William Tans'ur, otherwise Tanzer (1706 - 1783)

Organist and Director of the choir, St Mary's, Ewell, between 1730 and 1736
Writer of Compleat Melody, or The Harmony of Sion - 'Musick proper to the Organ,
Harpsicord or Spinnet, the whole Composed in two, three or four Musical Parts According
to the most Authentic Rules for Voice or Organ', published from Ewell, 1734.

Lord, tune my heart within my breast and frame it to Thy holy will:
And let Thy spirit within me rest, which may my soul with comfort fill.

Mr. William Tans'ur
Mr. William Tans'ur.
Image Source New York Public Library

The subject of this article is mentioned, as William Tanzer composer of the hymn tune 'Bangor', on pages 100-101 in A Brief History of Ewell and Nonsuch by Cloudesley Stannard Willis.

Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, pub. 1910, recorded: -
"TANS'UR, William, an 18th-century musician, chiefly a composer of psalm tunes, though some secular pieces are also by him. In the preface to one of the many works he issued, The Elements of Music Displayed, 1772, he informs us that he was born at Dunchurch, Warwickshire, in 1700. He further confirms this by appending to his engraved portrait the words 'Aetatis suae 70 Christi 1770.' It is likely that he has made a mistake regarding the date of his birth, for the parish register of Dunchurch states that William Tanser, the son of Edward Tanzer and Joan [Alibone] Tanzer, was baptized Nov. 6, 1706. This year may be taken as the year of his birth, for John, a previous son of Edward and Joan Tanzer, was baptized on May 14, 1704, and it is unlikely that William would remain un-baptised six years after his birth.

The original name 'Tanzer' implies a German origin, and we learn from the register that Edward Tanzer, the father, was a labourer, and that he died, aged about sixty, on Jan. 21, 1712, while Joan, his wife, followed on Feb. 16 of the same year, aged fifty-one. Why Tans'ur changed his name does not appear. The chief details of Tans'ur's biography occur in the prefaces and imprints of his books. It appears that he was a teacher of Psalmody from early youth, and he seems to have settled at many different places in this pursuit, notably at Ewell near Epsom and Barnes in Surrey, and Stamford in Lincolnshire, at which places he was organist. He died at St. Neot's, Oct. 7, 1783. He had a son who was chorister at Trinity College, Cambridge."
In Notes & Queries, 12 September 1868, additional details had been provided by Joseph Rix, M D, of St Neots: -
"His wife, whose maiden name was Elizabeth Butler, was a native of Ewell in Surrey, where they were 'married w,h Banns May ye 20th 1730'. She died at Ware, January 9th 1767, aged fifty-eight years.

Tans'ur for a long period led 'an itinerant life'. 'Musick', he writes in 1756, 'has been my darling and daily exercise from my Youth, even to this Day, having made it my constant Practice above forty years, from the Place of my Birth, through divers Counties in this Kingdom to instruct others in the Art of Psalmody, in the Execution of which my days have been as a continual Way fare'.

He dates his published works in 1737 from Barnes in Surrey; in 1754 and 1776 from Cambridge**; in 1756 and 1759 from Stamford; in 1761 from Boston; and is said to have been living at Leicester in 1770. There are traces of him also at Ware; at Witham in Lincolnshire; and at Market Harborough, where he buried his son David*, January 8,1743, aged nine years. The last forty years of his life he was chiefly an inhabitant of St. Neot's as a stationer, bookseller, bookbinder, and teacher of music. I have talked with a person who knew him well. In 1747 the churchwardens of a neighbouring parish paid 'William Tansur, singing-master of St. Neot's, for a parish register'. In The Beauties of Poetry is a piece of about thirty stanzas called 'The Bookseller's Shop', headed:-
'William le Tans'ur recommends these Books to all his social Friends'
After naming books on many subjects and of a better class than one would have expected to find in a small country town, he proceeds:-
Shop-Books and Paper; Ink of every Sort, Prints and Sea-Charts, to guide from Port to Port, Most curious Toys, Corn-Tables, and of Tide, With Musick Books, and Instruments beside, Turlington's Balsam; Scotch and Female pills, Norton's rare Drops, Elixirs for all Ills: Fine Telescopes, &c.

