Walking With Ancestors

HJ Gauntlett

On hearing ‘Once In Royal David’s City’, your initial thoughts might not immediately turn to the market town of Wellington. Yet it was here in 1805 that HJ Gauntlett, the creator of the popular carol, was born. Gauntlett’s family lived in Wellington until 1814, when his father, Rev Henry Gauntlett, a curate at All Saints parish church, took up a post in Olney, Buckinghamshire, where his son was appointed organist. During that time, Thomas Attwood, the organist at St Paul’s in London, unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Henry to become his assistant. Rev Gauntlett was apparently unhappy at the prospect of his son becoming a professional musician and, aged 21, he was subsequently articled to a firm of London solicitors for eight years in 1826.

Henry-John-Gauntlett

Grand Re-designs

Despite the obstacle of a legal career, Gauntlett’s musical ambitions persisted and he quickly established a reputation as a noted music journalist and one of London’s leading organists of a period that also marked the beginning of his pre-occupation with reforming Protestant congregational music. During his lifetime, Gauntlett was reckoned to have written around 10,000 hymns and, while this figure may be a little optimistic, he was certainly involved in compiling practically every major collection of published hymns for nearly fifty years. However, Gauntlett believed the singing of a large congregation also required an organ ‘to lead and support it’ and, working in collaboration with the renowned designer William Hill, he provided the energy to bring about the most radical changes to English church organ building for two centuries. Basing his ideas on the continental models of Holland and Germany, Gauntlett sought a re-design of the instrument that increased the independence and extent of the pedal board and expanded the organ’s expressive capabilities. Over a ten-year period, Gauntlett and Hill’s innovations not only radically altered organ construction but provided a template that would inspire organists and organ-builders alike for generations to come.

The 'Remarkable Professor'

By the time of his death in 1876 Gauntlett had established a strong reputation for learning. This was formally recognised in 1843, when he was granted the Lambeth Doctorate by the Archbishop of Canterbury; the first time the honour had been awarded in 200 years. His protestant zeal and unswerving belief in the sanctity of his own opinions made Gauntlett an unpopular figure in some quarters, while he had also been derided for his lack of formal qualifications. However, after becoming a Doctor of Music, he finally gave up law in 1846, the same year he was chosen by Mendelssohn to play in the first performance of Elijah, at Birmingham Town Hall. The great composer, whose performances of Bach’s organ music had done much to inspire Gauntlett’s crusade to re-design the instrument, was certainly in no doubt of his abilities, pronouncing him ‘one of the most remarkable professors of the age’ and declaring ‘he ought to have a statue’!