Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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William Boyce (1711-1779)

Composer

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His times: As was the case for most professional musicians at the time, the church shaped much of William Boyce’s early musical life. He sang at St Paul’s Cathedral in whose shadow he was born, before holding appointments as organist at a number of city churches and becoming Master of the King’s Music. Away from the church and the court, London’s entertainment scene was burgeoning. Boyce, along with his colleagues Arne (and of course Handel), wrote extensively for the theatre and found himself the subject of the intense rivalries that delivered such arresting theatrical music.

His music: Boyce’s output is undeniably uneven but at its best is inspired, technically watertight and remarkably versatile. His music was influenced by the directness and freshness of the popular song, but showed the craft and compactness of Corelli; his Sonatas for Two Violins and a Bass (on Corelli’s model) are recognised as the finest English contribution to that genre. His oratorio-like works (including Solomon) might have stopped-short of the dramatic ebb and flow of Handel’s – and his fine set of Eight Symphonies would probably have been viewed as slightly old-hat even when they were written – but Boyce’s music certainly has the ‘particular stamp of character’ recognised by contemporary critic Charles Burney.

Himself: Another contemporary described Boyce as being ‘endowed with qualities of truth, justice and integrity…mild and gentle in his deportment.’ He was organised and hard-working and tireless in his efforts to publish the music of his predecessors. He was also afflicted by deafness, which may explain the one blot on his record – a sacking from one of his church position due to bad organ playing.

Hear Boyce’s Solomon – A Serenata in Gamechangers: Mildly Rude? on 12 June at Queen Elizabeth Hall.

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