| The Crucifixion: A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer,
is an oratorio, composed in 1887. It is scored for an SATB choir and organ, and features solos for bass and tenor. The text was written by W. J. Sparrow Simpson, the librettist of Stainer's two earlier oratorios, The Daughter of Jairus
and Mary Magdalene
. It was dedicated to Stainer’s pupil and friend William Hodge, assistant sub-organist at St Paul’s Cathedral and organist and choirmaster at Marylebone Parish Church, where the cantata was first performed in February 1887, conducted by the composer with Hodge at the organ. In composing The Crucifixion, Stainer’s intention was to provide a Passiontide cantata written in a musical language and on a scale that would put it within the scope of most parish choirs. Its structure is clearly modelled on the scheme of choruses, chorales, recitatives and arias of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which in 1873 Stainer had introduced into the Music for Holy Week at St Paul’s. The Rev William Sparrow-Simpson, Succentor and Librarian of St Paul’s, compiled the libretto, drawing on the Gospel accounts for the narrative elements of the story and writing the texts of the choruses, arias and hymns himself.
The first performance of The Crucifixion was well received, but it soon attracted fierce criticism, both for its libretto and its music. The combination of Sparrow-Simpson’s shortcomings as a poet and his excessively sentimental language was scarcely a recipe for literary success. Some of the music is also typically sentimental Victoriana, such as the ‘Fling wide the gates’ choruses and the duet, ‘So thou liftest thy divine petition’. Nevertheless, there are also passages of great beauty - the unaccompanied setting of ‘God so loved the world’, for example, which continues to be performed as an anthem in its own right – and sections of dramatic interest. Stainer’s setting of the seven last words from the cross, for four-part men’s chorus, is highly effective, especially since it is followed by the stark, unaccompanied final statement from the tenor soloist, ‘And he bowed his head and gave up the ghost’. Particularly significant in the overall scheme of The Crucifixion are the five congregational hymns.
How should we view The Crucifixion today? Some 120 years have passed since its first performance, and opinions are still sharply divided as to its worth. On the one hand there is the school of thought exemplified by this excoriating critic, writing back in 1971: ‘Sparrow-Simpson’s appalling doggerel set to Stainer’s squalid music is a monument to the inane’. On the other hand there are many who would agree with the eminent musician Barry Rose, a lifelong advocate of the piece, (his orchestral version has recently been recorded by Guildford Philharmonic and Guildford Camerata) who writes, ‘To [Sparrow-Simpson’s] words Stainer added his music, writing some of the most memorable hymn-tunes we shall ever hear, and showing a rare sense of understanding in painting the text with music that is both thoughtful and dramatic, whilst also giving us the sublime and unsurpassed unaccompanied setting of God So Loved The World.’ There is little doubt that Stainer’s cantata falls far short of the high standards achieved by his contemporaries, Parry and Stanford. But let us not forget that Stainer’s aim was a modest one: to provide an extended Passiontide meditation which ordinary choirs could perform and to which congregations could immediately relate. At the time there was no such piece. In this respect he was undoubtedly successful, as the enduring popularity of The Crucifixion continues to testify.
Notes by John Bawden
Sir John Stainer (6 June 1840 – 31 March 1901) was an English composer and organist whose music, though not generally much performed today (apart from The Crucifixion), was very popular in his lifetime. His work as choir trainer and organist set standards for Anglican church music which are still influential, and he was closely involved with the compilation of Hymns Ancient & Modern. He was also active as an academic, becoming professor of music at Oxford.
Born in Southwark, London, he sang as a boy in the choir of St Paul's Cathedral. At 16 he was appointed by Sir Frederick Ouseley to the post of organist at the newly founded St. Michael's College, Tenbury. In 1860 he became organist at Magdalen College, Oxford, moving to St Paul's Cathedral in 1872. Thirteen years later he was awarded an honorary degree by Durham University; and he became professor of music at Oxford University in 1889. He conducted pioneering research into early music, notably the output of Guillaume Dufay, then scarcely known even among experts. He also contributed two small treatises, Harmony and Composition, to the famous series of Novello musical primers. For budding organists he wrote a primer calledThe Organ, which is still in use. In recognition of his services to British music, he received a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1888.
While on an Italian holiday he died in Verona of heart failure on 31 March 1901, at the age of 60. His funeral was held on 6 April (coincidentally the same day as our performance, 111 years on) at St Cross Church, Holywell, Oxford, and the surrounding streets were filled with mourners.
Sir John Stainer
Wikipedia article on The Crucifixion