Born: July 9, 1805, Wellington, Shropshire, England.
Died: February 21, 1876, London, England.
Buried: Kensal Green Cemetery, London, England.
An exceptionally gifted organist, Gauntlett was well known in 19th Century English music circles. He was also, in turn, a lawyer, author, organ designer, and organ recitalist.
His father, Henry Gauntlett, was curate at the Wellington Parish Church, where Henry the younger was born. Henry had two sisters, Lydia and Arabella, both accomplished musicians. When his father moved to Olney, Buckinghamshire, in 1814, he intended the two girls to share the post of organist, but the young Gauntlett persuaded his father to appoint him instead. Within six months, being taught by his mother, he was proficient enough to take up the post.
Later, he took lessons from Wesley. Attwood, a pupil of Mozart, wanted to appoint him as his assistant at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Gauntlett the elder discouraged his son from becoming a professional musician, believing they were subject to too many temptations of the flesh! Consequently, Henry the younger became a lawyer and moved to London, where he practiced with his brother.
In 1827 he took up his first post as organist at St. Olave, Southwark. It was here he began his campaign for the reform of organ design, which was to bring him into such conflict with the established organ world. Nevertheless, he persisted to the point where he introduced the
Grand Chorus based on continental style organs, extending the pedal compass and patenting electricity to power the instrument. His collaboration with organ designer William Hill lasted from the late 1830’s to 1860.
During this period, Gauntlett edited The Musical World and later provided articles for various publications. He was also much in demand as a performer. In 1846, Mendelssohn chose him to play the organ part in the first performance of Elijah in the Birmingham Town Hall. It was about this time he was granted a Lambeth Doctorate by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Howley.
Gauntlett was a prolific hymn writer; it is said he wrote 10,000 hymns. As this would require him write three hymns a day for thirty years, the figure is doubtful. He did, however, edit various hymn books and was
actively concerned with every major collection of hymns made over the course of about 50 years (Bishop, 1971).
Gauntlett has been described as the
Father of Church Music, for he was the creator of the school of four-part hymn tunes. Whether he deserves this accolade is debatable. Yet he was admired by Mendelssohn, no less, who wrote of him,
His literary attainments, his knowledge of the history of music, his acquaintance with acoustical law, his marvelous memory, his philosophical turn of mind as well as practical experience—these render him one of the most remarkable professors of the age.
A portrait of Gauntlett, circa 1840, hangs in the Royal College of Organists, London, and is reproduced in The Making of the Victorian Organ (Thistlewaite: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Biography © 2000 Terence Crolley. Used by permission.