Memoirs of Dr. William Boyce – Part 2

The River Thames with Montagu House painted by Samuel Scott

In the year 1758, Dr. Boyce was appointed one of the organists of the Royal Chapel, in the room of Mr. John Travers, then lately deceased, a person whose excellence as a musician is sufficiently known and universally acknowledged. Upon this occasion he resigned the two employments of organist of St. Michael, Cornhill,Cand Allhallows, Thames Street.

Dr. Boyce was by this time near fifty years of age, and labouring still under the infirmity of deafness, he quitted his house in town, and his practice of teaching, and took up his residence at Kensington, where with unwearied assiduity, he prosecuted his studies. His employment, as master of the royal band, subjected him to the task of setting the new-year and birthday odes, and his duty as composer to the chapel, required of him at times the production of a new anthem. Other of his hours were devoted to the instruction of organists and young musicians desirous of improvement in the theory of sounds, the laws of harmony, and the art of practical composition. This had been the employment of Dr. Pepusch after his retirement to the Charterhouse, and but for the knowledge communicated in private lectures by those two persons, the character of a learned musician had probably, by this time, been unknown among us.

Amidst this variety of pursuits, he found leisure to revise many of his former publications, particularly the overtures to his Solomon, The Chaplet and The Shepherd’s Lottery; to these he added an overture to an ode of Pindar, and a few others, as also one in D with the minor third, composed for a performance at Worcester, on occasion of the annual meeting of the three adjacent choirs, which has long been admired by the lovers and judges of harmony, and is known by the name of the Worcester overture. These he published, under the title of Eight Symphonies for violins and other instruments.

Sir John Hawkins

In the year 1760, came abroad the first volume of that laborious work, the Cathedral Music, with a dedication to the King, and a list of subscribers, which, in respect to number, redounded little to the honour of those whose duty and interest it is to encourage choral service, and served only to show to what a low ebb the love of it was sunk. The second and third volumes were published at different and remote periods, with little better encouragement, so that, but for the delight the employment afforded him, the editor of this noble work had been left to deplore his having undertaken so arduous a task as he found it to be, and the loss of his time at a period of life when time becomes most valuable. And it cannot but excite the wonder, if not the indignation, of those who have encouraged the present edition of it, to be told that, after twelve years labour employed in it, and the expense of the engraving, the paper, and the printing, he did but little more than reimburse himself the cost of its first publication.

Dr. Boyce had no sooner acquitted himself of his engagements to the public in the above instance, than he gave another direction to his studies. Mr. Garrick had, some years before, employed him to compose a Dirge for the funeral procession in Romeo and Juliet, another for the play of Cymbeline, and other songs for the theatre, and being now about to revive The Winter’s Tale, he got him to contribute his aid to that performance by setting, the songs: Dr. Boyce readily undertook the task, and succeeded very happily in it, particularly in that pleasant dialogue for three voices between Autolycus and his two sweethearts “Get you hence for I must go,” in which with singular ingenuity he has expressed the humour of Shakespeare, in a melody, the gayest and most natural that can be conceived.

Before this time the instrumental music at the theatres, Vauxhall, and other places of public resort, had consisted chiefly of the concertos of Corelli, Geminiani, and Martini, and the overtures of Mr. Handel: These last had, for many years, served for the first music or prelude to plays, and were grown so familiar, that the country-dance tunes, Green Sleeves, and Roger de Coverly were not better known and more common with the vulgar than the gavotte in Otho, the minuet in Rodelinda, and that in Ariadne. At this crisis, Dr. Boyce had lying by him, the new-years’ and birthday odes which he had composed during the time he had filled the station of master of the royal band. The overtures to these he thought would be well received, and, about the year 1770, he published twelve of them. They are very original and spirited compositions, and abound with elegant airs, and the evidences of deep skill and learned ingenuity.

The taste of the people at the time of the publication of these, was very unpropitious to their success: they had the misfortune to meet with the compositions of Bach and Abel which had already gotten possession of the public ear. Those two persons had the patronage of the late Duke of York, who himself was a proficient on the violoncello; the style they introduced was void of the chief excellencies of music, it was coarse and artless; their basses had no melody, but were tediously monotonous, and to the eye resembled a row of pins.

Bach and Abel were nevertheless eminent musicians, especially the former, who in the composition of the music to an oratorio of Metastasio entitled Gioas; performed at the Haymarket to a thin audience, gave proof of his great abilities; but like most of that profession who are to live by the favour of the public, both he and Abel had two styles of composition, the one for their own private delight, the other for the gratification of the many.

Yet these, too, had their fate; the multifarious productions of Bach and Abel, their Trios, Quartettos, and Quintettos, as they are called; together with their Periodical Overtures, were heard, and consigned to oblivion; but their style of writing in a great measure survives. We no more hear the solemn and pathetic Adagio, the artful and well-studied Fugue, or the sweet modulations of the keys with the minor third: all is Allegro and Prestissimo, and, if not discord, such harmony as the ear sickens at hearing. Such music Mr. Handel was used to liken to and laugh at, and comparing it to a game at cards; would exclaim “Now D is trumps, now A,” in allusion to those vulgar transitions from the key-note to its fifth; with which such sort of music, especially when accompanied with ‘French horns, abounds.

Having thus experienced the vitiated taste of the public, Dr. Boyce abandoned the thoughts of giving to the world any more of his works, and so deeply rooted in him was this resolution, that being once pressed by the writer of these memoirs, to follow the example of Croft and Greene, who had each of them published a collection of anthems, the one of thirty and the other of forty, his answer was, that he was contented his should remain in the church books, and that he would never more solicit the aid of a subscription to enable him to publish what might fail of being well received.

