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Wanting to know more I turned to the major dictionary and musicological sources (deeper search). Here's where the matter became more than merely academic. There was nothing. I checked all of the old Grove editions, after the latest (2001) was silent. MGG (the German encyclopedia) had nothing. I checked the editions of biographical dictionaries. Silence. I began to doubt that I could spell his name correctly. Indeed, I still think I must have been looking in the wrong place because I found so little. I would even be satisfied to learn Caleb Simper was a pseudonym. I would be happy, though very embarrassed, to learn that Simper's name is in all those books and that I had just missed it.

Since the latest issues of music dictionaries provide us with data about the members of thoroughly flash-in-the-pan rock bands, you would think that Caleb Simper, who sold five million copies, would get a bit of air time.

One contact said that all that he had heard of Simper was that he was bad. I checked histories of English music (deepest search, including articles and reviews from major and minor magazines and journals) and found very little more. For example, W H Hadow wrote:

There has probably been no form of any art in the history of the world which has been so over-run by the unqualified amateur as English Church music from about 1860 to about 1900. Many of our professional musicians at this time stood also at a low level of culture and intelligence ... This music was deplorably easy to write, it required little or no skill in performance, it passed by mere use and went into the hearts of the congregation, it became a habit like any other, and it is only during comparatively recent years that any serious attempts have been made towards eradicating it.

Then, the author who quoted this selection goes on to say this:

These attempts have not been altogether successful. Even now, half a century after Hadow's lecture [1926], much of this music is still to be heard in parish churches up and down the country and even more in nonconformist chapels. Within a few miles of where this is being written a parish choir still sings pieces by Caleb Simper -- one of the worst of the group!

- Kenneth R Long, The Music of the English Church, page 330

Well, this is all well and good, but could we please have some data? In 1974 some dozen of his works were still in print. Similarly in 1985 or so. An online source gives only three. Surely this must be one of the grandest sinkings of reputation in the recent past.

Oh yes, there is one biography, but I have not yet been able to obtain a copy, nor have I been able to contact the author :

Sung throughout the civilised world by Christopher Turner (Devon County Council, 1992, 25 pages, illustrated, 21cm).

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Copyright © 13 December 2003 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Canada


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