Saturday, November 6, 2010

William Tans'ur

William Tans'ur (1700 - 1783) was a composer and teacher of music, baptized on this day in 1706, the earliest known date connected with his life. Though born to parents Edward and Joan Tanzer, according to the parish register at Dunchurch, Warwickshire, the adult William began signing his name with the internal apostrophe; "an affectation," according to some sources.

Little is known about Tans'ur's life before adulthood. He was a teacher of music and published The New Musical Grammar in 1746, a textbook that remained in popular use for nearly a century. He taught psalmody and community singing in several different locations before settling in the town of St. Neot's, where he had a bookshop and continued to teach.

His first important volume of psalm tunes was A Compleat Melody, or the Harmonies of Zion (1734). It was republished several times, sometimes under other titles, and eventually in the American colonies in 1767. William Billings, the first significant American composer, is said to have been influenced by Tans'ur. Tans'ur's total output is estimated to be approximately two hundred tunes, as well as other choral anthems and service music.

Today's familiar tune comes from that 1746 volume by Tan'sur, where it was set to a paraphrase of Psalm 11, In God the Lord I put my trust. The first text I always associate with it is the Good Friday hymn Alone thou goest forth, a 1938 (copyrighted) translation by F. Bland Tucker that first appeared in the Episcopal Hymnal 1940, but many other texts have been matched to it over the years and it still appears in many, if not most, American hymnals.

O God, thy pow'r is wonderful,
Thy glory passing bright;
Thy wisdom, with its deep on deep,
A never-failing light.

I see thee in th'eternal years
In glory all alone,
Ere round thine uncreated fires
Created light had shone.

Still, still incomprehensible,
I see thee all through time;
Thy patience and compassion seem
New attributes sublime.

Angelic spirits, countless souls,
Of thee have drunk their fill;
And to eternity will drink
Thy joy and glory still.

O little heart of mine! shall pain
Or sorrow make thee moan,
When all this God is all for thee,
A Comfort all thine own?

Frederick W. Faber, 1854; alt.
William Tans'ur, 1734

The city of Bangor, Maine, apparently took its name from this tune by accident. The Reverend Seth Noble was sent to Boston in 1791 to fill out the paperwork for incorporation of the town, which was intended to be called Sunbury. The story goes that Noble was humming Tans'ur's tune while giving the necessary information to a clerk, and when asked the name, unwittingly gave the name of the tune rather than the name of the town, and "Bangor" was officially entered.

It seems possible to me that this is the tale that the Reverend Mr. Noble told his neighbors upon returning, that perhaps in truth he didn't particularly care for "Sunbury" himself, and decided to name his town for a hymn tune he particularly liked.

I know people who would do something like that.

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