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   Chapter 10 PELHAM HUMFREY

Twelve Good Musicians By Frederick Bridge Characters: 15820

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


We have all heard of "Single-speech Hamilton," a Member of Parliament, who, it is said, made a "single speech," and by it achieved lasting fame. As a matter of history, Hamilton made other speeches, but it was by the first that he earned his well-known cognomen. And we have a somewhat similar example in connection with a celebrated musician, John Jenkins. Born in 1592, he lived until 1678, and wrote, as North expresses it, "horse-loads of music." He was most prolific and most celebrated, and yet until a few years ago, when I revived many of his compositions-Dialogues, Fancies for Strings, and Latin Motets-not a note of his music was heard anywhere, save one little piece. But this was sung in every school where vocal music was taught-it is the charming little round A boat, a boat, haste to the ferry.

The subject of our present consideration is another example of the same fate. "Pelham Humfrey, Composer of the Grand Chant" is about all people know of him. This so-called Grand Chant is known and sung in every Protestant Church in the world. Humfrey is, however, a worthy member of the band of musicians whose work I am following, and we will see what else he did besides writing the Grand Chant.

Born in 1647, he is said to have been a nephew of Colonel John Humphrey, Bradshaw's sword-bearer.

From the arms which were on his tomb we can learn a little of his family and forbears-these arms, I regret to say, have long since been obliterated, in fact they had gone in Sir John Hawkins' time, together with the epitaph; and at the present time the exact position of the grave can be only a matter of conjecture.[1] But what was on it has been preserved to us in a valuable old work, Keepe's Monumenta Westmonasteriensia, 1682. In this work a description is given of the armorial bearings, and by them we can trace him to an old Northamptonshire stock. The family is mentioned as being settled in the County in The Visitation of Northampton of 1564, but had disappeared from it before the next Visitation some years later.

We know nothing of Pelham Humfrey's life until 1660, the year of the Restoration, when we find him, at the age of thirteen, entered as one of the first set of children of the reconstructed Chapel Royal Choir, under Henry Cooke, generally known as Captain Cooke, who having fought in the Civil War, obtained his Captain's Commission as early in the struggle as 1642; and retained his military title for the rest of his life.

While at the Chapel Royal, Humfrey displayed signs of that precocity which so often shows itself in the musical genius. He began composition while yet a boy, and in 1664 we find the words of no fewer than five of his Anthems published in Clifford's Divine Services and Anthems.

A reference to one of these Anthems is in the Diary of Samuel Pepys, which contains, by the way, several interesting references to Humfrey's career. Under date November 22nd, 1663, we find:

At Chapel: I had room in the Privy Seale pew with other gentlemen, and there heard Dr. Lilligrew preach. The Anthem was good after Sermon, being the 51st Psalm made for five voices by one of Captain Cooke's boys, a pretty boy. And they say there are four or five of them that can do as much. And here I first perceived that the King is a little Musical and kept good time with his hand all along the Anthem.

Now that Anthem was written by a Choir-boy in the Royal Chapel, but it is a remarkable fact, as Pepys says, that he was not the only boy-composer in the same choir and at the same time. Captain Cooke appears to have been rarely fortunate in having in his newly-formed choral body a set of phenomenally gifted boys, and doubtless no small credit is due to the loyal and gallant musician for the skill and care he must have devoted to their training.

Captain Cooke must have been a clever teacher and a still cleverer selector of boys for his choir; and this brilliant little school he gathered round him (including such names as Humfrey, Blow, and Purcell) shines out like a beacon light in our musical world. A curious and interesting fact bearing upon this came to my knowledge quite lately. A Thesis for a Doctor's degree in the University of Paris (in 1912) was on the subject of Captain Cooke's Choir Boys, and it was a clever yet concise account of the work done by these three pupils of Cooke-Humfrey, Blow, and Purcell. English music seems to be looking up when we find a period of our musical history and three of our past great musicians taken as the subject for a thesis in a foreign University!

The same year that witnessed the production of this Anthem was an all-important one, not only for Humfrey but also for English art. On leaving the Royal Choir, Charles II sent him abroad to continue his musical studies; the cost of the trip was paid out of the Secret Service Fund, and was expended in the following way:

1664. "To defray the charge of his journey into France and Italy £200." In the two following years also he was granted £100 and £150 respectively.

