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To become deaf and remain a musician - William Boyce

A movement from William Boyce's Symphony No. 4 in F Major, performed by the English Concert under the direction of Trevor Pinnock.

When he was a student, William Boyce performed his larger works in the Devil tavern, friends and fellow students taking the roles of soloists, chorus and orchestra. Later he was often dashing between the organ at the earl of Oxford’s chapel, the Royal Chapel where he composed anthems, and the tavern. He loved music. He had begun singing as a choir boy at St Paul’s when he was eight.

In his 20s he wrote odes, choral works and masques, and conducted the Worcester festival. By 1747, his trio sonatas were "in constant use, as chamber Music, in private concerts. . .in our theatres". His duets and cantatas "were popular at Vauxhall and Ranelagh pleasure gardens" (DNB).

Between March 1747 and July 1759 Boyce published six books of garden and theatre music called Lyra Britannica, and supplied Garrick’s theatre productions with songs. His last work for Garrick was the song ever after associated with the Royal Navy – Heart of Oak.

When Handel died in April 1759, Boyce became the composer for state occasions, writing for weddings, funerals and a coronation. However he put his foot down when asked to set ‘Zadok the Priest’, asserting that Handel had provided an unsurpassable setting for the coronation of George II. Boyce inaugurated the tradition of performing Handel's anthem at every coronation.

He accomplished all this though he could not hear a note. His biographer writes that before his musical apprenticeship ended, “his organs of hearing were so sensibly affected, that in a short time he became little less than deaf". It is impossible to imagine quite how he pulled this off – reading lips, feeling vibrations, so in tune with music that he could 'hear' music though he could not hear?

Boyce supported charitable foundations, composing an anthem for Mercer's Hospital in Dublin, composing and conducting the funeral music for the philanthropist Captain Thomas Coram at the Foundling Hospital. He was a founding member of the Fund for the Support of Decayed Musicians and their Families in 1738. (Known today as the Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain.) Boyce himself died without much in the way of funds, but he had hardly noticed.

His funeral was attended by a large gathering of musicians and he was buried to the sound of his own music played on the organ and sung by the choirs of the Chapel Royal, St Paul's and Westminster Abbey (DNB).


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