A year ago, I stumbled around trying to find why three separate composers had named hymn tunes after the Norfolk market town of Thetford. This series of articles on hymn tunes named after East Anglian places now takes me to Suffolk, and a similar question around a much smaller settlement. Three tunes bear the name of the coastal town of Southwold. Let’s take them in chronological order.
1. The folk song
The folk tune ‘Southwold’ was already old when it was printed in Edward Rimbault’s Old English Carols in 1865. I’ve not been able to track that book down – the online copy had the necessary button greyed out, and the library hard copy was missing. But the folk copy ‘Southwold’ is as bright as a button, and breathes a lot of life into the archaising translation of ‘Hail, Easter bright, in glory dight!‘ (New English Hymnal #108).
2. The mysterious ten thousand
The second tune named after Southwold is by Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876). High points in his life included taking the organ part at the first performance of Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’, and the patenting of an improvement to the mechanism of the organ – expanding the application of electricity.
Gauntlett is best remembered for the tune ‘Irby’, which is indissolubly attached to the Christmas hymn ‘Once in royal David’s city’. Does any reader know if Gauntlett’s ‘Irby’ is the village near Birkenhead, or Irby in the Marsh (near Skegness), or Irby upon Humber? None of those is on our patch. I offer them to our friends at North West Bylines and Central Bylines, if interested.
Gauntlett said at one time that he had written 10,000 hymn tunes, a claim that most authorities quote with a dash of scepticism. The statistic is just about plausible if we imagine Gauntlett, for the whole of his adult life, making hymn tunes as some enthusiasts solve crossword puzzles (not yet invented in his day).
The most serious objection to the 10,000 claim is lack of evidence. No one appears to have seen these compositions! Hymnary, my go-to resource, lists 105 tunes by Gauntlett that have made it to publication in hymn books.
Our hero’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us that he could sometimes be self-important to the point of drawing ridicule. Perhaps the inflated estimate of his composition record has to be understood as a product of that failing. Percy Scholes, in the Oxford Companion to Music entry ‘Hymns and hymn tunes’, looked at the figure and asked, “What purpose has been served by such excessive production?”
But I’m afraid I can’t answer the question of what linked Gauntlett and Southwold. I’m keen to hear from anyone who can.
3. The overgrown grave
The third ‘Southwold’ tune is by George Mursell Garrett (1834-1897).
Untypically, Wikipedia’s entry for Garrett tells us where he is buried. Hymnary’s ‘Person page‘ for him tells us very little other than where he is buried. This suits the mournful character of this particular tune, not used much now but attached to the hymn ‘Go to dark Gethsemane‘ by James Montgomery (1771-1854), concerning Jesus’ agonised prayers the night before he was crucified.
A fuller account of Garrett’s life is given in the website of the Mill Road Cemetery (MRC), the composer’s final resting place. The necropolis is located just a couple of miles from where I live. I biked there on a drab January afternoon in hopes of photographing the grave.
The MRC website also gives good directions for finding the monument: “This broken cross is located two rows from the west wall on the northern boundary of [the burial space allocated to] the parish of St. Benet’s.” There’s even a photograph, taken in July 2020, showing this grave and its damaged neighbour in the hideous clarity of lockdown. But I couldn’t find it. Two and a half years of further overgrowth, plus the fading light and pain my feet experience on rough terrain, meant that I cut my visit short without seeing the stone that had Garrett’s name on it.
I pointed my mobile in the vague direction of where the tomb was probably concealed.
This is an-going series by Aidan Baker. Previous articles can be found here.