Most of the time Humfrey spent abroad was passed in Paris with J. B. Lully, an Italian by birth but a Frenchman by adoption, the most celebrated dramatic musical composer of his day. He wrote many Operas in the most varied styles, both grave and gay, was the composer of a good deal of sacred music, and was also a reformer in Opera-writing; he introduced the accompanied recitative in place of the Italian Recitative secco, making many changes in the ballets. Of still more importance was his development of the Overture, for which service he cannot be too highly valued.

It is very probable that the instruction given by Lully to Humfrey was less by precept than by example. The pupil listened with eager ears to his master's music and doubtless often took part in the performance of it. Under this influence-the influence of the greatest master of dramatic music of his time-it is not surprising that the already precocious genius of the young Englishman quickened, and that he returned to his native country with a different conception of his art. Another world had been opened up to him whose earliest instruction had, necessarily, been chiefly confined to the ecclesiastical side of it.

Before his return to England he had been appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, in the place of one Thomas Hazard, January, 1667, and he was duly sworn in the October following. A glance at Pepys' Diary under dates November 1st and 15th, 1667, gives us that shrewd observer's opinion of our hero as he appears fresh from his Continental trip.

November 1st, 1667. To Chapel, and heard a fine Anthem made by Pelham, who is come over.

The entry, however, of a fortnight later is of more interest, as apparently being Mr Pepys' first personal encounter with him since his return.

November 15th, 1667. Home, and there I find, as I expected, Mr. Caesar and little Pelham Humfrey lately returned from France, and is an absolute Monsieur as full of form and confidence and vanity, and disparages everything and everybody's skill but his own. But to hear how he laughs at all the King's Musick here, as Blagrave and others, that they cannot keep time nor tune nor understand anything; and that Grebus, the Frenchman, the King's Master of the Music, how he understands nothing nor can play on any instrument and so cannot compose; and that he will give him a lift out of his place; and that he and the King are mighty great. I had a good dinner for them, a venison pasty and some fowl, and after dinner we did play, he on the Theorbo, Mr. Caesar on his French lute, and I on the viol, but made but mean Musique, nor do I see that this Frenchman do so much wonders on the Theorbo, but without question, he is a good musician, but his vanity do offend me.

Grebus (or rather Grabu) was the King's Master of the Music. He displaced Bannister, who was d

ismissed, according to the historians, because he championed English violinists and said he preferred them to Frenchmen. He may have said this, but the real cause of his dismissal was that he kept back the money which he ought to have paid to the Private Band! King Charles has often been blamed for dismissing Bannister on account of his patriotic sentiments and defence of English players, but this charge is not true.

Returning to Mr Pepys for a record of his next day's doings, November 16, 1667, we find a very interesting reference to Humfrey and a somewhat scathing criticism from the Diarist:

1667, November 16th. To White Hall, where there is to be a performance of Music of Pelham's before the King. The company not come; but I did go into the Music Room where Captain Cooke and many others, and here I did hear the best and the smallest Organ go that ever I saw in my life and such a one as by the grace of God I will have the next year, if I continue in this Condition, whatever it cost me.

Mr Pepys then records a short walk and talk with Mr Gregory, returning to Whitehall:

And there got into the theatre room and there heard both the vocall and instrumentall Music, where the little fellow (Pelham Humfrey) stood keeping time, but for my part I see no great matter, but quite the contrary, in both sorts of Music. The composition, I believe, is very good, but no more of delightfulness to the eare or understanding, but what is very ordinary.

In addition to being a composer, Humfrey was an accomplished lutenist, and in the State Papers for the year 1668, under date January 20th, we find a promotion of his in the Royal Service; the record runs as follows:

January 20th, 1668. Warrant to pay Pelham Humfreys, Musician in Ordinary on the Lute, in place of Nich. Sawyer deceased £40 yearly, and £16 2s. 6d. for Livery.

On May 29th of this same year Mr Pepys again refers to him:

May 29th, 1668. Home, whither by agreement by and by comes Mercer and Gayet and two gentlemen with them, Mr. Monteith and Pelham, the former a swaggering young handsome gentleman, the latter a sober citizen merchant.[2] Both sing, and the latter with great skill, the other no skill, but a good voice and a good basse, but used only to tavern tunes; and so I spent all this evening till eleven at night, singing with them till I was tired of them, because of the swaggering fellow, tho' the girl Mercer did mightily commend him before me.

Later in the year (July) another reference is made in the Diary:

July 11th, 1668. So home, it being almost night (Mr. Pepys had been after an espinette at Deptford), and there find in the garden Pelling, who hath brought Tempest, Wallington, and Pelham to sing, and there had most excellent Musick late, in the dark with great pleasure.

