Likewise it gives a force & edge to Devotion, it carries our thoughts up to heaven, makes us tast ye Ioys of it here upon earth, & raises us to ye felicity of angels. besides, observe, yt nothing is so great an Ornament To a Young Gentlemen, or a Gentlewoman, as to Sing well, it gives a happy Vent & elevation to there Thoughts it refines & polishes their Manners, & is so far from hindring them in their application to bussness, yt it Secures them from those temptations, to wch plenty & idleness expose those persons, who don’t know how To employ their vacant hours otherwise than in unlawful pleasures, So this kind of Devotion ye common People are most intent upon ; to Instruct whom, was ye main design of this Booke.Francis Timbrell, Divine Musick Scholars Guide
The Divine Musick Scholars Guide is an undated, unpaged collection of psalm tunes and anthems published some time in the eighteenth century. In 1908, an article in the Musical Times indicated this book as the earliest occurrence of William Wheal‘s hymn tune ‘Bedford‘, and the anonymous Edwardian writer clearly relished quoting Timbrell’s prose as exactly as I do above.
The tune appeared with that title and that attribution right from this first outing. There’s no mystery about them. But then the trail goes cold. Very little is known of Wheal’s life. His dates are c. 1690-1727; he graduated Bachelor of Music at Cambridge in 1719; he served as organist of St Paul’s Church, Bedford, probably from 1715 until his death. The tune ‘Bedford’ appears to be the only music he wrote.
The article ‘Tune names‘ (£), in the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, gives ‘Bedford’ as an example of a tune name based on where the tune was first used. A prosaic story, with no suggestion that Wheal was seeking to be at all evocative about the city where he lived and worked.
What could he have evoked, if he’d been that way inclined? Bedford lies on the River Great Ouse; also, it has a historical connection with John Bunyan. Wheal presumably knew of this, and perhaps even knew that Bunyan had, in the 1650s, preached in Wheal’s own church. I don’t know how St Paul’s felt about that, seventy years on.
Those stories are not audible in Wheal’s music.
Going up in the world
But it quickly grew popular. The Musical Times article finds ‘Bedford’ in three other undated 18th-century collections: A Book of Psalmody edited by Matthew Wilkins, and two edited by Michael Broom. 1732 brought it to The Harmonious Companion; or, the Psalm-Singer’s Magazine, and ten years on, John Wesley picked it for his A Collection of Tunes, set to Music, as they are Commonly Sung at the Foundery.
A tinkered version was used by William Gardiner (1770-1853), in his Sacred Melodies, as the tune for Isaac Watts‘s hymn ‘O God, our Help in Ages Past‘. The 1908 writer was glad to see that later editors were using a version closer to Wheal’s original.
How was it for you?
The Hymnary website’s entry finds Wheal’s ‘Bedford’ in 87 hymnbooks, used with 55 hymns in six languages, and umpteen variant spellings of the composer’s name. So it’s not done badly. The 1908 article calls it “one of those grand old psalm-tunes which form an interesting feature of our glorious heritage of English Church Music.” A good and serviceable composition.
Then I think of that other hymn tune I wrote about, the one that grabbed me during the first lockdown and became, for me, the signature tune of those strange times. I haven’t heard of anyone for whom ‘Bedford’ has been the signature tune of a national emergency.
But if the experience was otherwise for you, then we at EAB would be very interested to hear of it. Write and let us know!