[From Manx Quarterly, #16,1916]
" The Choir " for April contains a very interesting account of this life and work of Mr W. H. Gill, the eminent Manx musical composer, who has done so much to rescue the traditional music of the Isle of Man from oblivion, and who in conjunction with the late Deemster Gill (his brother) and the late Dr John Clague compiled the Manx National Song Book. we take the liberty of reproducing " The Choir " article, which is, by the way, illustrated with a most excellent portrait of Mr Gill:-
WHERE IS ANGMERING 7
Everybody who lives anywhere Angmering knows, of course, exactly where it is, while those who visit Littlehampton and the neighbouring seaside resorts are, perhaps, not entirely ignorant of its whereabouts. But the particular knowledge of our English villages is undoubtedly limited to those who have enjoyed the delights of cycle touring, and who have thereby gained an inner knowledge of the beauty spots of our country which would be otherwise unattainable, anyhow by the present veneration. Yet those who can easily locate Angmering, as well as those who require to be told that it is in the south of Sussex, are probably alike ignorant of the fact that it has now a special attraction for musicians ; fix here, in a charming country residence lives Mr W. H. Gill, who has not only made a special study of Manx folk-tunes and songs, but has also contributed largely to modern music and its literature. And it was with the view of learning something of the history of the " Manx Fisherman's Evening Hymn " that I left the main road from Chichester to Brighton on a recent cycling expedition, and made my way to Angmering.
Although a complete stranger to Mr Gill, he own made me feel quite at homes and in a few minutes we were chatting about music and musical matters as if we had known each other for years.
A TRUE MANXMAN.
Mr Gill, though born in Sicily, is of Manx stock to the backbone. Not only does his enthusiasm for everything connected with Manxland betray this, but it was with evident pride that he called my attention to a remarkable genealogical tree which occupied a prominent place in his study, and which extends back upwards of two thousand years, every item both on his father's and his mother's side being pure Manx.
When but a child, he was brought back to what is really his native land, and his adoption by his uncle in a Manx vicarage, his education at the celebrated King William's College, and his continual contact with others of his race, alike combine to make Mr Gill a representative of one of the noblest races of which our earth can boast.
It was this environment and bringing up that eminently filled him for a most notable achievement, and one of which any man might be proud. It is to him that Manxland owes its fine "National Anthem," the words being his own composition, and the music adapted by himself from one of the Island's traditional melodies. Further reference to this must be held over for the present, but it makes a most interesting story.
THE DISCOVERY OF "PEEL CASTLE."
It is many years since Mr Gill commenced the study of the native melodies of his country. In his young days the science of folk-song collecting was comparatively unknown. and he was one of the earliest workers in the field. Associated with him were his brother, Deemster Gill, and the late Dr Clague ; and it was whilst he was engaged in this search that Mr Gill came upon the melody which has now achieved a world-wide fame. Let him tell the story in his own words :-
"Among the many beautiful and more or less characteristic melodies we unearthed, will be found one which, strangely enough, although it came to us, as it were, in the rough; and associated with Manx words of anything but a sacred or devout character, nevertheless contain the potential germ of metrical and harmonic beauty which with a lithe ingenuity and much love on my part, and the addition of more worthy words, resulted in the hymn and tune under notice.
"It is true that the Manx fishermen in time gone by were wont, before shooting their nets to pray for the Divine blessing on their "Harvest of the Sea," and it is more than moot that a hymn would be sung on such occasion ; for these hardy fishermen are by nature a devout race and keen lovers of music.
"Although it is now unknown what particular hymn, if any, they sang, or what thoughts actually filled their minds, still the idea was to my mind so beautiful that I could not resist the impulse to combine all these diverse elements and associations of the past into one artistic and harmonious whole."
Mr Gill found the subject of his hymn in the following passage from the Manx "Prayer Book -
That it may please Thee to give and preserve to our use the kindly fruits of the earth, and to restore and continue to us the blessings of the sea, sb as in due time we may enjoy them.
