Friday, May 15, 2009

Samuel Webbe

Composer Samuel Webbe may have died on this day in 1816 (his birthdate in 1740 is unknown). The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music (1996) confirms the May 15 date, which is good enough for me, but I've seen three other possible dates in May in various sources (including two different dates in the Wikipedia entry linked above).

Webbe served seven years as apprentice to a cabinetmaker beginning when he was eleven. Following that, he studied Latin, French, and Italian, supporting himself by copying music for a London publisher. Continuing his musical interests, he took lessons from the organist of the Bavarian chapel. He formed singing groups for men and composed many popular
catches and glees. Later in life, he was known for giving free music lessons on Friday evenings.

A Roman Catholic, Webbe was appointed organist at the chapels of both the Portuguese and Sardinian embassies (at this time in England, the Catholic mass was only allowed to be performed at foreign embassies). He published books of
anthems and motets that were widely used in his time. His hymn tunes mostly derive from his book An Essay on the Church Plain Chant (1782), originally written in plainsong style and later arranged and harmonized by others into the forms we know today.

Over the years many people have known and loved this hymn with its tune by Webbe, though it may seem a bit dated to some.

Come, ye disconsolate,
Where’er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat,
Fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts,
Here tell your anguish;
We have no sorrow
That heaven cannot heal.

Joy of the desolate,
Light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent,
Fadeless and pure!
Here speaks the Comforter,
Tenderly saying,
“We have no sorrow
That heaven cannot cure.”

Here see the Bread of Life,
See waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God,
Pure from above.
Come to the feast of love;
Come, ever knowing
We have no sorrow
But heaven can remove.

Thomas Moore, 1816;
rev. Thomas Hastings, 1831; alt.
Samuel Webbe, 1792

Webbe's Essay on the Church Plain Chant seems to be the first place that ADESTE FIDELES was priinted in England, and it's due (in a roundabout way) to Webbe's association with the Portuguese embassy chapel that that popular Christmas tune is called the "Portuguese hymn" in many older sources, though it's now more generally believed to be the work of John Francis Wade.


Leland Bryant Ross said...

What's the motive in changing "earth" to "we"? Is it theological, and if so can you point me to the argument?

Leland aka Haruo

C.W.S. said...

I didn't know it was a change for a long time as this isn't a hymn I grew up singing. I would guess that it was to make the lines more personal (though, more often we would change things to make them more broadly applicable). It was possibly considered more colloquial also, or more musically felicitous.

AuntE said...

I wrote a little about this hymn awhile ago. You can find it here:

(Sorry - don't know how else to post the link!)

C.W.S. said...

I've read some Alcott before, though never Little Women. Coming up here in the next few weeks is the birthday of another, more recent novelist who didn't write hymns herself but sometimes referenced them in her books.