The Rev. Charles Wesley wrote of William Boyce “A more modest man than Dr Boyce I have never known. I never heard him speak a vain or ill-natured word, either to exalt himself, or to depreciate another.” It is no wonder, then, that Maurice Green, whom Boyce succeeded as Master of the King’s music in 1755, referred to him in his will as “my friend William Boyce”. Already, at the age of 25, he had held the post of Composer to the Chapel Royal. He had previously been a chorister, then organist at St Paul’s cathedral. This musical education meant he was well-placed to continue Greene’s work toward the editing of 3 definitive collections of English Church music, which included works by the likes of Tye, Tallis, Byrd, Morley and Gibbons, as well as the more contemporary Croft, Greene, Handel and some of Boyce’s own anthems. This collection had a profound impact on musical worship across England and formed the template for parish church music into the 20th century.

Boyce, who very much admired Handel, composed oratorios like the great German. He also moved into secular music for the theatre (much of it performed at Drury Lane). His eight ‘Symphonies’ were derived largely from overtures and incidental music used during theatrical performances, and display beautifully the ‘Style Gallente’ which became associated with composers of his generation, who looked from their standpoint in the late Baroque period towards the Classical styles of the future. Aspects of both of these musical periods were constant, however, and the dance forms of the French court prevail throughout these works. Symphony V, after a more military-style opening movement (reminiscent of Handel’s Fireworks Music), contains a genteel Gavotte followed by a courtly Minuet.

On his death, Boyce was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral with a tombstone inscribed ‘Happy in his composition, much happier in a constant flow of harmony, through every Scene of Life’. Listening to his symphonies it’s easy to hear that his art was a reflection of his life.

Nick Roberts