With Clouds Descending - A Fantasy on the Hymn Tune 'Helmsley'

With Clouds Descending was commissioned to celebrate, in 2014, the 10th anniversary of the formation of the Lancaster British Brass Band from Pennsylvania, USA. The commission honours Dr. Paul H. Belser, the band’s president and one of its founding members, and was instigated by his wife and family. The premiere took place on 10th May 2014 in Lancaster, conducted by the composer.

Dr. Belser is also a member of his local men’s chorus The Wesley Singers (who also took part in the premiere performance) and it was therefore decided to base the commissioned piece on the hymn tune Helmsley, long associated with Wesley’s great Advent hymn, Lo! He comes with Clouds Descending.

Helmsley has been described as ‘probably the greatest musical achievement of Methodism’ but its origins are mired in mystery. It has (questionably) been credited to Thomas Arne, as it bears a passing resemblance to an air in his 1760 opera Thomas and Sally. The same year (1765) that Wesley included it in the second edition of his collection, Sacred Melody, it was also published with the name Olivers in Martin Madan’s Lock Hospital Collection. Some sources therefore credit Thomas Olivers, who is said to have heard the melody whistled in the street, as the tune’s composer; others assume that it was actually Arne’s melody that Oliver overheard. The true origins of the tune may never be known, but what is certain is that Wesley intended his powerful Advent hymn to be paired with this majestic melody from its first publication and it has remained popular within and without the Methodist Church to this day. 

With Clouds Descending features and introduction and three complete verses of Helmsley, which surround a slower central section, whose melody is derived from the last line of the hymn tune.