Humfrey's Sacred music is a clear evidence of his French experience. He puts symphonies for strings and is dramatic at times and often somewhat light. An Anthem O Praise the Lord is a good example of the latter tendency. There are two short Bass solos, one to the words Sing praises lustily, which is almost like the song of a jovial sailor! It is in triple time, and is the sort of thing King Charles would certainly have beaten time to with his hand "all along the Anthem," in Pepys' words. The Bass solo in the Anthem he wrote when a boy and before his French training is in a quite different style, and might have been written by any of our good Cathedral writers, such as Locke, or Blow, or even Purcell.

In addition to his Sacred works Humfrey wrote three Odes and many songs. These latter fall under the critical notice of Dr Burney, who refers to them, I think, rather unfairly and harshly. Speaking of a collection called Choice Songs and Aires, Burney says: "Among these songs, to the number of near fifty, there is not one air that is either ingenious, graceful, cheerful or solemn: an insipid languor or vulgar pertness pervades the whole. From Pelham Humphry, whose Church Music is so excellent, I own I expected to find originality, or merit of some kind or other; but his songs are quite on a level with the rest."

Burney's remarks are not only spiteful, but untrue. To mention only one song, Humfrey's setting of Where the Bee Sucks, which he wrote for Dryden and Davenant's altered version of The Tempest (the oldest setting but one which we possess), is charming, both as regards melody and harmony. The first part is in the minor key, for which Humfrey seems-like Purcell-to have a weakness. There is an effective change to the Tonic Major at Merrily, merrily shall I live now, with a most striking and delicious drop of a 7th (I expect Burney regarded this as a crudity), To me the song seems one of the best of the time.

Humfrey went on adding rapidly to his honours. On January 24th, 1672, he was elected one of the wardens of "the Corporation for regulating the Art and Science of Musick," and in July of the same year his old master, Captain Cooke, died; his death being accelerated-so Antony Wood tells us-by chagrin at finding himself getting supplanted by his old pupil. This I do not believe: Cooke would have had a soul above such foibles, and had too many successful pupils to be jealous of poor little Humfrey.

However this may be, Humfrey succeeded him as Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, and later, jointly with Thomas Purcell, he was appointed Composer in Ordinary for the Violins to His Majesty.

It was in this year, 1672, that he wrote a charming little song called Wherever I am and Whatever I do. It was written for Dryden's Conquest of Granada, produced in that year.

Nothing of any importance is chronicled of him for the last two years of his all too short life. He died at Windsor on July 13th, 1674, and was buried in the Cloisters of Westminster Abbey, near the south east door. His last will and testament, witnessed by his old schoolfellow, Dr Blow, is interesting:

Aprill ye 23rd, 74.

Bee itt knowne to all people whomsoever itt may Concerne that I leave my deare wife my sole executrix and Mrs. of all I have in the world after those few debts I owe are payd:

I only desire that 3 Legacyes may bee given that is to say to my cousin Betty Jelfe: to Mr. Blow ad to Besse Gill each of them twenty shillings to buy them Rings.

Pell. Humfrey.

30 July, 1674.

Which day appeared personally John Blow of Westminster and made oath that he was present when Mr. Pelham Humfrey wrote the above written writing containing his last will and testament and he the sd Mr. Pelham Humfrey being of perfect mind and sound memory published and declared the same for his last will and testament.

John Blow.

30 July, 74.

(Proved 30 July 1674 by Catherine Humfrey Relict and sole executrix).

Humfrey's life, brief though it was, must be regarded as a turning point in our art's history-not alone by his own compositions, but by the infusion of his influence into the greater Purcell. He was not only Purcell's master at the Chapel Royal, but actually composed an Anthem jointly with Purcell, called By the Waters of Babylon. In Boyce's opinion "he was the first of our ecclesiastical composers who had the least idea of musical pathos and expression of the words," but this is an exaggeration.

This great advance in our music was carried on by the immortal Purcell, who, as a choir-boy under Humfrey, was, no doubt, an eager listener to the "new effects" which his master introduced. The pupil is so great, one is in danger of forgetting the master. At least here we have endeavoured to do some justice to the short-lived genius Pelham Humfrey.

[1] I have lately identified the spot. Keepe was for eighteen years a member of the Abbey Choir, and probably sang at Humfrey's funeral.

[2] I cannot help thinking Pepys meant Pelham as the swaggering young handsome gentleman, and Monteith as the sober citizen merchant.

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