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Ascribe unto the Lord

composer
1853; from the collection Twelve Anthems
author of text
Psalm 96: 7-10, 2, 3, 5; Psalm 115: 4-8, 3, 12-15

 
Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810–1876) was the illegitimate son of Samuel Wesley (1766–1837) and Sarah Suter, who had been his housekeeper. Suter bore him several children and their relationship out of wedlock continued because of Samuel’s addiction to the unorthodox views on marriage held by Martin Madan, the minister of the then-fashionable non-conformist Lock Chapel. Despite the stigma attached to being illegitimate—a very considerable burden at the turn of the nineteenth century—Samuel Sebastian was to become the most important English church composer between Purcell and Stanford.

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

Recordings

Wesley: Anthems, Vol. 1
CDA66446Archive Service
Epiphany at St Paul's
CDH55443Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

Details

Complete: Ascribe unto the Lord
Track 11 on CDH55443 [14'54] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Part 1: Ascribe unto the Lord
Track 7 on CDA66446 [2'38] Archive Service
Part 2: O worship the Lord
Track 8 on CDA66446 [2'43] Archive Service
Part 3: As for the Gods of Heaven
Track 9 on CDA66446 [4'11] Archive Service
Part 4: The Lord hath been mindful of us
Track 10 on CDA66446 [3'29] Archive Service

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