Saturday, December 1, 2007

Henry J. Gauntlett

Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876) was a lawyer, author, hymnal editor, organ designer, prolific composer, and virtuoso organist who wielded enormous influence in the world of English church music. He is credited with introducing electrical power to the organ, inventing the four-part style of hymn tunes, and having a hand in practically every development in organ design and every collection of hymns during the last fifty years of his life. The claim that Gauntlett wrote 10,000 hymns is probably highly exaggerated. Cyberhymnal lists 22 hymn tunes by Gauntlett, of which at least a dozen have turned up in Anglophone Lutheran hymnals:

Ascension Tide
The old Lutheran Hymnary chose this tune to go with the Ascension hymn "Thou art gone up on high." Perhaps because I once attended a church that used the old Hymnary, I tend to associate that text with this tune. That doesn't mean I particularly like it, though its pomp-and-circumstance flavor, reminiscent of commencement ceremonies, is ironically appropriate for the Ascension of our Lord. The accompaniment is vital, beginning with two unison phrases over an organ pedal point.

Not to be confused with the tune Constance by Arthur Sullivan (which goes with the text "Who trusts in God, a strong abode"), this is a truly marvelous little tune. I am amazed to find it in only one Lutheran hymn-book, set to a fine Easter-Eve text, "Lord Jesus, who, our souls to save." I can't say enough in favor of reintroducing this hymn, including Gauntlett's beautifully simple and well-structured tune.

The wedding hymn "Lord, who at Cana's wedding feast," and Charles Wesley's hymn for All Saints' Day, "Come let us join our friends above," are both paired with this dignified tune. It begins with a phrase reminiscent of such classic chorales as O grosser Gott, and includes two or three very effective phrases, including a unison setting of the fifth phrase; but overall it is rather a let-down. It simply does not hold together in a memorable way.

Australian Lutherans know this as the tune to a rare, Christ-centered stewardship hymn by John La Trobe, which opens with the words "O bring to the Lord your tribute of praise." Gauntlett's tune accents the joy and sturdiness of this text with rhetoric similar to St. Denio ("Immortal, invisible, God only wise"). I don't think it would cost much effort to teach this catchy hymn to the average congregation.

Though I have also found this tune paired with the hymn "Jesus, Brightness of the Father," it is most famously wedded to the Christmas carol, "Once in royal David's city." If Hopkins' memory largely rests upon Ellers, Monk's upon Eventide and Dykes' upon Nicaea, this is probably the single tune by which Gauntlett may be remembered after all his other accomplishments have perished.

Resurrection Hymn
This is Gauntlett's tune for the Easter hymn "Christ the Lord is risen today; Alleluia!" And a fine tune it is; unfortunately, there is an over-abundance of tunes that could serve the same hymn equally well, and several of them are far better-known. Perhaps the next time a contemporary hymn writer pens a hymn in the 7777 metre, with an Alleluia after each line, this tune will get its chance. It probably wouldn't hurt to transpose it down a step or two; I give it here in the key in which I found it.

St. Albinus
Once again, the Australian Lutherans diverge from the custom of their American brethren in pairing this tune with the Easter hymn, "Jesus lives! the victory's won" - which they also know according to an alternate translation, in an entirely different metre. Gauntlett's tune is worthy of the purpose, though I am more accustomed to singing this hymn to the chorale Jesus, meine Zuversicht. In my opinion, the two versions of this hymn are so different that you could put them side by side in a hymnal, and no one would complain.

St. Alphege
Nowadays, most Lutherans associate the Christmas hymn "A great and mighty wonder" with the tune Es ist ein Ros, though this requires some butchering of John Mason Neale's rendering of the 8th-century hymn. The Service Book & Hymnal of 1958 eliminated this need by using Gauntlett's tune instead. I appreciate their respect for the integrity of Neale's work, but the earlier Common Service Book made a better choice in Justin Knecht's tune Kocher. Personally, I find St. Alphege too plain and uninteresting to serve as an effective aid to memory - which is the least one should ask of a hymn tune.

Other hymns I have found paired with this tune include "Brief life is here our portion"; "O that the Lord's salvation"; and "The voice that breathed o'er Eden." From this one can gather that it is an attractive and versitile tune, capable of serving texts on a variety of subjects. But I predict that any hymn saddled with St. Alphege will quickly fall into that category of hymns found in every hymnal, hymns set to such generic, vanilla tunes that they get lost in plain sight.

St. Fulbert
This largely overlooked CM tune has served such texts as "Almighty God, Thy Word is cast"; "Father of mercies, in Thy Word"; and "When all Thy mercies, O my God." There are loads of tunes that could serve these hymns, so many that they begin to blur together; nevertheless, St. Fulbert does have merit, and could even be considered "mildly catchy."

St. George
Also called St. Olave after a church where Gauntlett served as organist, this tune is one of several that have been paired with the stewardship hymn "We give Thee but Thine own," and with the Communion hymn "Thy table I approach." It is more or less an average representative of its class. Naturally, it shouldn't be confused with George J. Elvey's tune St. George's, Windsor, sometimes known simply as St. George.

The Ascension hymn "Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious" sounds better, in my opinion, sung to William Owen's tune Bryn Calfaria; that piece, however, is far too difficult for most congregations. Gauntlett's effort is much more approachable, and with its soaring lines of pomp-and-circumstance (including two phrases of grand unison) it is nearly as effective as its Welsh opposite number. I would advise taking SBH's line and placing both tunes side by side.

Other hymnals, meanwhile, have selected this tune for such hymns as "In His temple now behold Him" (for the Presentation of Jesus) and "O'er the distant mountains breaking" (for the resurrection and end times). This tune shares its title with another tune by contemporary composer Bruce R. Backer, whose Triumph has been paired with the Easter hymn "Triumphant from the grave."

University College
This is an entirely forgettable tune for such hymns as "Gracious Spirit, Dove divine"; "Jesus, name of wondrous love"; and "Source of light and life divine." Weakened by a complete lack of inspiration or individual features, it might have been redeemed by some sort of intelligible structure...but it lacks that too. Which is pretty much damnation for a hymn tune, as Revelation 3:16 says: "Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."

Conclusion: Henry J. Gauntlett holds a small but respectable niche in Anglophone hymnody, and holds it tenaciously - thanks, in large part, to the tune Irby. Several of his other tunes are prevented from becoming mainstays of Lutheran hymnody mainly by our knowing the same hymns to other tunes. The ongoing work of contemporary hymn-writers presents an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with Gauntlett's finer and more distinctive works.

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