 he was dismissed from All Hallows.
Boyce had also been working to complete Greene's work Cathedral Music, and in 1760 he published the Eight Symphonys, a collection of orchestral overtures written for a variety of works between 1739 and 1756. As the senior composer at the Chapel Royal he was also called upon to compose music for the funeral of George II and the marriage of George III, probably the highlight of his public career.
Boyce continued his royal duties, though semi-retired, and encouraged the younger generation, including the Wesley brothers (Samuel and Charles). When he died on 7 February 1779, the public's grief-laden response was almost unprecedented. He was buried in St Paul's and at his funeral service the combined choirs of St Paul's, the Chapel Royal, and Westminster Abbey sang his anthem If we believe that Jesus died.
Boyce was the ultimate professional, and many of his anthems unfortunately reflect the routine circumstances of their composition. Nevertheless, there is much in Boyce's output that reveals the depth of his talent. Works such as Solomon, the trio sonatas and See famed Apollo and the nine still remain relatively unknown, but contain some of his finest music. Although drawing upon Handel for his music to grand royal events, he remained independent from his great contemporary, and ranks alongside Thomas Arne at the pinnacle of English Baroque music.