Sunday, March 14, 2010

William Fisk Sherwin

William Fisk Sherwin was born today in 1826, in Buckland, Massachusetts. He is primarily known today for only two tunes which were written for two long-lasting hymns by Mary Lathbury: Break thou the bread of life and Day is dying in the west. Like so many of his contemporaries, however, he produced many other songs and hymns that are forgotten.

He studied music with Lowell Mason and later became an instructor at the New England Conservatory of Music. He was active in Sunday school work, teaching and leading special assemblies throughout New York and New England. In later years he was remembered by George C. Stebbins in Reminiscences and Gospel Song Stories (1924):

I remember well his singing very effectively and artistically the old classic among sacred songs Flee as a bird to your mountain. His manner of rendering and his well trained and sympathetic voice made a lasting impression upon me.

Sherwin was a friend of the Methodist Bishop John Heyl Vincent, who founded a camp in 1874 for Sunday school teachers on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in western New York and asked Sherwin to serve as the camp's music director. This camp soon developed into the prestigious Chautauqua Institution, and Sherwin maintained his connection to it for many years. Many of his compositions, not just those with Lathbury, were popularized here first.

Sherwin was also a musical editor at the Century Company and at Biglow & Main, who published many of his songs. One of his collections there, co-edited with Robert Lowry and William H. Doane, was titled Chautauqua Carols (1878) and was used both at the Institute and thoughout the country where numerous "tent chautauquas" sprang up in connection with the original. Though mostly known today as a composer, Sherwin did write many of his own texts for his tunes as well, such as this one.

Grander than ocean’s story,
Or songs of forest trees;
Purer than breath of morning,
Or evening’s gentle breeze;
Clearer than mountain echoes
Ring out from peaks above,
Rolls on the glorious anthem
Of God’s eternal love.

Dearer than any friendship
Our truest comrades show;
Stronger than all the yearning
A mother’s heart may know;
Deeper than earth’s foundations,
And far above all thought;
Broader than heav’n’s high arches—
The love that Christ has brought.

Richer than all earth’s treasures,
The wealth my soul receives;
Brighter than royal jewels,
The crown that Jesus gives;
Wondrous the condescension,
And grace beyond degree!
I would be ever singing
The love of Christ to me.

William F. Sherwin, 19th c.

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