Memoirs of Dr. William Boyce – Part 1

James Erskine (Lord Alva) and his family in 1780 painted by David Allan (1744-1796)

The following memoirs of William Boyce (1711-1779) were written by the music historian John Hawkins (1719-1789) and were first published as a prefix to the second edition of Boyce’s Cathedral Music in March 1788.

Dr. William Boyce was born in the year 1710.AHis father was a citizen of London and a mechanic, viz. a joiner and cabinet-maker, who, discovering in his son while an infant, a delight in musical sounds, placed him for tuition under Mr. Charles King, almoner or more properly master of the children in the cathedral church of St. Paul’s, into which, after a little instruction in the music-school, he was admitted a chorister.

Upon the breaking of his voice and his consequent dismission from the choir, he was taken as an apprentice by Dr. Maurice Greene, then organist of that church, and by him taught the principles of music and the practice of choral service.

At the expiration of his apprenticeship, he became organist of the chapel in Vere Street near Cavendish Square, called Oxford Chapel; when being arrived at an age when his proficiency in his art enabled him to become a teacher of the harpsichord, he betook himself to that profession, and taught chiefly at boarding schools, and among others at Mr. Cavaller’s in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, then deemed the best seminary for female tuition of any in the kingdom.

St. Paul's Cathedral painted by Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768)

Greene, though an excellent organist and fine composer, was but meanly skilled in the theory of music; Boyce was a studious young man and a lover of the science; he let himself to explore the principals of harmony, and to improve his natural genius by all the aids that learning could afford: to this end, as did also many young men of that time, Travers, Keeble and others, he took lectures under Dr. Pepusch, the greatest theorist then living; perusing with a most sedulous attention, as well the works of the Romish Church-musicians, such as Palestrina, Orlando de Lassus, Stradella, and Carissimi, as the no less excellent composers of our own church, namely, Tallis, Bird, Purcell, Dr. Orlando Gibbons, and others.

The fruits of his studies under this eminent tutor, were compositions to words, which to speak of them particularly, were at first only single songs, and were mere essays of a genius teeming with invention, but were well received. Many yet remember the elegant air to which he set the song of Lord Chesterfield’s, addressed to lady Frances Shirley “When Fanny, blooming fair,” and that it was a lullaby to many a celebrated toast now living, and kept time with the rocking of her cradle.

From exercises trivial as these, he proceeded to others of greater import: Lord Lansdowne’s masque of Peleus and Thetis having never been set, at least to any advantage, held out to him a temptation to emulate Purcell, Weldon, and others, who, though church-musicians, had suffered themselves to be engaged in the service of the theatres, in an attempt at dramatic music. The masque above mentioned was of this kind; and though greatly inferior in the structure of it to the Comus of Milton and in the smoothness of its versification to the poetry of Waller, of whom Lord Lansdowne was an imitator, it had charms sufficient to attract the notice of Boyce; Accordingly he set it in recitative, with airs and choruses occasionally interspersed, and had it performed at the Philharmonic Society, where it was received with the applause due to its merit.

Such a proficiency in his art as the above particulars imply, must astonish every one when it is related that before the expiration of his apprenticeship, Boyce’s organs of hearing were so sensibly affected, that in a short time he became little less than deaf: a calamity like this, must in him who felt it, have damped the prosecution of a study which, exclusive of the understanding, tends to the gratification of a sense that in him was defective: Of musicians labouring under a deprivation of sight, history affords many instances; as Salinass, Krumhorn and others; but who ever heard of a deaf musician? this misfortune had however little effect on Boyce in diverting the course of his pursuits; it deprived him in some degree of a source of both delight and improvement, but he considered music as a mental and not a sensual pleasure, and secretly and with advantage contemplated that harmony which he could but just hear.

The cover page of The Memoirs

In the year 1736 he quitted his employment at Oxford Chapel, the salary, whereof was but small, being chosen organist of the parish church of St. Michael, Cornhill,B in the room of Mr. Joseph Kelway who had vacated that place by removing to the church of St. Martin in the Fields. Mr. Kelway was the immediate successor of Mr. Obadiah Shuttleworth, a mere harpsichord player, who having the advantage of a good finger, charmed his hearers with such music as was fit alone for that instrument, and drew after him greater numbers than came to hear the preacher.1Boyce, who well understood the nature and genius of the organ, on the contrary seldom played on any other stop than the stopped Diapason, and on that in three and four parts, in a Style suited both to the place, and the occasion.

Upon the decease of Mr. John Weldon in the same year, he was, in his room, appointed one of the composers to his Majesty.2The duty of this office is to compose anthems for the service of the royal chapel: Weldon had held it for upwards of twenty years, during which time he had composed a communion service and sundry anthems, two of which “In thee, O Lord, have I put my truth,” and “Hear my crying,” inserted in the following collection, are remarkable for the sweetness of the melody in a very eminent degree.