SOME STORIES OF THE TUNE.
As may be expected, both words and tune are immensely popular in the Island, and its use soon spread to the churches and chapels.
Its more widely extended popularity, however dates from its appearance in the "Methodist Hymn-Book," which was published in 1904. Needless to say, the freshness and originality of the music and the beauty of the words at once, attracted attention, and it was not long before "No. 946" became one of the most popular numbers in the book.
Mr Gill has had many interesting testimonies of the appreciation in which his 'song ' is held. Here are two instances, the first being an experience that befell his daughter. In writing home a description of a bazaar which she attended, Miss Gill said :-
"The sale was opened by the Countess de Rivas, and she, it seems; is a great singer, and spends most of her time singing at missions, and to the poor on their sick beds. It was given out that she would sing two hymns to us, the first one with her favourite words, and the second with her favourite tune to "Abide with me." She is an American, and her voice is most sympathetic. .. Directly she started the second hymn I thought it a very familiar tune, and it was "The Harvest of the Sea." She put great expression into it, and it sounded lovely. You can imagine how excited I was, and Belt I mast tell her, so when she came to inspect the stalls I told the Vicar, and he took me up and introduced me to her. She was delighted, and at once poured out a torrent of wards in praise of the tune. She said that wherever she goes it is always the favourite, and people ask for that tune on their dying beds. She is very keen on meeting father, and says that when she is anywhere near she shall go and see him. She grasped my hand, and kept saying what a great pleasure it was to meet the daughter of her favourite hymn composer, and I was to be sure and write to tell him how much it was loved, by the poor especially."
AN UNEXPECTED EULOGY.
Here is an experience that befel Mr Gill.: himself, which I give in his own words :-Years ago, on the deck of a Rhine boat one bright moonlight night, the writer of the following adventure had a chat with a bully stranger; and the conversation having grad-ually modulated into the subject of church music, she asked, "Do you know the new 'Methodist Hymn-Book ' lately published ? " " I have heard of it," he replied, " but why do you ask? " "' Because" she said, "there, is in it a remarkable hymn on a subject hitherto unrepresented, namely 'The Harvest of the Sea.'" "Indeed?" was the only reply he vouchsafed. "Yes," continued the lady, warming to her subject, "and a lovely tune, which also is new and striking." " Is that so ? " replied he. " I must look it up when I get home ; meanwhile, tell me what it is like." Then she, described both words and music in glowing terms of admiration, while her companion tried vainly to suppress an involuntary smile, which caused her to ask in an injured tone of voice verging on indignation, "Why do you laugh?" To which he quietly replied, "Because modesty forbids that I should agree with you in your unstinted praise." "Modesty?" she exclaimed, "what do you mean ? " "O, never mind ; go on. I am sorry to have interrupted you." So, resuming her description of the composition, she proceeded : "It has a peculiar Scandinavian flavour suggestive of grief, with an Irish tinge in the second and third lines, which are rhymed as in Tennyson's 'In Memoriam.' The melody is evidently very old, and ends with the so-called church cadence. I can't think who the composer can be ; do you know ? " (Pause.)
" Why do you laugh?'! To which he replied,
" Well, the author of both words and music happens to be a friend of mine, and a very intimate one, though only a remote Manxman and an indifferent musician." " But surely," said she, "you are not ashamed of him ?" "No," was the reply, " No I must not praise him. And then, with a hearty laugh, " Because he is now talking to you ! " Tableau : I think I can see her now in the silver moonlight and dark shadows of that memorable night as she jumped up from her seat, seized hold of my two hands in German fashion, and vigorously pumped away as if her house were on fire and her companion the pump of a fire-engine ; and every time I hear the hymn I think of that memorable night and of the strange lady on the Rhine boat.
"MAKING THE OLD BIRD SING."
