Victorian church composers were often not of the highest quality, and few would rank Caleb Simper with Stainer. But the fascination of this man is his invisibility. Here was a composer who sold over 5 million copies of his sheet music. Just think of that - an army of Simper anthems - yet he is now practically invisible. Do a web search on Simper and you will come up with only a handful of entries. He's not in Grove, or many other musical references. Yet he clearly plucked many a Victorian and Edwardian heartstring.
Certainly in some parts, Simper has never gone away. The music cupboard of my former rural Wiltshire choir in the West of England contains several Simper masterpieces:
- Benedicite in B flat
- King of Kings
- The eyes of all wait upon thee
- The story of the Crucifixion
- The valleys are covered with corn
- Welcome Christmas morn
- and one of them, the over-the-top Easter anthem King of Kings
remains a hot favourite with the choir's older members. But who was Simper, and what happened to him? The description of Simper and his work below owes much to the pamphlet Sung Throughout the Civilised World
by Christopher Turner, published by Devon County Council in 1992.Where has he gone?
As many as 2.5 million copies sold by 1892. Up to 3.25 million by 1895 and surpassing 5 million by 1920. This was a superstar of the church music business. According to the extravagant claims of the advertising on the back of Simper's music, it was performed in no end of countries, at as many a music festival as you would care to shake a stick at, and even in front of Her Majesty, who, as far as we are aware, was amused.
So how could this man disappear off the musical face of the earth? Nothing short of character assassination at a time when all things Victorian were treated with distain. By the end of his life, Simper was a living fossil (this very Victorian composer was still alive when Britten published Ceremony of Carols
). We have to bear in mind that there was a time when even the heights of Victorian genius, even buildings like the National History Museum in London, were considered vulgar and ridiculous. When the legacy had the much more fragile nature of sheet music, it was all too easy to go through the cupboard and dump in the bin anything that smacked of Victorian enthusiasm and naivety.
With little interest from the historians of church music, Simper was destined to be little more than footnotes - and then usually unpleasant ones:
- This music was deplorably easy to write. It required little or no skill in performance, it passed by mere use and wont into the hearts of the congregation, it became a habit like any other, and it is only during comparatively recent years than any serious attempts have been made towards eradicating it. (These attempts have not been altogether successful. Even now... much of this music is still to be heard in parish churches up and down the country... Within a few miles of where this is being written [Altrincham] a parish choir still sings pieces by Caleb Simper - one of the worst of the group. Kenneth Long (The Music of the English Church, Hodder & Stoughton, 1972)
- From the Crucifixion you go downwards to the underworld of Michael Costa, Caleb Simper and J H Maunder*... Erik Routley (A Short History of English Church Music, Mowbrays, 1977) (*Maunder was responsible for the truly awful Olivet to Calvery that fills in for those who want to do the Crucifixion every year but need a change)
- I have not been able to unearth any of his compositions to see whether the scorn and derision poured on his head by the musical authorities is justified. Virginia Osborne (Victorian Church Music - Sentimental or Sublime, Laudate No 17)
In the end, the trouble was that Simper was no great composer, just a workmanlike provider of easy-singing, easy-listening anthems and other church music. Where Simper's anthems have survived they are popular with older congregations and choirs - and are easily singable with the sort of resources most smaller choirs face these days. Perhaps Caleb deserves a little better coverage.Simper, the man
Caleb Simper was born on 12 September 1856 in the village of Barford St. Martin, a village on the Shaftsbury road to the West of Salisbury in Wiltshire. His parents were Alfred Simper, a "boot and shoemaker", and Elizabeth Clare.
Simper's parents' wedding certificate reads: 1852 Marriage solemnized at Crow Lane Chapel, Wilton in the District of Wilton Union in the county of Wilts. Second of September 1852 Alfred Simper 31 years Bachelor, Shoemaker, Barford St Martin (father John Simper, Labourer) and Elizabeth Clare 32 years Spinster, Barford St Martin (father George Clare, Dairyman). Married in the said chapel according to the rites and ceremonies of the Independent Dissenters by me, Charles Baker. This marriage was solemnized between us Alfred Simper, Elizabeth Clare in the presence of us, Anna Clare, Lydia Clare, George Simper.
Alfred was a violinist who played with various local ensembles, including Salisbury Musical Society. Unusually for the time, the Simpers seemed to have had a small family - Caleb only had one known sibling, Alfred Clare Simper, five years his junior.
As far as we know Simper had no formal musical training, though his first job that was recorded (certainly not his first employment) was as manager of E. J. Sparks & Co, a music warehouse based at 12 High Street, Worcester (just two doors away from Elgar Brothers, the music shop owned by Edward Elgar's father and uncle). It has been assumed that he moved to Worcester shortly after his marriage in 1879 to Emily Yates, a 30-year-old Australian who was living at the time with her aunt and uncle in Wilton, just a few miles from Barford. These details from Caleb and Emily's marriage certificate show, in fact, that Simper was already in Worcester by then:Marriage solemnized at the Independent Chapel, Crow Lane, Wilton in the District of Wilton in the County of Wilts Eleventh March 1879
Caleb Simper 22 years Bachelor, Music seller, 54 High Street Worcester (father Alfred Simper, bootmaker)
Emily Yates 26 years Spinster, Wilton, Wiltshire (father Thomas Yates (deceased) manager of stores)
Married in the Independent Chapel according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Independents by License by me, Henry Platt, Minister This marriage was solemnized between us, Caleb Simper, Emily Yates, in the Presence of us Pardoe Yates, Amy Yates Frances Wiles, Registrar
Although it seems from the location of his wedding (the same as his parents) that Simper came from a non-conformist background, he was soon involved in a Church of England establishment in Worcester. Presumably by now he was a competent keyboard player, as he was appointed organist and choirmaster to St Mary Magdalene church, a neo-gothic Victorian building that at the time was a popular place of worship. He still held this position in 1886 when he was paid £7.10s for 3 months duties as organist and choirmaster.
