Tuesday, August 17, 2010

George William Warren

Composer and church musician George William Warren was born on this day in 1828, in Albany, NY. His family was descended from early American settler Richard Warren, one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact in 1620.

Though Warren reportedly showed some musical talent as a child, he did not study music in school. As a young adult, he spent several years in business only then teaching himself music in his spare time. He began to play the organ at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Albany and eventually became the regular organist there, giving up business for a career in music. While still in Albany he began coaching a soprano named Isabella Hinkley who went on to an important career on the opera stage in the mid-nineteenth century.

Warren moved to New York City in 1860 where he became the organist and music director at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn. He was also the Brooklyn correspondent for Dwight's Journal of Music, where he wrote under the pseudonym of "Jem Baggs." He had became friends with the composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk and the two worked together on some compositions, also appearing in concert together in pieces for two pianos (one of these was Warren's The Andes which is available for download).

After ten years in Brooklyn he was named organist at
St. Thomas' Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. His first Sunday there in 1870 was also the first service held in a new building for the congregation (the third of four they have had up to the present). Most of Warren's church music, including anthems, service music, and hymn tunes was written during the next twenty years at St. Thomas', and he became one of the best-known Episcopal musicians of his time. In 1888 he compiled many of his tunes into a book published by Harper Brothers: Hymns and Tunes as Sung at St. Thomas's Church, New York.

His one tune that we would recognize today (which we have already heard here) was written later, in 1892, for a commemoration of the centennial of the United States Constitution, and to be paired with a text that had been written for the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. NATIONAL HYMN is still sung in many churches on Independence Day and other national occasions.

But there were those other tunes as well, many of them for texts that we would recognize, though we sing them to different tunes today, for one reason or another. We all know today's hymn, but I suspect that it is so familiar because it has been paired with a great tune. However, that tune had not yet been written in Warren's day, and he wrote this one, which we might still know today if CWM RHONDDA had not been written 23 years later.

Guide me, O thou great Redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven
Feed me till I want no more.

Open now the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer
Be thou still my Strength and Shield.

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises
I will ever give to thee.

William Williams, 1745
tr. Peter Williams, 1771; alt.
George W. Warren, 1884

Now, it's also possible that with Warren's tune, which I think is not at all bad, but lacks that certain something that CWM RHONDDA has, this text might not be particularly well-known today.

In 1890 Warren added the organist position at Columbia University to his duties at St. Thomas, and he also lectured on music there despite having no degree in music except an honorary doctorate awarded by Racine College in Wisconsin. The Episcopal Diocese of New York honored him with a special service to mark his twenty-fifth year at the church, which was reported in the New York Times on November 4, 1895.

His obituary in the Columbia University Quarterly began: On Sunday morning, March 16, 1902, the soul of George William Warren separated from the body by the process called death. It continued:

Years before there was in this country any intelligent appreciation of church music, or adequate facilities for the scientific study of any kind of music, George William Warren became the apostle of a movement which largely through his efforts and influence has come now to be recognized as an integral part of the instruction of a university. (...) Those who laid foundations are not to be ignored when the roll of those who are great is called in any field of work.

You might think that Warren has been largely ignored by many in the century since his death, but NATIONAL HYMN, at least, will still be sung for years to come. There is also a current exhibit on his life and work at the Albany Institute of History and Art (from which I got the photograph of Warren above) which is running through the end of this month.


AuntE said...

Growing up, I sang these words (except 'Redeemer' was 'Jehovah') to yet another tune. It took me a minute or 2, but I've remembered the melody and have no idea how to find out the tune name! Any suggestions?

AuntE said...

Okay - found it! The tune is ZION by Thomas Hastings, a rather martial sounding tune, except that it's in 3/4.

When I remembered this melody earlier today, I didn't think to look in "Glorious Gospel Hymns" as it is the hymnal that came before the one I grew up with. I believe the one we used when I was a child was "Praise and Worship" - both hymnals of the Church of the Nazarene.