IF ever a work resulted from divine inspiration, it is the hymn O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go, requested by TCW reader ‘Starshiptrooper’.
It was written by George Matheson, a Church of Scotland minister, and by his own account it took five minutes and ‘came like a dayspring from on high’.
Matheson was born in Glasgow in 1842, the second eldest of eight children of a merchant and his wife, a talented amateur musician. His sight started to fail in early childhood but his elder sister Jane taught him to read and later he dictated his school essays to her. He excelled academically and went to Glasgow University to study classics, logic and philosophy. His younger sisters Margaret and Ellen learned Hebrew, Latin and Greek so that they could read to him and help his studies.
He graduated with first class honours when he was only 19 but by this time he was almost completely blind. He had fallen in love with a fellow student and they became engaged, but she broke it off, saying she could not face life with a blind man.
Matheson began his ministry in 1868 at Innellan, on the Argyll coast near Dunoon. His sister Jane continued to help him, and was a great support and companion. Matheson wrote a number of successful books on spiritual matters, and Queen Victoria invited him to preach at Balmoral. She arranged for the sermon, on the patience of Job, to be published.
When Matheson was 40, his younger sister Margaret married.
Later he recorded: ‘My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering.
‘The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction.
‘I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.’
While he never specified the cause of ‘the most severe mental suffering’ it is reasonable to speculate that the wedding would have prompted him to think of the fiancée who deserted him and what might have been.
In fact there was one subsequent change to the words. The Hymnal Committee of the Church of Scotland asked him to change ‘I climb the rainbow’ in the third verse to ‘I trace’.
In 1886 Matheson became minister of St Bernard’s Parish Church in Edinburgh, which at that time had one of the largest congregations in Scotland, and his renown continued to spread. He never married, and shared a home with his devoted sister Jane. He died soon after a stroke in 1906 at the age of 64 and is buried in the Glasgow Necropolis.
Fittingly, the melody by Albert L. Peace (1844-1912) was also written very quickly. Peace was born in Huddersfield and was a child prodigy, becoming organist at the parish church in nearby Holmfirth when he was only nine. He gained a degree in music at Oxford and was organist at Glasgow Cathedral from 1879 to 1897. The Scottish Hymnal Committee invited him to set Matheson’s words to music and he carried the verses with him, ready for inspiration to strike. He was sitting on a beach on the Isle of Arran reading the words when the melody came into his mind. He said later that ‘the ink of the first note was hardly dry when I had finished the tune’. He called it St Margaret, after a queen of Scotland who was a benefactress to the church. Peace later became organist at St. George’s Hall in Liverpool, then regarded as the premier post in organ playing.
Matheson always modestly attributed the popularity of his hymn to the music written for it by Peace.
I had difficulty finding a decent recording of it so I turned to this one, posted on YouTube by someone who evidently had the same problem.
There is also this one by Kenneth McKellar, the Scottish tenor indelibly associated with the BBC TV Hogmanay celebrations in the 1960s and 70s.
(Many may remember that McKellar performed Britain’s 1965 Eurovision Song Contest entry, A Man Without Love. Apparently the Luxembourg audience gasped when he appeared on stage in full Scottish regalia including a kilt. The song was placed ninth out of 18 but did gain the distinction of being one of only two occasions in Eurovision history when the Irish jury gave the UK song top marks.)
An arrangement of O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go by the tenor singer David Phelps seems to be popular. It is not to my taste, but I include it for the sake of completeness, in a rehearsal performance by the Gaither Vocal Band, of which Phelps is an intermittent member. He is the one in the check shirt.
Lastly, here is a delightful performance of another setting, published in 2002 by artist Christopher Miner, from three talented sisters called Lanie, Natalie and Carrie Clauson. Do stick with it till the end.