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date: 07 December 2019

Gauntlett, Henry Johnfree

  • Terence Crolley
  •  and Judith Blezzard

Henry John Gauntlett (1805–1876)

by Maull & Co., c. 1870

Gauntlett, Henry John (1805–1876), organist, organ designer, and composer, was born at Wellington, Shropshire, on 9 July 1805. He was the second son and fourth child of the Revd Henry Gauntlett (1762–1833), originally from Wiltshire, and from 1815 vicar of Olney, Buckinghamshire, and his wife, Arabella, the daughter of the Revd Edward Davies, vicar of Coychurch, Glamorgan. Henry John Gauntlett incorporated Deane, from his maternal grandmother, into the family name.

After sojourns at Reading (1805–7) and Nettlebed and Pishill (1807–11), the family settled at Olney, where Gauntlett confounded his father's intention that his sisters should have charge of the new church organ by learning to play it himself. He was formally appointed organist in 1815, and remained until 1825. To celebrate George IV's accession in 1820 he trained the singers and copied the parts for his own performance of Handel's Messiah. His tenure as organist is commemorated in the church by a stained-glass window and an engraving on the glass front of the organ console.

In 1821 Gauntlett's father took him to London to see the distinguished musicians William Crotch and Thomas Attwood. Nevertheless, he declined Attwood's offer to teach his son, at no expense, with a view to his becoming Attwood's successor as organist of St Paul's Cathedral. In 1826, after a short stay in Ireland as a private tutor, Gauntlett was articled to a London solicitor, and qualified as a lawyer in 1831. During this period his reputation as an organist was enhanced by church appointments in London and by tuition from Samuel Wesley and a meeting with Mendelssohn. His career as composer, arranger, and music journalist also began to develop.

In 1827 Gauntlett was appointed organist at St Olave's, Southwark, where he remained for twenty years. Additionally, in 1836 he was appointed evening organist at Christ Church Greyfriars, at a salary of 2 guineas per annum. From that year he campaigned in favour of enlarging the compass of the organ pedals at Christ Church so that the more elaborate works of J. S. Bach could be played. After much opposition the organ was expanded in time for Mendelssohn's 1837 visit. Gauntlett researched continental organs, including that at Haarlem, and used the knowledge gained as the basis for his own imaginative ideas on organ design, in partnership with the organ builder William Hill from the 1840s. Between 1838 and 1845 Gauntlett was directly involved in the design of at least fourteen organs, and evidence for seven more has recently been discovered. His influence was widespread, reaching church organs in London, Liverpool, Calcutta, and St Petersburg, as well as the instruments at Edinburgh Music Hall and Birmingham town hall. His innovative ideas included enlarging manuals as well as pedals from G compass to C compass, extending the principal choruses, and in 1852 patenting the use of electricity for organ actions. He attempted to use this means to enable all the organs at the Great Exhibition to be played simultaneously from one console. The mechanism proved defective, but the idea was central to the development of pneumatic organ action with magnets and armatures. Gauntlett's transformation of organ design was probably his most significant, and certainly his most enduring, contribution to music.

On 5 October 1841 Gauntlett married Henrietta Gipps Mount (1819–1891) in All Saints' Church, Canterbury. She was the daughter of William Mount, a local magistrate and deputy lieutenant of Canterbury. The couple had eight children, six of whom survived into adulthood. By 1843 Gauntlett's contribution to church music was widely acknowledged. In that year the archbishop of Canterbury conferred on him the Lambeth degree of Doctor of Music, the first since that conferred on John Blow in 1677. On 3 August 1843, at Christ Church Greyfriars, Gauntlett performed organ works by John Bull for the king of Hanover, who gave him permission to style himself his organist. Honours like these meant much to Gauntlett, for whom lack of early formal musical training was a source of frustration and regret. His ability transcended this perceived shortcoming. For example, when chosen by Mendelssohn as organist for the first performance of Elijah at Birmingham town hall in 1846, Gauntlett had to reduce the part from the full score at sight, since the written-out organ part had been lost. He did so to Mendelssohn's complete satisfaction, yet his payment for this was less than one-fifth of that of a vocal soloist. By 1846 Gauntlett had ceased work as a lawyer, and was consequently dependent on music for a living. In 1847 he sold his extensive library, which was remarkably wide-ranging, including sixteenth-century manuscripts of Italian and English musical treatises and compositions. In the same year his first child, Henry Chrysostom Deane, was born.

After relinquishing his appointment at St Olave's, Southwark (1847), Gauntlett held organist's appointments sporadically at other London churches: Union Chapel, Islington (1853–61), All Saints, Notting Hill (1861–3), and St Bartholomew-the-Less, Smithfield (1872–6). His performance style was forthright almost to the point of eccentricity, and his organ registration practice was a novelty in its day. He was in demand as a recitalist: as early as 1843 his inaugural performance on the Edinburgh Music Hall organ was commended for the orchestral approach in his playing of variations and transcribed pieces, using a wide variety of soft stops. However, satirists ridiculed his frequent changes of stops, as well as his habit of jerking his head while playing.

