Sunday, September 12, 2010

Caleb Simper

Sung throughout the civilized world.

That slogan was printed on millions of copies of church anthems written by composer Caleb Simper in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, though like many of his contemporaries, he is largely unknown today.

Simper was born today in 1856, in Wiltshire. Though his father is usually described as a shoemaker, he also played the violin in local ensembles. Caleb received little or no formal musical training, but he probably learned some at home, from his father. As an adult, his first entry into the music business was working at a music store in Worcester, but soon after he was appointed organist and choirmaster at the church of St. Mary Magdalene in that city. It was here that he wrote his first anthem for his choir to dine at Easter, He is risen, which he published under the pseudonym of Edwyn Clare.

After about ten years in Worcester, he moved his family to Barnstaple, where he went into partnership with John Thomas White in a music warehouse, selling pianos, organs, and sheet music. He continued to hold organist positoins, and to publish his anthems, which became extremely popular. Less than a year after entering the partnership, he sold his half to White in order to devote more time to composition. He also began to write for the organ, publishing the first of twelve volumes of organ music in 1898. This book also included a piece written by his son Roland at the age of eight.

Like many other Victorian church musicians, Simper also wrote hymn tunes, including two which won prizes in a contest sponsored by the Manchester Sunday School Union, believed to be BARNSTAPLE and SUPPOSE, both of which appear in the Sunday School Hymnary of 1905 (at #42 and #13 respectively). He wrote carols, several of which appear in the American collection Carols Old and Carols New (1916). Today's tune, the only one of his listed at the Cyber Hymnal, was named for his son Roland, who followed in his footsteps as an organist and composer.

Who are these in bright array?
This innumerable throng,
Round the altar night and day,
Tuning their triumphal song?
"Worthy is the Lamb, once slain,
Blessing, honor, glory pow'r,
Wisdom, riches to obtain,
New dominion every hour."

These through fiery trials trod;
These from great affliction came;
Now, before the throne of God,
Sealed with God's eternal Name,
Clad in raiment gleaming bright,
Victor palms in every hand,
Through their great Redeemer's might,
More than conquerors they stand.

Hunger, thirst, disease unknown,
On immortal fruits they feed;
Them the Lamb amidst the throne'
Shall to living fountains lead.
Joy and gladness banish sighs;
Perfect love dispels their fears'
And forever from their eyes
God shall wipe away all tears.

James Montgomery, 1819; alt.
Caleb Simper, 19th cent.

This text by James Montgomery uses some well-known imagery from the Book of Revelation, which we have also seen in another hymn, and though that one is a favorite of mine, I like this one as well. If we can have multiple hymns based on Psalm 23, we can have multiples here also.

Sources have identified more than a hundred choral anthems and cantatas by Caleb Simper, and nearly two hundred organ pieces, though no one has yet tracked the hymn tunes and carols, it appears (I have seen more than the few mentioned here). His music has been called overly simplistic and repetitive, yet at the same time it's said that the anthems work well with small choirs without great resources. Some are apparently still in print, though nearly all should be out of copyright in this country and some can be seen at the Choral Public Domain Library. You can also look him up on YouTube and find performances, which is more than can be said of some other Victorian composers I've discussed here.

While Simper was dismissed by later composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Erik Routley, it may be that some critics closer to our time are taking a second look at his work. Last year, for the anniversary of one of the parish churches he served as organist, a celebration of his work was held.

At any rate, in his own day Caleb Simper was perhaps, as they say, laughing all the way to the bank. By 1920 his anthems had sold more than five million copies, and at the time of his death in 1942 his estate was valued at more then twenty thousand pounds, quite substantial in that time. His music may not have been sung in the great cathedrals, but thousands of choirs and congregations knew and loved them in smaller churches throughout the civilized world.


books4york said...

Our local J. A. Parks Music Company used at least one SIMPER hymn - "He Is Risen" in a hymnal published in 1896. -- see digitized pgs.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

C.W.S. said...

Thanks very much! I enjoy looking at things liike this.