Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Samuel Webbe

The birthdate of composer Samuel Webbe is unknown, and the date of his death is apparently also uncertain, but several sources do list it as May 15.  He had a son by the same name who was also a composer, but not of any hymn tunes that survived to the present day.

The tunes of Webbe that we do know mostly appeared first in his Essay on the Church Plain Chant (1782), and thus were not harmonized as we know them.  Webbe was a Roman Catholic in England, writing for their liturgy and not for the Church of England.  

Today we have what is probably Webbe's best known tune, MELCOMBE, the melody of which came from that first book, and is still included in modern hymnals.  The tune gained popularity in a relatively short period of time; it next appeared in a 1791 collection called Sacred Harmony (where it received its name).  Webbe then included it in his later Collection of Motets (1792) with a rudimentary harmonixation.  Ir probably arrived in America through the efforts of Lowell Mason; it appeared in early as 1828 in one of his collections, where it was called NAZARETH.

Like so many other familiar text and tune combinations, this one comes from the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), where music editor William H. Monk harmonized the tune as we now know it.  In addition to today's well-known text by John Keble, that hymnal also matched MELCOMBE to Lord, speak to me that I may speak by Frances Ridley Havergal, but that pairing did not prove popular.

New every morning is the love
Our wakening and uprising prove;
Through sleep and darkness safely brought,
Restored to life and power and thought.

New mercies, each returning day,
Hover around us while we pray;
New perils past, new sins forgiven,
New thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.

If, on our daily course, our mind
Be set to hallow all we find,
New treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice.

The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we ought to ask;
Old friends, old scenes, will lovelier be,
As more of heav'n in each we see.

Only, O God, in thy dear love,
Fit us for perfect rest above,
And help us, this and every day,
To live more nearly as we pray.

John Keble. 1827; alt.
Samuel Webbe, 1782
harm. Willliam H. Monk, 1861

This text is from John Keble's The Christian Year (1828), part of a sixteen-stanza poem entitled Morning. Of course, some modern hymnals cut it even further to four stanzas.  In The Christian Year, this poem was preceded by a quote from Lamentations 3:22-23: "God's compassions fail not. They are new every morning," which may also remind you of a more recent hymn, Great is thy faithfulness.

I've already admitted that MELCOMBE is not a favorite of mine but someone must like it if it continues to appear in hymnals today. Archibald Jacob, in Songs of Praise Discussed (1933), calls it "an extremely well-balanced tune, of great dignity," which just shows what I know.

Three Years Ago: Samuel Webbe

Two Years Ago: Austin C. Lovelace

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