Anglican Notables – William Boyce (Musicians, Authors, & Poets) – 7 February

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

William Boyce

Born ca. 11 September 1711 (London, England) – Died 7 February 1779 (London, England)

Musician: Composer; Master of the King’s Musick; Organist at the Chapel Royal; Conductor at the Three Choirs Festival; Editor of Cathedral Music (London, 1760).

[The image is a portrait of Boyce attributed to Mason Chamberlin.]

Adjectives used to describe William Boyce’s compositional oeuvre rarely include superlatives.  Instead, they prepare interested listeners to discover a body of work written by a “capable”, “professional,” and “sterling” musician.  Boyce’s works can also sound passé when one looks at his dates.  Boyce was born the year George F. Handel’s Italian opera, Rinaldo, took London by storm.  So, one would expect the adult Boyce, by the time he became one of London’s leading composers a few decades later, to have discovered a newer, younger-sounding musical idiom.  This he did to some extent, but not without sounding safely Handelian at the same time.  It is therefore no surprise that Boyce’s music was generally neglected after his lifetime until the early twentieth century (thanks especially to Constant Lambert).  His name lived on mostly as a composer of church music, which, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was not an association inclined to give luster to a composer’s legacy.

Boyce’s music, both sacred and secular, does deserve to be better known, though.  Yes, it has an anachronistic ring when one tries to situate it on a music-history timeline.  And yes, it is generally more sterling than dazzling.  But the qualities of solidity and accomplishment provide their own aesthetic reward.

As for Boyce’s contribution to church music, the fact that his training and cultural milieu caused him to favor the Baroque idiom means he provides yet another example of the uncertainty English music and spirituality have consistently expressed towards the continent’s seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century fascination with exaggeration.  There is perhaps no way of discovering much about Boyce’s own religious convictions and/or the theological/spiritual works in his library.  But he was English and Anglican enough to have apprehended, at least by a kind of cultural osmosis, the Anglican desire for a synthesis of the speculative and the affective (“true piety and sound learning,” as the Carolines put it).[1]  Boyce’s church music was therefore not heedless of the intellectual-affective synthesis that characterized the treasury of England’s Renaissance masters.  For example, he quotes the Gloria from the Nunc dimittis of Orlando Gibbons’s Short Service in the Jubilate of his Service in A.[2]  Among Boyce’s works available on Youtube, his anthem, “Turn Thee Unto Me, O Lord,” provides yet another example of how earlier masters influenced him.

The Anglican musical patrimony benefited from Boyce’s appreciation of the sixteenth-century head-heart synthesis and that century’s appreciation of excellent musical craftsmanship in another way.  Because Boyce suffered from increasing deafness in his later years, he shifted his focus from composition and performance to what we would now call musicology.  Boyce edited and published Cathedral Music (London, 1760-73).  The full title, Cathedral Music, Being a Collection in Score of the Most Valuable and Useful Compositions for That Service, by Several English Masters of the Last 200 Years, gives an idea of what Boyce wanted to establish both for English music in general and for the Anglican musical heritage in particular.  This was a period, moreover, when enthusiasm for, and scholarly attention to, music from earlier periods was thin-on-the-ground.  True, London’s Academy of Ancient Music (the first one, founded in 1726, not Christopher Hogwood’s performance ensemble founded in 1973) had as its stated aim the rediscovery of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century repertoire.  But even this specialized initiative rapidly acceded to popular tastes by showing a partiality towards contemporary composers, Handel chief among them.[3]  Boyce, then, might have seemed downright antiquarian.  But thanks to what we could now call fine musicological scholarship, Boyce “established a canon of English church music ranging from Tallis and Tye to Boyce’s immediate predecessors Croft and Weldon.”[4]  He did so, moreover, with careful attention to addressing the “often faulty manuscript partbooks then generally in use.”[5]  Boyce’s Cathedral Music “retained its place in cathedral usage into the 20th century.”[6] 

As parlous as the Anglican musical heritage was during a considerable portion of this span of time, Cathedral Music‘s long life might have been assured even if it had comprised music of poor or indifferent quality.  But Boyce’s capable, professional, sterling standards as a composer and editor saw to it that his Cathedral Music upheld the ideal that liturgical music is worthy of a composer’s best efforts.

Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.


[1] Martin Thornton, “The Anglican Spiritual Tradition.”  “This lecture was composed on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Oxford Movement and first published as chapter four in The Anglican Tradition, ed. Richard Holloway (Wilton, Connecticut: Morehouse-Barlow, 1984).”  http://akensidepress.com/2017/05/the-anglican-spiritual-tradition-part-1-of-2/

[2] Boyce, William | Grove Music (oxfordmusiconline.com)

[3] London (i) | Grove Music (oxfordmusiconline.com)

[4] Boyce, William | Grove Music (oxfordmusiconline.com)

[5] Boyce, William | Grove Music (oxfordmusiconline.com)

[6] Boyce, William | Grove Music (oxfordmusiconline.com)

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