William Boyce comes to Cambridge

11 September 2011 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of England’s greatest composers, William Boyce. It seems appropriate therefore to mark this with a brief account of a fascinating figure who, although London born and bred, played an important part in a key 18th-century Cambridge event. Although widely overlooked in recent scholarship (a fate shared by most English composers of the period) Boyce’s profile has enjoyed a recent boost with the publication by Ian Bartlett of a richly detailed volume entitled ‘William Boyce Tercentenary Sourcebook and Compendium’ (to which this post is indebted). We still await a fully-fledged Boyce life and works study, the most quoted account [needs JSTOR subscription] remaining that by his contemporary and admirer, the historian John Hawkins.

William Boyce (engraving by J.K. Sherwin, 1788)

William Boyce engraving by J.K. Sherwin, 1788, published in Cathedral Music UL: MR220.a.75.1 ©CUL

From lowly beginnings as the son of a cabinetmaker, Boyce rose to achieve a position of pre-eminence as arguably the greatest English composer of his age, a distinction he shares with Thomas Arne (1710–1778). Although somewhat detached from the more cosmopolitan elements in London’s thriving concert scene, Boyce nevertheless held some of the country’s most prestigious positions as Master of the King’s Musick (1755) and organist at the Chapel Royal (1758). Key to Boyce’s many distinctions was his facility as a musical “all rounder” able to appeal to a wide-range of tastes. In addition to popular theatre music Boyce composed odes, cantatas, chamber works and learned church music, informed by his deep knowledge of England’s great choral tradition. It was this learnedness together with his very real significance as one of the first editors of early music that earned his music a reputation for being somewhat old fashioned, a charge not entirely justified when we consider his output as a whole.

William Boyce, Ode and anthem

William Boyce, An Ode perform’d in the Senate House … to which is added an Anthem…, UL: MR.270.a.70.1 ©CUL

So what is the relevance of this London-based musician to Cambridge? It was here that one of Boyce’s career highlights was achieved when ‘a hundred or so Vocal and Instrumental set out for Cambridge’ to perform what amounted to a mini-festival of large-scale Boyce music. The considerable finance for this enterprise (which for the time seemed remarkable) was provided by Thomas Pelham-Holles, whose installation as chancellor took place on 1 July 1749. For this lavish celebration Boyce was commissioned to compose and conduct at the Senate House a large-scale ‘installation ode’ (Here all thy active fires diffuse). The text, by the poet and Pembroke fellow William Mason, had been submitted to Boyce only ten days earlier leaving him precious little time to rehearse and get the performers to Cambridge. Nevertheless, the situation also provided him with the opportunity to receive ‘an academical honor, Mr. Boyce was desirous of’: a doctoral degree in music.

On July 2 his doctoral exercise (the orchestral anthem O be joyfull in God) was performed in St Mary’s after which Boyce ‘without any solicitation, was permitted by the University to accumulate the degrees of bachelor and doctor in his faculty’. Having arrived in Cambridge with this vast army of musicians Boyce capitalised on the situation further to engineer what must have been one of Cambridge’s most notable musical events of the century, a two-day festival of Boyce’s music. This included his three most admired extended works for orchestra and chorus: Solomon, Peleus and Thetis and The Secular Masque. The importance of the event was immortalised through Boyce’s publication that year of a volume containing his installation ode and degree exercise, an unusual thing to do in those days.

The installation ode is kept at the University Library in manuscript (Ms Nn.6.38 – presented to the Library by T.A. Walmisley) as well as in print (MR270.a.70.1). In addition, Cambridge libraries (notably the Fitzwilliam and Kings College) hold many autographs and primary source copies.


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