Not given to self-promotion, Percy Edwin Burnham Coller (1892-1955) submitted ST JOAN to The Hymnal 1940 anonymously, named for his wife; it his only published work. Coller is a product of the maritime industrial culture he grew up in, his education and musical ability acquired outside the cathedral, academic, and choir school culture. He was the son of an established Liverpool-area organist and apprenticed to the business, a child chorister at a church used as a pro-cathedral of the nascent diocese, then student at a grammar school (p.37; two of the Beatles also attended this school). Without the benefit of a degree, by age twenty he emerged as the organist for, and at twenty-two conductor of, an annual performance of The Messiah staged by an area orchestral society. A four year enlistment for WW1 was followed by marriage and children, 1½ years of incomplete study at the University of Liverpool, an extended missionary trip, and in 1925 a Canadian business magnate facilitated a move to Montréal, where Coller became organist and choirmaster of St. Peter's Anglican Church. Throughout his working life, besides professional musician, he also held jobs such as schoolteacher, clerk, accountant, farmer, and ship's crew. His sister and mother joined him in Montréal in 1934 and then, as yet another world war darkened the horizon he produced this stirring composition. This account corrects persistently-repeated errors, the reason for the unusual length and detail of this bio as well as the extended discussion below.
The hymn Christ is the world's true light was written by George Wallace Briggs (1875-1959) whose priestly ministry concluded as canon at Worcester cathedral, and prior to that, canon at Leicester. He was cited by no less an authority than Erik Routley as a hymnologist "who succeeded excellently in writing simple and persuasive material for our time." Among his revered hymns is the communion hymn, Come, risen Lord, and deign to be our guest. Frequently cited as G.W. Briggs, he is not to be confused with the other G.W. Briggs, Unitarian abolitionist and hymn editor, George Ware Briggs, who in any event would never have written such a paean to the Second Person of the Trinity. The second hymn below, O God eternal source of love beyond all knowing, is a composite drawn from the well-known hymn O Gott, du frommer Gott by Johann Heerman, with the doxology by Martin Rinkart, from Nun danket. This fine combination is uncommon, appearing in only three U.S. hymnals according to the Hymnary website.
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1 - Christ is the world's true light
George Wallace Briggs (1931) © Oxford University Press. (Click protected)
1 Christ is the world’s true light,
Its Captain of salvation,
The Day-star clear and bright
Of every race and nation;
New life, new hope awakes,
For all who own his sway;
Freedom her bondage breaks,
And night is turned to day.
2 In Christ all races meet,
Their ancient feuds forgetting,
The whole round world complete,
From sunrise to its setting:
When Christ is throned as Lord,
All shall forsake their fear,
To ploughshare beat the sword,
To pruning-hook the spear.
3 One Lord, in one great Name
Unite us all who own thee;
Cast out our pride and shame
That hinder to enthrone thee;
The world has waited long,
Has travailed long in pain;
To heal its ancient wrong,
Come, Prince of Peace, and reign.
2 - O God, eternal source
Johann Heermann (1585-1647), Martin Rinkart (1586 - 1649); tr. Edward Horn, Catherine Winkworth, alt.
1 O God, eternal source
Of love beyond our knowing,
Who gives us every gift,
And boundless grace bestowing:
Grant soundness to our minds
And wholeness to our frame,
Thy pardon to our souls,
That we may praise thy Name.
2 O help us to fulfill
On earth our holy calling;
O make us hear thy voice,
And keep our feet from falling.
So may we serve thee here
With all our strength and might,
And may our every deed
Be righteous in thy sight.
Factchecks: Inaccuracies regarding Coller's early life have multiplied wildly, burrowing deep into the rabbit warrens of the internet. They have as their common source a usually reliable reference, displayed below. The errors possibly result from the misinterpretation of original records, many handwritten, which list several contemporaneous individuals named Percy (not E.B.) Coller or Collen. TL;DR - This tune comes from a musician who was not formally educated, and having overcome the disruption of war, made the most of a providential midlife opportunity.
Birth was recorded in Toxteth Park in 1892. (Incorporated into Liverpool 1895.)