Having by his studies, and the many evidences of learning and invention exhibited in his compositions for the Chapel Royal, attained to great eminence in his faculty, he in the year 1749 set to music and published Solomon, a Serenata, as it is styled, being a version of the Canticles, written by Mr. Moore, author of the fables for the female sex. This person had been a tradesman in the city, but for some time had quitted business, and addicted himself to poetical studies and attaching himself to Mr. Garrick, was the author of sundry dramatic performances, which met with various success.3

The merits of Boyce’s Solomon are too well known to need any encomium, it may nevertheless be observed that the recitatives are to the greater degree expressive of amorous sentiments. Of the airs that occur in it, one deserves particular notice “Softly rise, O Southern breeze:” besides violin parts, it has a solo accompaniment by the bassoon, and was never heard but with the utmost attention.

The publication and frequent performance of this drama, for so it may be called, had placed the composer in the foremost rank of his profession, and encouraged him to publish in the year 1747 twelve Sonatas for two violins and a bass: before this time the Sonatas of Bassani and of Corelli, and the Balletti or airs of Albinoni, were the only practice for gentlemen-performers, and these having been composed at the latter end of the last century, were become so familiar to every musical ear, that a variety in these elegant amusements at the period above mentioned, was greatly wished for.

Besides the charm of novelty, these compositions of Boyce had every intrinsic excellence to recommend them. The fugues among them are conducted with great art, and the airs have an original and elegant cast. For near twenty years after their publication, they were performed between the acts at the theatres; but at length gave way to the tumid extravaganzas of Lord Kelly, Stamitz and Richter, in which the monotonous clangor of French horns served to cover all defects both of skill and invention.

The success of these his essays in secular composition, was no temptation with Boyce to consider his employment in the Royal Chapel as a sinecure; he contributed largely to the increase of the stock of music there performed, by the composition of anthems at divers times, and on sundry occasions. The number of anthems in practise in the Chapel Royal was, until Dr. Greene’s time, but small, consisting chiefly of those of Wise, Purcell, Blow, and Dr. Aldricb. It is true that in the year 1724 Dr. Croft, who by the way was the first publisher of anthems in score, gave to the world a collection, to the amount of thirty; but the stock even thus increased was surely inadequate to the performance of divine service twice a day throughout the year. To these, Greene added at least fifty, in a style less solemn it must be owned than those of his predecessors, but abounding in all the graces and elegancies which music had derived from the introduction of’ the Italian opera into this kingdom, and the subsequent improvements of Handel and Bononcini.

Forty anthems of Greene’s composition are happily in print, and if any one should question the character here given of them, he is referred for the truth of it to the following, viz: “I will sing of thy power,” “Lord let me know my end,” and “O Lord give ear unto my prayer.” Boyce’s addition to the stock of anthems above mentioned may be estimated at sixty.

Concerning this species of vocal harmony, it may be observed that in an age in which the love of music prevails even to affectation, its merits are but little known. The gay and the fashionable flock in crowds to places of public entertainment, to the opera, to the theatres, and to concerts, and pretend to be charmed with what they hear. 1t was once as fashionable to be alike attracted by the charms of choral music, where the hearers were sure of enjoying all the delight that could result from the united power: of sublime poetry, and harmony the most exquisite.

That this is no longer a practice, is owing to certain prejudices, which it may be deemed a kindness to remove; the one is, that the style of the music appropriated to divine offices is suited to melancholy tempers, of which opinion was the late King of Prussia, when he objected to certain compositions that had been shown him, that they smelt of the church: the other no less idle cavil is, that our cathedral music is inferior to that of foreign countries. As to the former objection, every one is at liberty to speak as he feels: In the opinion of some, divine service itself is but a dull employment: To the latter it may be answered that on good authority it is asserted, that from before the time of the reformation, the English have been celebrated for their skill in music, and it is well known that compositions of some of the most eminent of our church-musicians are preserved in the Vatican library4‘; with truth it may also be said, that whether we consider it in point of learning, sublimity, or elegance, the music of our church will not suffer by a comparison with that of any other in Europe.

Soon after, Boyce employed himself to collect a variety of songs and cantatas which he had occasionally set to music: these he published at different periods, under the title of Lyra Britannica.

In the year 1749, upon the erection of an organ in the church of the united parishes of Allhallows the Great and the Less; in Thames Street, in one of which Joiners Hall, the dwelling of his father5, is situate, he was requested by the parishioners to become their organist, which employment, notwithstanding his various other engagements, he accepted.

In the same year, upon the decease of the Duke of Somerset, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the Duke of Newcastle was elected his successor. Upon this occasion an Ode, written by Mr. Mason, was given to Mr. Boyce to set to music; and the same, and also an anthem suited to the solemnity, was publicly performed in the church of St. Mary on the first day of July in the above year, being Commencement-Sunday.

This performance seems to have answered two purposes, viz. the celebration of the Duke’s installation, and that of an exercise for a degree in music, which as an academical honour, Mr. Boyce was desirous of: he obtained it without any solicitation, and was, permitted by the university to accumulate the degrees of bachelor and doctor in his faculty. Both the ode and the anthem were published by himself, the former with a dedication to the Duke of Newcastle.

