Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wesley, Charles (1757-1834)

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WESLEY, CHARLES (1757–1834), musician, the eldest son of Charles Wesley (1707–1788) [q. v.], was born at Bristol on 11 Dec. 1757. His musical talent was inherited from both parents; his brother Samuel relates that their father was ‘extremely fond of music,’ and, when young, ‘I believe, performed a little on the flute.’ Their mother ‘had very considerable vocal talent; played prettily upon the harpsichord, and sang sweetly. In Handel's oratorio songs she much excelled, being blessed with a voice of delightful quality, though not of very strong power or extensive compass.’ Charles displayed a musical precocity almost without parallel. At the age of two years and three-quarters he could play ‘a tune on the harpsichord readily and in just time,’ and even ‘always put a true bass to it.’ While he was playing his mother tied him in the chair with a back-string. At the age of four his father took him to London. John Stanley [q. v.] and John Worgan [q. v.] heard him play, and were much impressed by his performances; John Beard [q. v.] offered to get him placed as a chorister of the Chapel Royal, but his father refused, not intending the child should become a musician. For two years more he was without guidance; then he had lessons from Rooke, a Bristol organist, who did not strictly control him, and his progress was owing only to his natural talent. He became specially distinguished as a performer of Scarlatti's sonatas. Afterwards deciding to adopt the musical profession, he settled in London, and took lessons from Joseph Kelway [q. v.], and in composition from William Boyce [q. v.] He dedicated a set of string quartets to Dr. Boyce, upon whose death he composed an elegy, the words contributed by his father. At this time Wesley was living in Chesterfield Street, Marylebone. He published a set of ‘Six Concertos for the Organ or Harpsichord, Op. 1,’ a set of eight songs, and a Concerto Grosso, which is favourably criticised in the ‘European Magazine,’ November 1784. He was organist of Surrey Chapel before 1794, then of South Street Chapel, Welbeck Chapel, and Chelsea Hospital, and finally of Marylebone Parish Church. The promise of his youth had not been fulfilled, and he became only a sound practical musician, a solid composer and performer without any special distinction. He remained unmarried, living with his parents, and afterwards with his sister Sarah. Late in life the brother and sister revisited Bristol, where Charles played on all the organs. Sarah was buried there with the five brothers and sisters who had died young, one of whom had shown musical talent when but twelve months old. Charles died on 23 May 1834. Among his works were a set of variations for the pianoforte, dedicated to the Princess Charlotte; music to ‘Caractacus;’ glees, songs, and anthems. The anthem, ‘My soul has patiently waited,’ was printed by Page in ‘Harmonia Sacra,’ 1800; and two others, arranged as organ solos, in Novello's ‘Cathedral Voluntaries,’ 1831. At the Royal College of Music (Sacred Harmonic Society's Library, No. 1945) is a volume of music in Charles Wesley's autograph, including a complete score of Tye's ‘Actes of the Apostles.’ His own compositions made little impression, even in their own day; and they have long since been completely forgotten. Charles Wesley is perhaps the most singular instance on record of altogether exceptional musical precocity leading to no great results in after life; beyond doubt he would have been a more distinguished musician had his father accepted the offer to educate him in the Chapel Royal, where he would have grown up in a musical atmosphere unattainable at Bristol.

[Daines Barrington's Miscellanies, 1781, pp. 289, 301; Samuel Wesley's Recollections, in Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 27593; Grove's Dict. of Music and Musicians, iv. 445; Bingley's Musical Biogr. 2nd edit. 1834, ii. 276–9.]

H. D.