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Amram Taylor

The Story of the Rediscovery of an Oxfordshire Composer

by Sheila Girling Macadam

from a presentation to the WGMA gathering, May 2006, revised Nov 2006

At the end of last year, my husband Edwin and I were beginning to look at the music we might produce for the second Mid-Shires' Quires' Day, taking place on 29th April. For those that haven't been before, it's an event to promote interest in the work of regional composers, particularly those previously undiscovered. We had pieces by Thomas Jarman of Clipstone, Northamptonshire, and Joseph Watts, the psalmody compiler and composer from Fenny Compton in Warwickshire, items from the collections made by Matthew Wilkins of Great Milton in Oxfordshire, but were on the hunt for something new to everybody, including us.

If you enter 'Psalms' or 'Psalmody' into the on-line Integrated Catalogue of the British Library, for the former you get over 600 entries, for the latter, several thousand entries. Ploughing through them, usually there is not much more than a name, a title and mostly, but not always, an approximate year of publication. I came across some names previously unknown to either of us, and post-Hymn Tune Index period, and a couple in particular stood out. One was F.W. Saunders, but his story — a sorry tale — can wait. The one that really stood out for me was AMRAM TAYLOR.

We had never heard of an Amram before, but we have since found the name means 'beloved of the most high, friend of Jehovah', and the Biblical Amram was the father of Moses, Miriam and Aaron. He lived to be 137 years of age. Whoever Amram Taylor was, he produced a collection of psalm tunes called 'The Sacred Harp', which, according to the Integrated Catalogue, was thought to be published in 1842. At that point I moved to the International Genealogical Index website run by the Mormons. Entering 'Amram Taylor' in the search produced only three, who were — it afterwards transpired — father, son and nephew. All three were baptised in Ambrosden Church, near Bicester in Oxfordshire, less than 10 miles from where we lived. The hunt was on.

Amram Taylor, baptised in St Mary the Virgin Church, Ambrosden, on 27 June 1802, was probably the youngest son, and last child of John Taylor and Anne Golder, who had married in the same church in 1786. Besides Amram, two of his older brothers, William and Barnabus, were living in the village in the 1841 census, and were Agricultural Labourers. The village‘s population at this time was 205, and 30 were called Taylor and were all related by blood and/or by marriage. Amram was a shoemaker, and in 1841, then aged 39, was living next door to a Francis Blewitt, aged 60, also a shoemaker. Perhaps he was his apprentice. In 1824, Amram had married Martha Penn, and they had five children by 1841, Amram, Caleb, Daniel, Elizabeth, and Mary. Amram Junior died early in 1851 and his father survived him for only another four years. A sixth child, Andrew, was born six months after the 1841 census.

Amram senior's death was registered in Bicester in the June quarter of 1855, and by 1861 his widow and sons Caleb and Andrew had moved to Headington, on the eastern outskirts of Oxford. Martha defined herself as a shoemaker's widow, and the boys as 'cordwainers'.

The Sacred Harp was a subscription edition, and was supported by the Viscount Dryden of Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire, the brother of the Vicar of Ambrosden, Rev. L Dryden, descendants of the family of the poet, John Dryden. Subscriptions also came from other clergy within a 10 mile radius. With less than a handful of deviations, the demography of the subscription list — which totals 79 individuals — is remarkable in that it follows today's route of the M40, approximately 10 miles either side, starting at Waterperry near Junction 8 and concluding at Junction 12, about 6 miles from Southam. The largest grouping of subscribers was in Bicester, ranging from a baker to an attorney, and there were four from Marsh Gibbon, only 4 miles away from Ambrosden, the home of the Herring manuscript, which (in 1993) was the first source found to contain the tune 'Gibraltar'. Many subscribers were ordinary artisans and agricultural labourers, including members of the extended Taylor family. One of the most interesting subscribers, a Mr William Stirley, turned out to be a young man in his early 20s, a stone and marble mason, and son of the publican of the Harp Inn, Southam — Mark Stirley. In 1841 Mark Stirley lists his alternate profession as 'organist'.

1812 print in church. Photo: Edwin Macadam

The church of St Mary the Virgin had a West Gallery, erected in 1763 'for the choir' according to the Victoria County History. The gallery was large, with 31 seats, and there is something that looks like a music stand at centre front; the gallery was taken down in 1867. On the upper back wall there was a splendid 'Day of Resurrection' oil painting but by the middle of the twentieth century it was deemed to have no artistic merit, and in 1951 it was destroyed by order of the PCC.

