Sunday, February 27, 2011

William James Kirkpatrick

Composer William James Kirkpatrick was born today in 1838 in Duncannon, PA. His father was a music teacher, so William studied music from an early age and learned to play different musical instruments. At sixteen he left home to further his music studies, including composition, in Philadelphia. He supported himself through carpentry and joined the Wharton Street Methodist Episcopal Church, accompanying and singing in the choir.

When he was just twenty-one, several of his tunes appeared in Devotional Melodies (1859), published by A.J. Jenks. who, in the book's introduction, thanks "Mr. W. J. Kirkpatrick for the simple and appropriate arrangement of a large number of the musical compositions found in this book." Two years later, during the early years of the Civil War, he served as fife major and principal musician for the 91st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers. He returned from the war and went into the furniture business in Philadelphia, though church music remained a very active sideline.

Following the death of his first wife in 1878 he decided to devote himself to music full-time, and for several years thereafter was the organist and music director at Grace Methodist Episcopal Church. His tunes were now in great demand and he also began editing and compiling songbooks either alone or in collaboration with others. John R. Sweney was a friend and frequent collaborator.

His most enduring tune is probably CRADLE SONG, one of the tunes sung with Away in a manger (though it's used with other texts too). Another one already seen here is O spread the tidings round. Many will probably remember this well-known tune of Kirkpatrick's which first appeared in Sweney's Songs of Redeeming Love (1882) with a text by Priscilla Owens, a Methodist Sunday School teacher in Baltimore who wrote several songs for her students which were later published.

We have heard the joyful sound:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Spread the tidings all around:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Bear the news to every land,
Climb the mountains, cross the waves;
Onward! ’tis our God’s command;
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!

Waft it on the rolling tide:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Tell to people far and wide:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Sing, you islands of the sea;
Echo back, you ocean caves;
Earth shall keep the jubilee:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!

Sing above the battle strife:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Sing of love and endless life:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Shout it brightly through the gloom,
When the heart for mercy craves;
Sing in triumph o’er the tomb:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!

Give the winds a mighty voice:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Let the nations now rejoice:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Shout salvation full and free;
Highest hills and deepest caves;
This our song of victory:
Jesus saves! Jesus saves!

Priscilla J. Owens, 1882; alt.
William J. Kirkpatrick, 1882

Kirkpatrick would go on to compile or collaborate on more than eighty songbooks and write more than a thousand vocal compositions, including gospel songs, anthems, and solo songs. You can see about half of the book titles and several of his tunes at his Cyber Hymnal page. He eventually became a publisher himself as president of the Praise Publishing Company. He died in 1921, only four years after marrying his third wife (who had been the widow of John Sweney), while working on one last tune.

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