|Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough|
|- Church Music Dublin -|
This year we celebrate the tercentenary of the birth of Charles Wesley, the hymn writer and brother of John Wesley (17031791). The movement they founded (circa. 1729) was in time to become the 'Methodist' Church. Its members being named Methodists because of their methodical use of their time in study and devotion. As an itinerant preacher, Charles, having taken holy orders in 1735, became a leading figure supporting the early development of Methodism. However it is his hymn writing and indeed his musical progeny that define the clearest place for him in literature and music as we look back over the three hundred years since his birth.
Wesley the hymn writer
The scope of his writing extended to over 6500 hymns many of which remain popular to this day. The finest of his writings have been classed as 'among the greatest achievements of English Protestant Christianity, fit to hold a place with the Book of Common Prayer, the poems of George Herbert and the hymns of Isaac Watts'.
Charles Wesley's hymns, saturated in biblical language and imagery, proved an extraordinary means of teaching people doctrine. Church congregations in his time were often illiterate and would have a hymn 'lined-out' by the preacher who would read two lines of the hymn, which the people then sang, and he would read two more and continue with this until the full hymn had been sung. Variety of metres in Wesleyan hymns often resulted in bright rhythm settings in contrast to the common metre which dominated Church of England congregational music of the day.
The Wesleyan use of elaborate anthem-like tunes is often attributed to the Moravian and German chorale influences which the Methodist movement absorbed in its early days. Singing in these early Methodist congregations was usually unaccompanied with one hymn often sung to many different tunes. In 1780 John Wesley published his definitive version of hymns recommending particular tunes for each hymn. In time the use of chamber orchestras/bands became common in Methodist worship services. The first organ to be used in a Methodist church in Ireland did not appear until 1869 when the Methodists on St Stephen's Green acquired an instrument.
The current Methodist' Hymns and Psalms (1983) contains some 156 of Charles Wesley's hymns. The Preface to the earlier 1933 Hymn Book uses the oft-quoted reference that Methodism 'was born in song'; a banner surely arising from the seminal influence of Charles Wesley. His brother John, while appearing to have little appreciation of music for its own sake, recognised it as a vehicle for words; his advice to congregations was: Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as much as you can.
Sing lustily, and with good courage Sing modestly. Do not bawl. Sing in time. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. These principles are as relevant to congregational singing today as when first penned.
Charles and Ireland
Charles Wesley spent two periods in Ireland, September 1747 to March 1748 and August 1748 to October 1748. A hymn book published by him in Dublin in 1749 and entitled 'Collection of Hymns and Sacred Poems', contained for the first time, the tune 'Irish' (God moves in a mysterious way) with the music editing of this book undertaken by his friend, composer John F. Lampe (1703–1751). A subsequent publication of compositions by Lampe 'Hymns for the Great Festivals' proved popular in Dublin. The association of G.F.Handel (16851759) with Methodism resulted in him composing his series of Methodist Hymn Tunes, 'Gopsal' perhaps being the best known tune still in regular use today for the Wesleyan hymn 'Rejoice, the Lord is King'. John Wesley's journal records how impressed he was at hearing 'Messiah' in Bristol Cathedral in 1758. Messiah had of course been premiered in Dublin in 1742. By 1786 a musical society had been formed in Dublin called the 'Sons of Handel' which undertook performances of Handel's music to raise funds for Methodist charitable work amongst the poor of the city.
Influence within Anglicanism
By the mid 1750s Charles had gradually withdrawn from the development of Methodism. He was particularly unhappy with John's ordination of preachers to go to America but notwithstanding disagreements remained on good terms with his brother. Charles remained unswervingly loyal to the Church of England throughout his long and eventful life.
There was some resistance within the Church of Ireland to John Wesley as a 'field preacher' speaking from pulpits in the Dublin diocese but the Dean of St Patrick's, William Cradock, in 1789, while not allowing him preach, nevertheless invited him to assist in the administration of Holy Communion in the Cathedral.
The Church Hymnal (fifth edition) contains 21 hymns by Charles Wesley, some of the better known perhaps being
His musical progeny
Charles Wesley's influence on the development of English church music through his sons Charles the younger (1757–1834) and Samuel (1766–1837) and in turn his grandson Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810–1876) can not be underestimated.
Before his third birthday, Charles the younger could play on the harpsichord, any tune he heard, adding a correct bass. Samuel, considered more backward, didn't show exceptional music talent until almost age five. By age eight he had presented a draft of an oratorio 'Ruth' to Dr Boyce (1710-1779) who kept it in his library, regarding it as his most precious musical possession. While Charles the younger was a confirmed Handelian, Samuel became a strong advocate of the music of J.S.Bach, which clearly influenced his developing compositional style. The revival of interest in the music of Bach in England can be attributed in a large measure to Samuel Wesley, in collaboration with Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (18091847).
In turn, the work of Samuel Sebastian Wesley who held Cathedral/ parish organists posts in Hereford, Exeter, Leeds, Winchester, and Gloucester was hugely influential in reforming cathedral music standards. The Musical World xxiv (1849) 564, said of him 'As a organist, he is, we believe not second to any in the kingdom'. As a composer, his 'Twelve Anthems' published in 1853 were highly regarded and many are in the repertoire of parish choirs throughout these islands to this day. The hymn tune 'Hereford' ( O Thou who camest from above ) is perhaps his most enduring popular achievement.
The last words
So, with the elapse of 300 years since the birth of Charles Wesley it is clear his legacy has touched us in many forms. I'm hard pressed to choose a verse or two to conclude this short review of his impact, particularly on the work of so many church musicians. In leaving the concluding words to Charles I'm torn between the encouragement of:
And the visionary elation of:
Derek Seymour is Organist and Director of Music at Methodist Centenary Church, Leeson Park Dublin.
Last Modified 8/22/12 2:43 PM