In the year 1749 he set to music a drama entitled The Chaplet, and in 1752 another, called The Shepherd’s Lottery, both written by Mr. Mendez and performed at Drury Lane Theatre.

Dr. Boyce, till about this time, had lived in apartments belonging to his father at Joiners’ Hall, but being now arrived at great eminence in his profession, he went to reside in a house in Quality Court, Chancery Lane, and soon after married.

Dr. Greene, who was living at this time, but advanced in years, considering the corrupted state of our cathedral music, which, by the multiplication of manuscript copies, and the ignorance of transcribers, was become so incorrect as that many of the services and anthems of which it consisted were scarce fit for practice, let himself to reform and secure it from future injury. It is true that, in the year 1641, a like attempt was made by the publication, under the patronage of King Charles the First, of a work entitled “The first book of selected church-music, consisting of services and anthems, such as are now used in the cathedral and collegiate churches of this kingdom, never before printed, whereby such books as were heretofore with much difficulty and charges transcribed for the use of the choir, are now, to the saving of much labour and expense, published for the general good of all such as shall desire them either for public or private exercise, collected out of divers approved authors, by John Barnard, one of the minor Canons of the cathedral church of St: Paul, London.” But this being printed not in score, but in parts, single books were in a short time purloined, and when by public authority the liturgy was abolished, and, the performance of choral service forbidden, the whole were considered as parts of a superstitious ritual, and seized as lawful plunder; and so general was the devastation, that Dr. Boyce himself has been heard to say, that the library of the church of Hereford was the only one in the kingdom in which he was able to find a complete set of Barnard’s books.

To repair this loss, and to prevent any such calamity for the future, Dr. Greene undertook to collate the several manuscript copies of the most esteemed services and anthems, composed for the use of the reformed church from the final establishment of its liturgy to his own time. To this end, he some years before his death, set himself to collect all the written church music, either in score or in parts, that he could come at, together with a complete set of the books published by Barnard. What progress he made in the collection, is not known; but it is certain that, dying in the year 1755, he was disappointed in his hopes of giving to the world the work he had so long meditated, and remitted to Dr. Boyce the future conduct and publication thereof, by a bequest in his will of all his manuscript music.

In the same year he was, by the Duke of Grafton, then Lord Chamberlain of his Majesty’s household, nominated to the office of master of the royal band of musicians, in the room of Dr. Greene6, upon whose decease the conduct of the annual performance at St Paul’s, for the benefit of the sons of the clergy, had, almost of course, devolved on him. His office at this solemnity, was standing at a kind of desk among the performers, with a roll of Paper in his right hand, to beat the time through every movement: this was the practice of his predecessor, and is continued to this day. Further to testify his regard for this institution, he composed instrumental parts to Purcell’s Te Deum, and also two anthems “Lord thou hast been our refuge” and “Blessed is he that considereth the poor,” which for their excellence have long been deemed an indispensable part of the performance.


  1.  Of this class of organists, Mr. Robinson, of St. Laurence Jewry, was the first. In parish churches the voluntary between the psalms and the first lesson was anciently a slow solemn movement, tending like the Sanctus in choral service, to compose the minds of the hearers, and to excite sentiments of piety and devotion. Mr. Robinson introduced a different practice, calculated to display the agility of his fingers in Allegro movements on the Cornet, Trumpet, Sesquialtera, and other noisy stops, degrading the instrument, and instead of the full and noble harmony with which it was designed to gratify the ear, tickling it with mere airs in two parts, in fact solos for a flute and a bass.
  2. This establishment owes its rise the zeal and bounty of Queen Mary, the consort of King William: the thoughts of it was suggested by Dr. Tillitson, when Dean of St. Paul’s; it was intended by her Majesty that there should be two composers, and that Blow and Purcell should be the persons, who should each produce a new anthem on the first Sunday of his month of waiting: but the design was not carried into execution till 1699, when Blow alone was nominated with a salary of £40 a year, Purcell being then dead. The nomination of a second composer slept till the year 1715, when Weldon was appointed, the other being Dr. Croft. At the same time an addition of persons was made to the gentlemen of the chapel, and a lutenist and violist alto appointed. See Sir John Hawkins’s History of Music, Vol. 1V. Page 487, Vol. V. 59.
  3. Mr. Moore has been heard to confess that he was unacquainted with any other language than his own, and that all his abilities for writing were derived from the perusal of the poets of our own country.
  4. Among which is the Gloria Patri, a canon of four parts in one, by Dr. Blow at the end of the Jubilate in his morning service in the key of G, and which is engraven on his monument in Westminster Abbey.
  5. He was beadle of the joiners’ Company.
  6. He was not sworn in till June 1757, when the Duke of Devonshire held that station, but performed the functions of the office from the time of his nomination.

Sir John Hawkins, March 1788

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The above memoirs contain the following now proven inaccuracies:

A. Boyce was born in 1711 (he was baptised on 11th September 1711 – baptism usually happened within a few days of birth).

B. Boyce was runner-up for the position of organist at St. Michael in 1734 – Joseph Kelway was elected.

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