The church had a band. We know this from receipts, now held in the Oxfordshire County Record Office and used by the Church Wardens to compile their accounts in the latter end of the 18th century. Edwin worked his way through about 250, and this is a sample.

Here you can see the payments in 1781 associated with the 'Enstruments', including 'houtboys' [sic], a new crook for the bassoon, and the purchase of reeds. There is also a mention in the receipts of a 'clarionett'. Mr John Heritage, the Vicar's Church Warden, paid a 'William Green' two guineas to 'teach the singers' in the same year. William Green, who signed the receipt with an X (his mark), may be the man baptised at Ambrosden in 1748, but he is otherwise a mystery. We might well wonder how a man who could not sign his own name was endowed with the facility to teach singing to others. The longevity of the reign of the church band is as yet undiscovered, but at the moment we are pleased to report there appears to be no written mention of an organ earlier than 1909!

Given the existence of a church band in the last quarter of the 18th century, it is reasonable to ask whom Amram was composing for. As can be seen from the title page, his music is harmonised for piano or organ accompaniment, but it seems impossible — at present — to establish whether the tunes would have had an airing in the church with a band.

The titles of the pieces — only a handful appear with words — suggest Old Testament influences. Mount Elim, Mount Gilead, Mount Ebal, Gihon, and Eden, for example. Amram was not enamoured of the minor key, only two pieces contain sections in a minor mode, including his own setting of Pope's Ode, 'Victory', and more than two thirds are in what we would term flat keys, i.e. F, B flat or E flat. Several have changes of tempo at 'Hallelujah Choruses', and he marks each piece with numbers on the stave indicating where he wanted particular lines of each verse to be sung, and if lines where to be repeated, which ones and where. It would appear that Francis Roads' predilection for this style of setting is the revival or continuation of a tradition from at least 150 years ago.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century it is difficult to contemplate how, one hundred and sixty years ago, a shoemaker could have acquired the basic skill of harmony and counterpoint to compose over 60 pieces of sacred music in what was then only a small village, admittedly but some 9 miles from a seat of musical learning in Oxford. Was he self-taught? Did some benefactor fund his musical education at an earlier age? There are lots of questions still requiring answers. Tony Singleton might pose us similar questions about another shoemaker composer, the admired Thomas Clark of Canterbury.

'Salvation', one of Amram's compositions, was included in the MSQD 2006 repertoire on 29th April, and on May Day afternoon, we paid a visit to Ambrosden. The church was locked, and in Edwin's endeavours to locate the keyholder, he came across the leader of the Worship Group Band — Lisa Holmes. Lisa received the news of a homegrown composer with great excitement and enthusiasm, and we have since learned of the existence not only of Amram's own copy of his book, but a further three manuscript collections of church music within the village.

Immanuel's Ground at Ambrosden

Conjecture as to what inspired Amram to produce his book is pointless at the moment, and more research must follow. For the present, Ambrosden celebrated its 900th anniversary this year, and as a result of our encounter with Lisa, we were invited to provide a quire and band to perform two of Amram's compositions in a celebratory church service on 11th June in the presence of the Bishop of Dorchester and the Lord Lieutenant of the County of Oxfordshire, Hugo Brunner. We were assured, if we needed them, the reinforcements of the Oxford Welsh Male Voice Choir and the Bletchingdon Silver Band!

The foregoing tale of discovery serves to remind those who research and reproduce this music how important it is to place it in the appropriate context, for those who are to perform it. To learn how the composers and the people who played and sung it then, lived, those to whom this music was new and vital. To discover their occupations, the topography of the area they lived in, their links within a wider community and the changes they must have seen, and to disseminate this to a wider audience, wherever possible. I would urge West Gallery quires to include as much information about composers and local social history as they feel appropriate in concert programme notes. All too readily, as researchers, we cherry-pick from printed books — and sometimes manuscripts — in libraries, museums and Record Offices, without regard to the role of these sources in the greater social fabric of the times. Edwin and I have been just as guilty of this in the past. We need to do more than that if we are to keep faith with the quires of the past, to which we owe the joy we have today.

Music files:
MIDI files: Conclusion | Mount Ebal | Salvation



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