Mr Gill had many curious and interesting experiences during his search for old folk-tunes on the Island. Here is one :-
"In our quest for folk-songs among the hills and dales of Manxland one of our greatest difficulties was to. overcame the shyness which characterizes the Manx peasantry, and many were the stratagems to which he had recourse.
One day we visited the cottage of old Q who in the days of his youth hard been in great request as the favourite vocalist at the wayside public-houses. More than usually shy, this time he positively refused to sing. No amount of coaxing would entice him out of his shell. Would he come with us ? "No !" Would he come and sit under the fuschia-tree ?
" No ! " Would he come -- ? "No; he wouldn't come nowhere ! " not even for the Governor himself or the assembled Keys. Would he come to the " King Orry Arms ? " At this his lustreless eyes brightened up. We had struck a responsive chord, had revived bright memories in that shrivelled remnant of a heart. Then, after a pause, half deference, half mistrust, and with the usual qualifying "May be" of a Manxman's every statement, "Awl well, may be I'll come yander, anyway.." In a twinkling we three, the Deemster, the Coroner of Glenfaba, and myself had hauled the old man up into the car, and in a few minutes had reached those familiar scenes of his halcyon days. Once there, he became strangely changed. What with the magic influence of old associations, and (tell it not in Gaul !) the judicious administration of suitable stimulants, he became inspired, filled and overflowing with song, splendidly vocal ! Being lame, he stood stork-like, supported by a crutch under his left arm and a stick in his right hand, singing lustily and clearly one song after another until all has been duly recorded. Asked for a jig, he, produced one with extraordinary vivacity and humour, playing on an imaginary fiddle, which was his crutch, with an imaginary bow, which was his stick, his voice the while supplying the melody. It was a weird performances this resurrection of songs that had lain buried all those years-the old repertoire revived ! "
The above story, somewhat amplified. gained a prize offered some years ago by the "Musical Herald " for a musical experience, and Mr Gill has had similar successes on other occasions in our excellent contemporary with brief essays on brief subjects in which he has specialized.
During his long and busy life Mr Gill has had many strings to his bow, and the occupations of his leisure hours have been varied and interesting. As he himself says:-"I have ridden so many hobbies-music, painting, literature, that commercially at least they have all succeeded more or leas in cutting each other's throats."
Throughout his long life he has been a man of action, and when in the course of his experiences he has found himself able to supply it when within his power. Amongst his early musical experiences he was called upon to play a one-manual church organ, and when he came to look for voluntaries adapted to such an instrument he found that there was a singular lack of such works. Ile at once made up his mind to supply the deficiency as far as he was able, and the result was, the issue of several books of voluntaries selected from " Judas Maccabaeus," " The Messiah," " The Creation," " Elijah " and " St Paul." The venture proved highly successful, and Gill's "Easy Voluntaries " became the happy refuge of thousands of organists. This series started some twenty-five years ago, and Mr Gill says that he has many more volumes still in manuscript. Belonging to an earlier period are his "Easy Anthems for Village Choirs," which, as the title suggests, were written to supply a similar want. W. H. Monk thought so, highly of these that he selected three of them for insertion in the book of "Anthems" which he edited in 1875, for the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
In the early seventies, Mr Gill wrote several songs, such as "Elixir Vitae," "The Miller's Daughter," "The Legend of the Forget-me-Not." The story of his first published song and his encounter with the music pirates must be re-served for future telling. His other musical works include a volume of "Cradle Songs," and one of original "Hymns and Carols." Amongst his purely literary works may be mentioned a small volume of poems entitled "A Manx Wedding and other Songs," which was published during his residence at Abingdon. He is also a frequent contributor to periodical literature, and the latest number of "Mannin" contains the second of a series of articles by him entitled "Manx Miniatures."
And here, for the present at least, my chat with Mr Gill must come to an end ; but before I left him he promised that at an early date he would give the readers of "The Choir" a record of some of his reminiscences and experiences. As may be judged from this sketch, he has an interesting story to tell, and I assured our friend that his contribution will be awaited with great interest by every one, but by no one more than by C.T.C.