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William Hayman Cummings and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”


William Hayman Cummings (August 22, 1831 – June 6, 1915) was an English musician, tenor, and organist at Waltham Abbey. Cummings was born on August 22, 1831, at Sidbury near Sidmouth in Devon, England. At the age of seven he became a chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral where he received his early musical training at the Choir School and the City of London School, later becoming a pupil of Dr E.J. Hopkins, J.W Hobbs, and Alberto Randegger, and was for many years a chorister in St Paul’s Cathedral and the Temple Church.  In 1847, as a teenager, he was one of the choristers when Felix Mendelssohn conducted the first London performance of his oratorio Elijah at Exeter Hall.   Also in 1847 he became an organist at Waltham Abbey, Cummings married Clara Anne Hobbs, a daughter of his teacher, the well-known singer John William Hobbs (1799-1877).   Cummings possessed an excellent tenor voice and gave concerts throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.  In addition to his fame as a singer, he was a noted musicologist, lecturer, and composer.

Cummings is credited in 1855 with arranging one of Mendelssohn’s tunes from his 1840 Festgesang #7, op. 68, to commemorate the invention of the printing press, and linking it to Charles Wesley’s 1739 hymn Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, which are now universally inextricably associated.  It was first published in Richard Chope’s Congregational Hymn and Tune Book of 1857.  At the Birmingham Festival Cummings was the last-minute tenor soloist at the premiere of The Masque at Kenilworth (1866) by Arthur Sullivan, taking Mario’s place (with only half-an-hour’s notice to prepare). He was also the tenor soloist there for the premiere of the sacred cantata The Woman of Samaria by William Sterndale Bennett in 1867. Cummings also sang at numerous festivals and concerts throughout Great Britain and twice toured in the United States. He performed at the Triennial Festival of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston on May 15, 1871.

Cummings founded the Purcell Society in 1876. Other organizations with which he was associated included the Philharmonic Society, the Musical Association, and the Incorporated Society of Musicians. He served as singing professor at the Royal Academy of Music for 15 years beginning in 1879. In 1896 he then became a professor and later the principal of the Guildhall School of Music, succeeding Joseph Barnby. One of his notable pupils at the school was conductor Bruce Carey. He received an honorary Doctorate in Music from Dublin University in 1900 and was made a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. In 1902, he published a book on the origins of God Save the King.  He held strong views on singing and delivered the occasional stern tirade attacking the “pernicious vibrato.”  As late as 1907 he gave an address on “The Culture of the Voice” in which he praised the Messa di voce.  He died in London on June 6, 1915, and was buried in West Norwood Cemetery, South London.

My collection includes the following work by William Hayman Cummings:

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (after Mendelssohn).

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