Dr George Chryssides tells us this about the organ Simper played: "the Worcester instrument is quite an impressive one - a fairly bright three-manual instument. Simper must have written some of this music with this instrument in mind: although his material is usable on any keyboard instrument, he occasionally mentions stop names like 'Cremona' (a variant of 'Krumhorn') - not a terribly common stop name, but it features in St M M's specifications. There is a picture of the instrument on the National Pipe Organ Register's web site
, although the instrument is no longer at Worcester, having been moved to St Chistoforuskerk, Schagen, Holland. It is described as a 'very musical and effective organ though a little throttled in the chamber' (presumably meaning that there is rather a lot of pipework for the area available). There is more information on the organ at www.nicholsonschagen.nl
"Judging by the dates, it seems likely that Simper was in post at the time when the organ was completed. He would only have been 27 at the time, which raises an interesting question of why such a young man, who apparently lacked musical qualifications, should have been let loose on such a fine instrument. One imagines that, in a cathedral city, there must have been quite a few good qualified musicians around. Was Simper appointed simply because of the quality of his playing? (We don't actually know for sure what was like.)"
It was at St Mary Magdalene, Worcester, that Simper wrote his first anthem He is risen for the choir to sing at Easter - it was published under the name Edwyn (sic) A. Clare. Quite why he used his mother's maiden name isn't clear (unless he found his own name embarrassing).
During their stay in Worcester the Simpers had three children - Alfred Thomas, Edwin Caleb and Roland Chalmers (1889). A few years after Roland's birth the family decamped to the Devon town of Barnstaple, where Simper remained for the rest of his life. Here he started a brief partnership with one John Thomas White (White also moved from Worcester, so they probably knew each other through Sparks). They ran a music warehouse, selling pianos, American organs, harmoniums and sheet music in a building at 84 High Street.
This business seemed to be the reason for moving to Barnstaple, but it was a poorly timed decision for Simper, as it coincided with the meteoric rise of popularity of his music. Within months of the business opening up, the North Devon Journal of 29 October 1891 carried the following announcement:The increasing popularity of Mr Caleb Simper as a composer has induced him to apply himself solely to his profession and he has retired in favour of Mr White under whose control and management the business will be conducted hitherto.
Simper was now 34 - he must have been doing pretty well to 'retire in favour of Mr White' at such a young age. Simper began to work from home - 9 Taw Vale Parade in Barnstaple - picking up on successes like the two prizes he had won in a hymn tune competition run by the Manchester Sunday School Union, and the growing revenue from sheet music sales. (George Chryssides comments: "I assume that the competition-winning ones are 'Barnstaple' and 'Suppose', written to 'O what can little hands do' and 'Suppose the little cowslip' respectively. These are in my copy of The Sunday School Hymnary (1905), edited by Carey Bonner. As far as I see, this volume makes no specific mention of the Manchester Sunday School Society, and is published in London.")
At about the same time, Simper took over as organist and choirmaster at Emmanuel Church, Barnstaple, a building belonging to a breakaway sect from the Church of England, the Reformed Episcopal Church. He also seems to have been playing at St John the Baptist, Newport on the outskirts of Barnstaple, from occasional payments that were made.
He moved on to be organist and choirmaster at St Mary Magdalene, Barnstaple in 1897, for which choir his cantata The Rolling Seasons was written, a popular work if this letter from a Dorset vicar is anything to go by:Our people quite appreciated your cantata, 'The Rolling Seasons', which we used for our Harvest Evensong. Our soloists came from Exeter, one of them being a member of the Cathedral Choir. Our Choir have enjoyed their practices, as the music is in every way tuneful and within the compass of an average Choir.
Next year came what would become Simper's other best-known cantata, The Nativity of Christ,
which, like Stainer's Crucifixion, used hymns (or in this case, carols) to engage the congregation. 1898 also saw the first volume of Simper organ pieces published (which also included a piece written by his son Roland at the age of 8).
Specifications of St Mary's organ as played by Simper can be found on the National Pipe Organ Register
. According to Dr Chryssides, "The St M M's organ appears to have been built in 1884, so it seems very likely that Simper would have played it in its original state. It looks a very mediocre, rather stodgy instrument - little upper-work, and the only reed being an oboe at that time. As a practical musician, Simper obviously did not aspire to playing a prestigious instrument. As I remember, some of Simper's voluntaries specify Trumpets - so he was altruistic enough to write for superior instruments to the one he regularly used! Assuming he played his own organ music in church, I wonder how he coped with the crescendo markings, since a balanced Swell pedal was not added until 1959." - Some light on this may come from this observation from John Chryssides: "All the books [of Simper's voluntaries] contain 'hairpin' cresc. and dim. markings. You point out that Simper's organ did not have a balanced swell until a later date, but we don't know whether it had no swell device whatever, or whether it was one which was not balanced - e.g. one of these ratchet affairs."