His death was recorded in Montréal, 1955.
- Birth - online copies of birth registration, baptismal records, enlistment declarations given in his own hand.
- Death - online newspaper archive of obituary, provincial registration of death records, public online grave location service.
This was a volunteer Sunday choir in a St Peter's Church, used as a pro-Cathedral, a temporary home for the young diocese; it is not regarded as "Liverpool Cathedral" by the Liverpool Cathedral archivists. It did not have a choir school, or a program of daily evensong.
Press clippings of the era indisputably demonstrate that young Coller is active in greater Liverpool through the age of fourteen, not in a residential Oxford choir school. The archivist of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford has found no record of him in their registers nor in their financial records. The confusion may arise because there are other contemporaneous individuals named Percy (not E.B.) Coller, including one born the same year on the correct side of England, and particularly a Percy Collen from the Oxbridge area who some years before was a lay clerk of the University, not Cathedral, choir.
He was not sub-organist at Liverpool Cathedral according to the Cathedral's archivists, and at age fifteen, there wasn't even a Liverpool Cathedral for him to be sub-organist of; the diocese was using a local church serving as a pro-cathedral and Coller was a student at an exam-level high school. It would be yet another three years before the newly finished Lady Chapel was consecrated, the first phase of the now-complete Cathedral, a year in which he appears on a passenger manifest as arriving in Philadelpha.
He began study in architecture but did not complete a degree. Following the first world war, he started a program for a B. Arch. at the University of Liverpool, making use of the government benefit covering full or partial fees for returning servicemen. He withdrew after 1½ years, according to ULIV archivists; their search of later years confirms he did not receive a degree prior to his emigration to Montréal. At the time of his withdrawal, he was 29 years of age, had been married two years, and his second child had just been born.
In 1924, a passenger manifest reveals Coller returning from Africa, giving the Gold Coast as his address for a period of 'at least one year,' and listing his inbound return address as "c/o Canon David Dorrity." This was an uncle, an older sibling of his mother Susan Dorrity, and the celebrated rector of St Ann's Manchester and non-residentiary Canon of Manchester Cathedral. Canon Dorrity was active in an African Missionary society, a noted preacher, chaplain of two schools for children with special needs, and a social activist. It is reasonable to infer that after the war, following his father's passing, Coller and his kin found a patron in Canon Dorrity. Coller stayed one last year in England, then sailed to Montréal - declaring himself a "professional musician" on the manifest - his passage paid by yet another benefactor who similarly appears as the destination address, this time a Canadian business magnate. His formative years in Liverpool over, he took up his post-war career in the Montréal enclave known as the Town of Mount Royal, at St. Peter's Church.
- The Musical Times, Vol. 56, No. 863 (Jan. 1, 1915), pp. 42-49 (8 pages) via JSTOR (paywall)
- Liverpool Institute Schools Magazine, Vol. XX No. 2, July 1906, p. 37
- Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, Wikipedia
- Glover, Raymond F., The Hymnal 1982 Companion (New York : Church Hymnal Corp., c1990-), Vol. 3b, No. 542.
- Birth 1892, screenshot from Ancestry; confirmed on his military enlistment record.
- Baptism 1892, screenshot form Ancestry
- Death 1955, screenshot from Ancestry (with misdated birth)
- Passenger Lists, 1865–1935. Microfilm Publications T-479 to T-520, T-4689 to T-4874, T-14700 to T-14938, C-4511 to C-4542. Library and Archives Canada, n.d. RG 76-C. Department of Employment and Immigration fonds. Library and Archives Canada Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. via Ancestry.ca (paywall)
- Liverpool Cathedral website; pages for Choir and Lady Chapel.
- Confirmations and corrections were obtained via direct contact with archivists from Liverpool Cathedral, the University of Liverpool, and Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford
- Russell, Thomas Alexander, Dictionary of Canadian Biography (retrieved 20200105). (image establishing the correlation, see col. 20.)
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Hymnary.org lists publication in the following hymnals:
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Hymnal: A Worship Book
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Small Church Music
The Hymnal 1940
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