The brevity of Gauntlett's later organist's appointments was perhaps a reflection of his character, and of his unsettled formative years clouded by bereavement and career frustration. As a whole, his life's work seems to have been fragmented and diffuse. He was a creative, highly original person, yet he was difficult to relate to, self-important, and at times insensitive to the feelings and needs of others. For example, he wrote to John Bacchus Dykes, precentor of Durham Cathedral and a distinguished church musician, with a lengthy, pedantic, and pretentious analysis of Dykes's hymn tune 'Hollingside', criticizing the latter's choice of harmony and supplying an ‘improved’ version with what he termed the correct harmony.

Gauntlett's own output of hymn tunes is said to have exceeded 10,000, though there is little evidence for so great a number, roughly equal to one tune per day for over twenty-seven years. 'St Fulbert', 'Laudate dominum', and 'St Albinus' are still sung, as well as some of his Anglican psalm chants. His best-known tune is 'Irby', indissolubly wedded to the Christmas hymn 'Once in royal David's city' and the basis for numerous harmonizations and arrangements, some of which detract from the directness and restraint that characterize the composer's hymn tunes. He published many anthologies of tunes which included original works by him. These included books of psalm tunes, Christmas tunes, and harmonizations of Gregorian plainchant for use in English services. Gauntlett was a firm advocate of the use of plainchant, a practice supported by the Tractarian movement in the Anglican church. In some of his collaborative compilations he did not receive the recognition due to him. However, his appointment in 1853 as organist of the nonconformist Union Chapel, Islington, was the start of a fruitful partnership with its minister, the Revd Dr Henry Allon. Their joint publication, The Congregational Psalmist, went through numerous editions and revisions, and it may have been the edition of 1864 (containing 7000 tunes) that led to the belief that Gauntlett had composed all these and more.

In addition to his contributions to collections, Gauntlett composed several anthems and organ transcriptions. His songs included a set of twelve entitled The Song of the Soul: the style and relative mediocrity of texts and music do not commend them to a later generation, although the choice of texts (by Felicia Hemans, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others) conveys something of Gauntlett's deeply troubled nature. As a music journalist and writer, Gauntlett was important in his day. He wrote a set of Notes, Queries, and Exercises in the Science and Practice of Music (1859), intended as aids to church officials in choosing organists, but some of the contents are musical conundrums and unanswerable questions, scarcely relevant to the task. He edited and wrote for three periodicals (the Church Musician, the Musical World, and the Morning Chronicle) and contributed extensively to several more, writing authoritatively on Gregorian plainchant, Beethoven, and Bach, as well as on other musical and non-musical matters.

With his fearless and outspoken views, Gauntlett often aroused controversy and was disinclined to embrace the approval and admiration of his contemporaries. His self-importance was sometimes a cause of ridicule and alienation. However, his more perceptive associates (including Mendelssohn) looked beyond his difficult personality, recognizing the true value of his contribution to music. Gauntlett died of heart disease at his home, 15 St Mary Abbotts Terrace, Kensington, on 21 February 1876 and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery four days later.


  • N. Thistlethwaite, The making of the Victorian organ (1990)
  • N. Thistlethwaite, ‘The Hill–Gauntlett revolution: an epitaph’, British Institute of Organ Studies Journal, 16 (1992), 50–59
  • J. Bishop, ‘A frustrated revolutionary: H. J. Gauntlett and the Victorian organ’ [unpublished lecture, Royal College of Organists, 1971]
  • H. Gauntlett, Sermons, with a memoir of the author by his daughter (1835)
  • C. Gauntlett, The gathered lily: a brief memoir of Lydia Gauntlett (1838)
  • H. J. Gauntlett, ‘English ecclesiastical composers of the present age’, Musical World, 18 (Aug 1836)
  • H. J. Gauntlett, ‘The ecclesiastical music of this country’, Musical World, 17 (July 1836), 49–52
  • ILN (11 March 1876)
  • A. H. King, Some British collectors of music (1963)
  • J. Werner, Mendelssohn's ‘Elijah’ (1965)
  • ‘Dr Gauntlett: his centenary’, MT, 46 (1905), 455
  • W. Pole, Some short reminiscences of events in my life and work: abbreviated from manuscript notes (privately printed, London, 1898)
  • parish register, All Saints, Wellington, Shropshire
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • The Times (25 Feb 1876)


  • J. D. Sharp, oils?, 1840, Royal College of Organists, London
  • Maull & Co., photograph, 1870, NPG [see illus.]
  • C. E. Fry & Sons, photograph, NPG
  • Maull & Co., cartes-de-visite, NPG
  • Victoria Photographic Co., carte-de-visite, NPG

Wealth at Death

under £300: administration, 10 June 1876, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Musical Times
Illustrated London News
National Portrait Gallery, London