These books, and thousands more, of late invention,
And Manuscripts, more than I here can mention,
Are selling cheap (Books also neatly bound),
The like elsewhere is scarcely to be found:
Obedient to your orders, Sirs, I stand,
And am your humble servant at command.
W. L. T.'
Having proceeded from Tanser to Tansur and Tans'ur, which, by the way, he rhymes with answer he adopted, later in life, the name and style of William Le Tans'ur, Senior, Musico Theorico; which means, he explains -
'A Person who studies the Science of Musick in general, and private; writes Treatises and Comments thereon; and endeavours to explain all critical and obscure Passages therein, both Ancient and Modern, as well as to give Instructions by Practice, Ac.' - New Musical Diet., p. 166. He also called himself 'Psalmodist'; 'Philo Music and Theology'; and 'Professor, Corrector and Teacher of Musick above fifty years'. He had a son who had been a chorister of Trinity College, Cambridge; joined his father as a teacher of music; and is said to have been living in 1811. Christiana#, a maiden daughter, wrote verses in the British Magazine for April, 1760, about a prolific pea in her garden, which produced a second crop in December, 1758; so that (Christmas Day) - '... on my Birth-Day, God sent me green peas for my dinner'.
Le Tans'ur died at St. Neot's, October 7, and a stone in the east end of the churchyard points out where he was buried, October 9, 1783, aged eighty three. He published several works, and states that he sold many thousand copies of each."
Mr. William Tans'ur
Mr. William Tans'ur.
Image Source New York Public Library

A number of which are then listed by contributor, Dr Rix; they include:-
  • A Compleat Melody: or, The Harmony of Sion, 1734
  • The Melody of the Heart, 1735
  • Heaven on Earth, or the Beauty of Holiness, 1738
  • Sacred Mirth, or the Pious Soul's Daily Delight, 1739
  • Poetical Meditations, 1740
  • The Universal Harmony, containing the Whole Book of the Psalms, 1743
  • A New Musical Grammar, 1746
  • The Royal Melody Compleat, 1754
  • The Psalm Singer's Jewel, or Useful Companion to the Book of the Psalms, 1760
  • Melodia Sacra, or the Devout Psalmist's Musical Companion, 1771
  • The Elements of Music Displayed, 1772

# Christiana Tansur had been baptised in Ewell on 28 December 1731. She may have married John Jackson at Lynn, Norfolk, 26 November 1761.
* David Tansur's baptism at Ewell is dated 7 October 1733.
** Including The beauties of poetry: or, a portable repository of English verse, on an entire new plan. In three books. Grammar display'd, Classes of Rhymes: And Poems made To suit the Times, &c. By William Le Tans'ur, Author of The Elements of Music: The Life of Holy David, in Verse: Melodia Sacra: and The Christian Warrior, &c., 29 May 1776. & The christian warrior properly armed or, the deist unmask'd. Being a faithful defence of the Holy Trinity. For the use of all Christian families. By William Le Tans'ur. Author of The Elements of Music; The Life of Holy David, in Verse; Melodia Sacra, &c. &c -, 'this Book, tho' but for Sixpence sold, is double worth its Weight in Gold', 1776, MDCCLXXVI.

William Tansur, junior, sometime chorister at Trinity College, Cambridge, may have married Elizabeth Smith at Royston, Herts., and migrated to the USA. In an edition of the Episcopal Watchman , Hartford, Connecticut, 26 December 1829, can be found a letter apparently by him offering 'Remarks on Church Music', written as a 'Correspondent from a distant State'.

Brian Bouchard © September 2016