Sunday, 9 October 2011

William Boyce at 300

I was pleased to see that Anna Pensaert at Cambridge marked the Boyce tercentenary with a recent posting on their MusiCB3 blog. Oxford too has good reason to celebrate the anniversary of this much under-rated composer so William Boyce has been made the first ‘Composer of the Month’ of the new academic year at the Music Faculty Library, in a display put together by Michael O’Hagan. The Bodleian holds a large number of his manuscripts, some of which found their way into the Music School collection after his death. (This magnificent life-size portrait by Thomas Hudson hangs in a room off the Lower Reading Room in the Bodleian Library. Boyce is depicted holding a copy of his serenata Solomon.)

A friend of mine recently described Boyce as “the 18th century's greatest Englishman”. That might be a little extravagant but Boyce could reasonably lay claim to be the greatest native English composer of his time. 11th September 1711 was the day on which the baptism of “Boyes, William, Son of John & Elizabeth” was recorded in the registers of the parish church of St James, Garlick-Hythe. His actual date of birth remains unknown but can be assumed to have been not long before. 1711 was also the year in which Handel began to make his mark on musical life in England, with the spectacular success of Rinaldo, and Boyce lived much of his life in the shadow of Handel’s music. 

Boyce became a chorister at St Paul’s and was apprenticed to Maurice Greene, the organist and master of the choristers at the cathedral. In 1736, he became a composer to the Chapel Royal and was appointed Master of the King’s Music in 1755. In 1758, he became one of the organists of the Chapel Royal. He combined these responsibilities with organists’ posts at a number of London churches and private teaching. 

Boyce's output includes a large number of anthems and other church music, along with a set of organ voluntaries, but his talents extended way beyond the confines of the church to embrace orchestral and chamber music, secular songs and music for the theatre. It is sad that the vast majority of Boyce’s compositional output is now virtually unknown, with the possible exception of movements from the set of eight very attractive “symphonies”, all extracted from larger works, which get occasional airings over the radio waves, and a few of his anthems which retain a foothold in the repertoires of our cathedral and collegiate choirs.

His role as Master of the King's Music entailed the composition of large quantities of music for the court. The Bodleian holds the manuscripts of 43 court odes, along with a number of other works. Boyce was also responsible for the music at the coronation of King George III In 1761 and himself wrote eight anthems for the occasion (also now in the Bodleian) although he declined to set Zadok the Priest, in deference to Handel’s own incomparable setting.

Boyce was also an avid collector and his substantial music library was sold at auction after his death in 1779. The sale catalogue has recently been analysed by Harry Johnstone and Robert J. Bruce in a fascinating article in the latest RMA Research Chronicle, v. 43 (2010), 'A Catalogue of the Truly Valuable and Curious Library of Music Late in the Possession of Dr. William Boyce (1779): Transcription and Commentary'.

Boyce conducted at the Three Choirs Festival for over 20 years and, in addition to his activities as composer, conductor and teacher, was also of great importance as an editor, compiling a ground-breaking retrospective collection of English church music under the title Cathedral Music, published in three large volumes between 1760 and 1773. Cathedral Music ensured the survival of a great deal of earlier English church music in the repertoire and was used in some cathedrals right up to the 20th century. However, most of his own music suffered neglect until a gradual revival of interest began in the early 20th century. Constant Lambert produced an edition of the symphonies in 1928 and Gerald Finzi also began to study Boyce's music, making use of the manuscripts in the Bodleian, and performing it with his Newbury Players in the 1940s. He later edited Boyce's overtures, published posthumously in the Musica Britannica series.

The bicentenary of Boyce’s death in 1979 provided occasion for the revival of some more of Boyce's music and a few recordings have since been made, including some by New College Choir. A few more of his works have also now been published in facsimile or modern editions. Several doctoral theses have emerged over the years but Boyce has had to wait 300 years for a dedicated monograph to appear, in the form of Ian Bartlett’s William Boyce : a tercentenary sourcebook and compendium (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011). 

This attractive music deserves to be studied, performed and heard. Let us hope that, in what’s left of this anniversary year, a further boost can be given to Boyce’s reputation and the appreciation of his music.


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