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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of William Boyce

This music [listen] sounds a lot like it could have composed by Handel, and indeed it was written in England during Handel's lifetime. It's not by Handel but by a composer who was English-born and whose music these days is nowhere near as well-known as it should be. His name is William Boyce.

Chamberlin (attr.): William Boyce (1767)

William Boyce was born in London in 1711, which was the year in which Handel's first London opera, Rinaldo, was premiered. Boyce thus spent the first four and a half decades of his life living in a musical world dominated by Handel. This is something which makes all the more remarkable the fact that Boyce managed, despite this, to establish for himself a prominent position in English musical life.

Posterity, though, hasn't been kind to Boyce, and like other English composers of the period - including his contemporaries Thomas Augustine Arne and Charles Avison - he's been tarred with the "also-ran" brush far too readily. Closer examination, though, reveals a highly successful and talented composer, publisher, organist and teacher.

William Boyce's father, John Boyce, was a joiner and cabinetmaker. He married Elizabeth Cordwell in 1703 and William was the youngest of their four children. Despite not being a musician, John Boyce recognised his youngest child's innate gifts very early in the boy's life. The family lived close to St Paul's Cathedral and he was admitted to the music school there around 1719. Right from the start, young William had some of the best musical training available. At St Paul's he was taught by the Master of the Choristers, Charles King, and when he entered the choir he began studying with the organist, Maurice Greene. Greene was to be probably the major musical influence on Boyce as a lifelong mentor, advocate and friend.

St Paul's Cathedral

Around 1727 Boyce's voice broke, after which he became Greene's articled pupil for seven years, and even after that continued to work as his copyist. In the 1730s a third important musician played a role in Boyce's life - JC Pepusch - who instilled in the young man an understanding of not only music theory but also gave him important insights into earlier music from the Italian and English Renaissance.

Hayman: Maurice Greene (1747)
Hudson: John Christopher Pepusch

It was in the 1730s, too, that Boyce started to make his mark in London's musical life. His first professional engagements were as a harpsichord teacher in schools, and as a church organist in a number of London parishes. Even at this stage of his life - he was in his 20s - Boyce began to be affected by poor hearing, and partial deafness was an affliction he bore for the rest of his life.

In the mid- to late-1730s a number of Boyce's songs began to appear in print, and in 1736 he attained his first court appointment, as a composer to the Chapel Royal. By this date more than a dozen of his anthems were already in the Chapel Royal's repertoire. It was also the year the in which Boyce had his first important public performance of a large-scale work.

The Apollo Society was an organisation which met at a London tavern to give musical performances, and it was for the Apollo Society in April 1736 that Boyce's cantata David's Lamentation over Saul and Jonathan was first performed. It marked the start of Boyce's long association with this form of music making; odes, cantatas and large-scale anthems make up a large proportion of his output and would be a regular feature of his life for decades. [listen]

Doré: David and Jonathan

The Apollo Society actively promoted Boyce's music in the late 1730s. For them he composed two St Cecilia Odes. The Charms of Harmony display is a short work lasting about 25 minutes, but See fam'd Apollo and the Nine is on a much larger scale, lasting about 80 minutes. This is a major work from the pen of the 28 year old Boyce and one which shows him to be a major voice of the generation after Handel. Of course Handel would have been an overwhelming influence to any composer in 1739 - this was the year of the premieres of Saul and Israel in Egypt - but even though he wrote in the musical lingua franca of the time, Boyce still managed to carve out a younger, newer, more English tone that is hard to describe in words. This is evident in the sprightly opening chorus. [listen]

Raphael: The Ecstasy of St Cecilia (1514)

And in addition to writing for the Apollo Society, Boyce was writing theatre music of a very different sort. Here his pedigree was Purcell rather than Handel, in that he wrote masques, musical interludes, and incidental music for plays. His first such work, the 40-minute masque Peleus and Thetis, was probably performed in 1740. I provided a link to this work's overture at the start of this post.

With his 1736 appointment as Composer to the Chapel Royal, Boyce continued his association with Maurice Greene, as Greene was senior composer and organist to the Chapel. And from the following year, 1737, Boyce was the conductor of the famed Three Choirs Festival, a post he held until at least 1756 and possibly later. Like many other composers of the time, he was also associated with charitable concerns. The first of these was in 1738 as a founder member - along with Handel, Greene and many other prominent musicians - of the Fund for the Support of Decay'd Musicians and their Families, later renamed as the Royal Society of Musicians.

By 1740, when he was still in his late 20s, Boyce's reputation had reached Dublin and many of his works were performed there in the early 1740s; Boyce himself though seems not to have visited Ireland in person. In London his star continued its ascent with the composition and performance of new works in the form of large-scale cantatas. The most famous of these was Solomon, which was called a serenata rather than a cantata, first performed at the Apollo Society in 1742.

