Wesley took his middle name from his father’s love of Bach’s music and is known to have been ‘saturated with old-time ideas, clinging even to the long-condemned and barbarous system for tuning in unequal temperament’ (Audsley). Wesley’s old-fashioned ideas may well have been a saving grace as far as his compositions are concerned. Trends in anthem-writing at the end of the eighteenth century had shown a tendency towards deteriorating taste; many anthems were multi-sectional, intent merely on showing off the merits of individual singers. S S Wesley composed using the multi-sectional formats he had inherited, although the individual sections show a greater measure of structural integrity.
This is well illustrated in the anthem Ascribe unto the Lord (one of the Twelve Anthems published in 1853), where the frivolity of operatic solos, exemplified in Travers’s anthem of the same name, give way to quasi recitativo sections written on a broad canvas, clearly proclaiming the text. The opening of Wesley’s anthem is bold and authoritative, leading to one of the glories of English nineteenth-century church music at the words ‘Let the whole earth stand in awe of him’. Today the listener may well stand in awe of the composer’s brilliant harmonic control, all the more effective for being repeated a fourth lower. A quartet follows for four upper voices and then a fugato (‘As for the gods of the heathen’) interrupted by a description of the idols sung by the various sections of the choir. A sudden return to the home key of G major brings forth the triumphant chorus ‘As for our God, he is in heaven’. The final section ‘The Lord hath been mindful of us’ will send even the hardest of secular hearts on their way home humming any one of the fine selection of tunes.
from notes by William McVicker © 2002
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