The last exercise of his genius and invention, was the setting to music a few elegiac lines written by Sir John Hawkins, and intended as a monumental inscription to the memory of the late Rev. William Gostling, one of the minor Canons of the cathedral of Canterbury, who died in or about the year 1777, and left behind him a collection of music made by him and his father, the most curious and valuable in its kind of any in this kingdom.

As he advanced in years he became afflicted with the gout, which increasing upon him, interrupted his studies, and at length put a period to his life, on the seventh day of February 1779. He left a widow, a son, and a daughter.

His interment, which was in St. Paul’s Cathedral, on the sixteenth day of February, was honoured with testimonies of affection and respect, not only suited to his profession and character, but such in degree as were never paid to the memory of any musician or other artist, unless perhaps to that of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of the noble fabric that covers the remains of both. The procession began from Kensington, and the corpse was carried into the cathedral (attended by his son, a youth of about fifteen years of age, and several other mourners) and entering at the south door, proceeded down the south aisle to the west door, where being received by the Rev. Dr. Wilson, and the Rev. Dr. Douglas, Canons Residentiary of the church, the Minor Canons, Lay-Vicars, and choristers thereof, and also of Westminster Abbey, and the priests in ordinary, gentlemen, and children of the King’s Chapel, and many other gentlemen, professors and lovers of music, all in surplices, it was conducted up the nave of the church into the choir, the attendants walking two and two, singing the first part of the burial service, composed by Purcell and Dr. Croft “I am the resurrection and the life,” without the organ. When arrived at the choir, the body was rested upon trestles, and the attendants being seated, the Rev. Mr. Wight, senior Minor Canon of St. Paul’s, began the daily service, in the course of which the 39th and 90th psalms were chanted to solemn music; the first lesson was read by Mr. Hayes, and the second by Mr. Gibbons. Before the prayer for the King, an anthem, composed by the deceased, beginning “If we believe that Jesus died,” was sung by Mr. Dyne and Mr. Soper, and the chorus by them and the other singers. After this, the reader proceeded to the end of the morning service, which being concluded, the attendants rose and moved to the area under the dome, and placed themselves in a circle, the organ all the while playing as a kind of dead march, the air in E flat in the fourth of his Sonatas. During this short procession and arrangement, the bearers were removing the body to the crypt or vaults under the pavement, where they deposited it. After this, the service at the grave, beginning “Man that is born of a woman,” was sung to the organ: Mr. Wight then recited the prayer on committing the body to the ground, while a person with a shovel scattered dust, through the perforations in the central plate, on the coffin, which lay immediately under it. Then was sung to the organ the verse “1 heard a voice from Heaven;” which being done, the reader proceeded to the end of the burial service.

As a musician, Dr. Boyce was doubtless one of the first of his time, if we except Mr. Handel, whom the sublimity of his genius has placed above all comparison. Dr. Boyce’s merit consisted in the union in his own person and character, of the various excellencies of former church musicians. In musical erudition, he emulated Tallis and Bird; in harmony and various modulation, Orlando Gibbons; and in the sweetness of their melody, Purcell and Weldon: In a word, it may be said, that in skill, and the powers of invention, he was not surpassed by any the most celebrated of his predecessors or contemporaries. In the art of musical composition he had formed some rules which were the result of his own study and reflection, that served to guard him from the errors of others. One axiom of his in particular, is worthy of remembrance by all students in the science; it is this, that whereas it is the endeavour of most musicians, both in composition and extempore performance on the organ, to modulate from key to key by all the various methods their invention can suggest, “the skill of the artist is best shown, not in departing from the original key, but in keeping within it;” and producing, by the interchanges of its own consonances, all that variety of harmony of which it may be found capable.

A glimpse of this rule may be discerned in Dr. Pepusch’s short treatise on harmony, chap. II and a curious observer may see it exemplified in the motets of Palestrina, the anthem “Bow thine ear, O Lord” of Bird, and Orlando Gibbons’s service in F.

To the above account of his studies, a sketch of his moral character may be thought not an improper adjunct. He possessed a great degree of that modesty peculiar to real artists, arising from a comparison of their works with their ideas, and the inferiority of the former to the latter, that rendered him ever indifferent to applause and even commendation. He declined composing an anthem on occasion of his present Majesty’s coronation, to the words “Zadok the priest, &c,” alleging that it would be presumption in him to attempt it after Mr. Handel; his excuse was accepted, and he made one to other words, which was performed. He had composed a three-part song to the words, “‘Tis on earth the greatest blessing,” printed in Hale’s Social Harmony with the foolish title of “The Mystic Bower,” and adapted to a panegyric on Free-Masonry. This composition, a friend of his once took occasion to commend, saying it was nearly equal to Blow’s “Go perjured man.” Boyce was offended with the comparison, said it deserved not to be named at the same time with that fine, song, and accused his friend of insincerity and a design to flatter him. He was endowed with the qualities of truth, justice, and integrity, was mild and gentle in his deportment; above all resentment against such as envied his reputation, communicative of his knowledge, sedulous and punctual in the discharge of the duties of his several employments, particularly those that regarded the performance of divine service, and in every relation of life a worthy man.

Sir John Hawkins, March 1788

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The memoirs contain the following now proven inaccuracy:

C. Boyce was dismissed from his post as organist at All Hallows (on account of his increasing deafness).

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