Solomon, despite its title, is a secular work, based on passages from the Song of Solomon in the Bible but largely consisting of a series of dialogues between a man and a woman (simply called "He" and "She"). Wikipedia describes it as "mildly bawdy". In these dialogues, the protagonists express their love in vivid, almost ecstatic terms. The only reference to King Solomon himself is at the start, where the chorus sets the scene and praises the King's wisdom.

Solomon is a stunning example of Boyce's abilities to write in a quasi-operatic medium, although a serenata was not designed to be staged like an opera but rather sung "in concert". And despite the use of Italian forms familiar from the 18th century opera house, the work is most assuredly English in its depiction of love and - most especially - nature. Here again we get the very real sense that Boyce has by-passed Handel entirely when looking for inspiration and gone right back to Purcell. [listen]

So far in this survey of William Boyce's life we've focused entirely on music involving the voice. However he also made some important contributions to instrumental music at a time when these forms were undergoing changes from Baroque forms such as the trio sonata and Italian overture to the sorts of forms more associated with the later 18th century, like the solo sonata and the concert symphony.

In 1747 he published a set of twelve sonatas for two violins and continuo; trio sonatas in the Corelli mode, yes, but works which were to have a long and varied currency in English musical life. The first edition attracted 487 subscribers for 631 copies, an indication of Boyce's popularity in his mid-30s. But Charles Burney, decades later, was to observe that even late in the century they were still in regular use in England, often adapted for quasi-orchestral use as well as being played by chamber ensembles in public and in private. [listen]

Later in the same year, 1747, Boyce published two collections of songs, duets and cantatas called Lyra Britannica. Over the next twelve years this extended to a total of six volumes, establishing Boyce as one of the leading producer and publishers of vocal music in England.

In 1749 Boyce became organist at All Hallows the Great and the Less, his local parish church. Some sources suggest that he married around this time and moved to Chancery Lane to live, but other evidence contradicts this. He may not have moved until after his father's death in late 1752, and his marriage to Hannah Nixon is now thought not to have taken place until mid-1759. Hannah gave birth to her daughter Elizabeth in April 1749 (a fact known from Boyce's will); his connection with Hannah at this time - if any - is not known. They did have a son together, though, who was born in March 1764. William Boyce Jr would eventually become well-known in London as a double bass player and singer.

In July 1749, Boyce was honoured by Cambridge University with the award of both the bachelor and doctor of music degrees. A festival of his music was mounted, starting with the first performance of a ceremonial ode to mark the installation of the Duke of Newcastle as Chancellor of the University. His doctoral exercise, a new anthem, was performed the following day. Then a series of performances of Boyce's music took place over the next two days, including Peleus and Thetis, Solomon and other works well-known in London and Dublin.

One of these was Gentle lyre begin the strain, sometimes known as Pindar's Ode or The Pythian Ode, a work composed for the Apollo Society which had also been hugely successful in Dublin. [listen]

It was in 1746 that Boyce received a commission from John Rich, one of the leading impresarios in London's theatre scene, to set the dirge in Shakespeare's Cymbeline to music. However it was David Garrick at Drury Lane who saw in Boyce the potential to provide good music for plays and who provided the composer with the chance to really make his mark in this sort of endeavour.

Garrick's first commission to Boyce was to set to music an entertainment called The Chaplet, an all-sung afterpiece in the popular ballad style. It was first performed in December 1749 and was a great success; it was still being performed in the 1780s.

Perhaps more famous was music he wrote in 1750, which saw him embroiled in one of the major theatrical rivalries of the day. Both Covent Garden and Drury Lane announced productions of Romeo and Juliet which would open on the same night. Covent Garden interpolated an additional scene in the final act, a funeral procession for Juliet, for which Thomas Arne had composed a solemn dirge. At Drury Lane Garrick felt upstaged so introduced his own funeral scene and commissioned Boyce to set it to music. Public controversy focused on the acting of the respective Romeos and Juliets; little public comment was made about the music for these additional scenes. But Boyce's The Dirge from Romeo and Juliet, setting Garrick's text, was hugely popular. Garrick's additional scene for the procession - with or without music - was included in Romeo and Juliet for more than a century, but Boyce's setting is a gem, incorporating the tolling of a bell.

Gainsborough: David Garrick (1770)

Boyce was appointed Master of the King's Musick following the death of Maurice Greene in December 1755. One of his recurrent duties in this post was to provide odes for the King's birthday and for new year each year. He'd already been deputising for Greene in writing these odes due to the elder man's ill health, but from 1755 until his own death, Boyce wrote a great number of these occasional pieces to texts written by the poet laureate. They are not among his best work as he seems not have found the fawning poems in praise of the King particularly inspiring, but they are still interesting pieces in a form which again looks back to English roots, and particularly Purcell (who wrote many similar works for Charles II, James II, and Mary II).

