ANNIVERSARIES: William Boyce Died February 7, 1779


In a time when the most famous composers in England were -- for example, Handel, and J.C. Bach -- relocated Germans, William Boyce (1711-1779) was arguably the premiere English-born composer. In 1736 the former choirboy turned organist (he studied with Maurice Greene at St. Paul's Cathedral) was named composer to the Chapel Royal; in 1759 he was made Master of the King's Musick. By 1769 deafness had largely ended his official musical duties.

One of those duties was to provide music for church services (he was also, from 1736 to 1768, organist at St. Michael's in Cornhill). He not only composed a considerable amount of sacred music, he also compiled the three-volume collection Cathedral Music, which preserved a vast array of sacred music by earlier English composers.

Boyce also frequently wrote music for specific royal occasions: holidays, the King's birthday, etc. He was also an active composer for the theater. In 1760, he published the works he is best known for in modern times, his Eight Symphonies, which compiled instrumental sections from his occasional music into three-movement suites and also included overtures to operas and the like. Overtures in three-movement form were, in fact, the genesis of the early symphony form. (No. 6 here is a two-movement overture.)

These are not symphonies as we may think of them nowadays -- the lengthy, tightly thematical four-movement pieces of Beethoven, Brahms, etc. -- but rather, charming works with a dance-like lilt (some movements are, in fact, actual dances), lasting from five to ten minutes apiece. They have relatively full and colorful instrumentation, varying slightly from work to work: strings of course, but also pairs of oboes, flutes, French horns, trumpets, and/or bassoons, along with continuo harpsichord and double bass and, in No. 5 (the one with trumpets), timpani.

Since the pioneering Baroque advocate Max Goberman made a modern edition of the Symphonies in 1964, they have gradually assumed a solid position in the second rank of Baroque/Rococco instrumental music, reviving Boyce's memory more than any of his other works.

In the 1986 recordings for Archiv by the English Concert, Trevor Pinnock leads stylish authentic-instrument renditions with lively rhythms and polished playing. From the harpsichord, he directs what's practically an all-star band of the English Baroque scene, with such familiar names as violinist Simon Standage, cellist Jaap ter Linden, horn player Anthony Halstead, etc. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.