TWO FRIENDS, whose backgrounds could hardly have been more different, brought about a revolution in English music in the early nineteenth century. Vincent Novello and Samuel Wesley helped to redirect the English musical tradition, breaking the domination of Handel who had spent nearly all his working life in England, under the patronage of the Hanoverian kings. This renewal was achieved through the splendid musical tradition of the Portuguese Embassy Catholic chapel where the two friends worshipped.
At the end of the eighteenth century, before Catholic Emancipation in 1829, there were very few Catholic churches in London. Two of the most famous were attached to the Sardinian Embassy, in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and to the Portuguese Embassy, in Mayfair. Here English Catholics could receive the sacraments and share in the rich tradition of continental church music with its orchestras, soloists and works by Mozart, Haydn and Bach.
Vincent Novello, the son of an Italian immigrant pastrycook, was born in London in 1781 and became a choirboy at the Sardinian Embassy Chapel. At the age of 16 he was appointed organist at the Portuguese Embassy Chapel off Grosvenor Square where his brother Francis was principal bass singer. With its exotic musical tradition it became a very fashionable place of resort on Sunday. Even the carol Adeste Fideles, composed by the Englishman John Reading, became known as The Portuguese Hymn.
Vincent Novella, as his daughter's memoir makes clear, was a loving and companionable father. She describes the way the children shared their parents' literary friendships with Keats, Shelley and the Lambs. One evening after she had laid the table for her father's dinner he read her Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and then, to his little daughter's surprise, took her off to Covent Garden to see the great Charles Kemble play Benedick.
As well as being for nearly thirty years the distinguished organist at the Portuguese Embassy Chapel, Vincent Novello was a pianist, violinist, a founder of the Philharmonic Society and a most careful copyist, editor and publisher. Good and versatile musician as he was, it is as a publisher that he has us all in his debt.
At a time when there was little tradition of preserving the music of the past, let alone printing it fully and accurately, Vincent Novell() copied carefully from manuscripts in ancient libraries and meticulously corrected the printer's proofs. His daughter gives us a picture of him with the proofs in his coat pocket and a red pencil ready in his waistcoat pocket.
Everyone bears witness that he was a prodigiously hard .worker, never postponing tasks and cramming more into a day than would have been possible for anyone else. His very happy marriage to an extremely capable woman spared him from domestic worry and freed him for music.
To Vincent Novello Mozart was "the Shakespeare of music" and he and his wife travelled to Salzburg in 1829 bearing a gift of money for Mozart's sister who at 77 was bedridden. Their journey became a musical pilgrimage from cathedral to cathedral with both husband and wife keeping a journal of what they saw and heard. Back home, just before the Portuguese Chapel finally closed, Vincent organised a splendid performance of Mozart's Requiem.
Thus through his love of Mozart's music, his friendship with Mendelssohn, his share in establishing new musical societies and above all by his founding with his son Alfred the musical publishers Novello and Co. Vincent brought English music out of a backwater and into contact with the rich and varied tradition of the continent.
However, the precarious heritage of Gregorian chant that had been nurtured in English Catholic chapels during the recusant centuries was as a consequence lost in the new fashion for contemporary continental music. It was nearly a century later that the Benedictines of Soiemes brought about the re-establishment of the medieval Gregorian chant through a new understanding of its nature and qualities.
Vincent Novell() and his family had many friends in the literary and musical world of the early nineteenth century. Among these was Samuel Wesley. Nephew of the great founder of Methodism, John Wesley, Samuel was the son of Charles Wesley who was to remain faithful to the Church of England in which he had been ordained. Charles is best known to us today as a prolific writer of hymns such as Love divine all loves excelling and of the children's prayer, Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
Samuel Wesley, a largely selftaught child prodigy, used to sit in on his elder brother's music lessons, pretending to play on a non-existent keyboard. By the age of 8. following Handel, he had written an oratorio Ruth and he gave concerts in his father's London house where the visitors included the Archbishop of Canterbury and the father of the "Iron" Duke of Wellington.
But Samuel was not satisfied with the narrow English musical tradition centred on Handel and he began to visit the Portuguese Embassy Chapel where he could hear the music of many continental composers.
In 1784, at the age of about 18, Samuel was converted to Roman Catholicism. His problem was how to tell his father, the Reverend Charles Wesley. In the end, the Duchess of Norfolk, whose own son the Earl of Surrey had just turned protestant, broke the disturbing news to the father who received it stoically.
There followed for the young Samuel Wesley a brief time of great musical activity. Under the influence of Catholicism he wrote a Mass which he dedicated to the Pope and sent in a tin box to Rome. It was scored for solo voices, chorus and an orchestra of strings, oboes, trumpets and drums.
The Pope sent him a blessing with his thanks. About this time Samuel also wrote his two must famous pieces of music, the motets in Exitu Israel and Exultate Deo, both still in the Anglican Cathedral repertoire.
Samuel Wesley was not, however, to remain a Roman Catholic. The evidence suggests that his conversion was in fact more musical than doctrinal. Indeed he wrote later: "If the Roman doctrines were like the Roman music we should have heaven on earth." But his contact with the music of the Portuguese Embassy Chapel was to have a decisive influence on English musical life, for in the year 1800 very few in these islands had even heard of Bach.
Samuel Wesley now worked to gain an audience for the music of Bach. winning over to his new enthusiasm even Handelians. Thus by writing, lecturing, playing and encouraging the publication of Bach's music Samuel Wesley was instrumental in bringing the works of the great composer into the mainstream of English life.
Moreover, his delight in Bach's music was signalled by his naming one of his sons Samuel Sebastian Wesley. As Samuel Wesley was himself the greatest organ player in England of his generation, so his son in his turn became one of the most distinguised nineteenth-century cathedral organists and composers of Anglican church music to whose setting, for instance, we now all sing "The Church's one foundation."
British musical and religious life can both, therefore, look back with gratitude to that strange pair of friends, Vincent Novello, son on the Italian pastry cook and Samuel Wesley, born into the family of Methodism's distinguished founder.