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William Boyce (1711–1779)

William BoyceThe music of William Boyce, who is buried under the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, is of such self-evident merit that its qualities might be taken for granted. If so, then the 300th anniversary of his birth falling this year is a splendid opportunity to rediscover its virtues of fresh, robust melody and vigorous harmony, which make his work an outstanding example of English late-Baroque style.

One positive outcome from any such appraisal will surely be a higher repertoire profile for Boyce’s remarkable serenata Solomon (an excellent recording on the Hyperion label is strongly recommended). Though regularly performed during the composer’s lifetime and for long afterwards, this piece fell from favour when 19th-century prurience objected to its mildly erotic text. No such reservations need apply today, and its ravishing and melodious numbers such as the duet ‘Arise, my fair, the doors unfold,’ should command a popularity no less undimmed than the composer’s tuneful Eight Symphonys.

In addition to his employment as a church musician and organist to the Chapel Royal, for which he supplied anthems and court odes, Boyce was engaged as conductor of the Three Choirs Festival in 1737. At David Garrick’s request he composed several scores for Drury Lane. He also supplied many songs for the famed Vauxhall Gardens. Their music is always of the finest quality, and exquisitely matches the moods of their Georgian pastoral texts.

Boyce’s other great contribution to English musical culture was as a pioneering musicologist. His inestimable collection Cathedral Music, published between 1760 and 1773, did much to preserve an understanding of music from the period of Tallis to the early eighteenth century, and prefigured later scholarly editions. It is fitting therefore not only that Solomon is included in the Musica Britannica series but also that a selection of pieces by Boyce – odes, songs and theatrical music – is available in the facsimile series Music for London Entertainment.

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