Another of Greene's tasks which Boyce took over after his mentor's death was as conductor for an annual charity concert held at St Paul's Cathedral in aid of the Sons of the Clergy. The large-scale anthem he composed for this event in 1755 - Lord, thou hast been our refuge - was greatly admired.

Between 1760 and 1773, Boyce was the prime mover in the publication of Cathedral Music, a collection of English church music spanning the 16th to the 18th centuries. This was a major landmark in music publishing, begun by Maurice Greene but interrupted by his death, establishing a canon of music for use in Anglican worship which was still in regular use well into the 20th century.

In 1760, the year this venture began, Boyce also published his Eight Symphonys in Eight Parts. This is a collection of overtures which were already in existence; there are four from the court odes, two from the stage works, the overture to Solomon, and an overture written for the Three Choirs Festival. Quite apart from providing clear evidence that overtures of this nature were performed as concert works, separate from the larger works which they originally opened, these eight symphonies are fascinating in that they're split right down the middle in terms of style and form. Four of them are older style French overtures (such as one finds in the works of Handel) and four are more modern style Italian overtures (as used by JC Bach, CF Abel and the younger generation of composers). The Italian overture - usually in three sections fast-slow-fast - eventually developed into the concert symphony, so these works of Boyce's are indications of the state of play when one form was giving way to the other.

The second symphony in this publication began life as the overture to a theatrical afterpiece called The Shepherd's Lottery, first staged in 1751. Despite being constructed as three fast movements, its Italian overture form is an embryonic example of what would very soon develop - in the hands of Haydn, Mozart and countless others - into the concert symphony as we know it. [listen]

Back in 1727 (when Boyce was a teenager), there was a major stir in musical circles when George II insisted that the music for his coronation be written by a fellow German-born Englishman, Handel, despite the fact that Handel wasn't Master of the King's Musick and was only at that time known for being an opera composer. Established composers like Greene, and the long-ensconced Master of the King's Musick, John Eccles, were overlooked. Handel was also preferred when it came to composing the anthem for the funeral of Queen Caroline in 1737.

In 1760, when George II died, and 1761, for the coronation of George III, the job of overseeing the music fell squarely on Boyce's shoulders. He was by this time senior composer to the Chapel Royal and Master of the King's Musick. Besides, Handel had just died so even though the new King was a Handel devotee, there could be no other choice, really.

Boyce provided a total of eight new anthems for the coronation of George III, four of which were on a large-scale, and setting anew some of the texts Handel had set in 1727. Tellingly, though, he declined to re-set Zadok the Priest in deference to Handel's version, and it's probably due to Boyce's decision that the precedent was established for performing Handel's famous anthem at every British coronation since.

Among Boyce's own anthems sung in 1761 is The King shall rejoice, which does reset a text Handel used in 1727. Boyce's setting is grand and glorious and seems to pay homage to his famous predecessor, something which would have pleased the new King. [listen]

Ramsay: George III (1762)

From the mid-1760s Boyce was in semi-retirement but he continued to fulfil his royal duties, producing anthems and odes as required and accepting the odd commission from elsewhere, and he continued to work on the later volumes of Cathedral Music. He was also interested in the younger generation of English composers, a respected teacher and supporter of men like Jonathan Battishill, Samuel and Charles Wesley, Thomas Linley and John Stafford Smith.

Boyce published another collection of orchestral works in 1770, called Twelve Overtures, but these made much less of an impression than the Eight Symphonys had ten years before. Again they were made up of pre-existing overtures, mainly drawn from the court odes, but they were mostly in the older Baroque style, and by 1770 were regarded as very old fashioned, especially when compared to the new works being produced in London at the time by JC Bach and CF Abel. [listen]

William Boyce died in London on 7 February 1779 at the age of 67. The public response to his death was exceptional, such was the esteem in which he was held. His funeral, at St Paul's Cathedral a week after his death, was attended by an enormous congregation, and the service was sung by the combined choirs of St Paul's, Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal. He was buried in the crypt of St Paul's.

The principal source for this article on Boyce was the article in Grove, which contains the following statements in its summary: "Boyce must be ranked as the most technically accomplished and versatile English composer of the 18th century, rivalled only by Thomas Arne...While he clearly set out to emulate Handel's grand manner in the orchestral anthems for George III's coronation...he generally maintained his independence from his great contemporary. As Burney put it, 'he neither pillaged nor severely imitated him'."

I like that. Just as the local, younger, Schubert found himself admiring, yet needing to be independent from, the import Beethoven, I'm sure Boyce, the younger native Englishman, felt a similar respect for - and a need to be independent from - the foreign-born Handel. I think Boyce largely succeeded, and I hope his music gets the exposure it deserves.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2014.

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