STAINER: The Crucifixion

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Sir John Stainer (1840-1901)

The Crucifixion

Sir John Stainer was organist of St Paul's Cathedral andprofessor of music at Oxford, but he made it his specialvocation to provide good music for parish choirs ofmoderate abilities, publishing a large number ofanthems, chants and hymn tunes with this end in view.

Though undoubtedly there was a financial motive, thecult of simplicity also suited Stainer's temperament andphilosophy. He made himself an expert in the art ofdrawing emotion and depth of meaning out ofcommonplace melody and harmony.

In 1887 Stainer conceived the novel idea of writingmusic for Passion Week that was well within the reachof village choirs. The librettist, W.J. Sparrow-Simpson(1859-1952), was the son of a colleague at St Paul's, andthe first performance was at St Marylebone ParishChurch in London. The Crucifixion was not only wellreceived, but has outlived almost all church choir musicof its period, becoming a great popular favourite in theteeth of astoundingly harsh judgements by some criticsand historians. The qualities that have endeared it tomany generations are those that Stainer had consciouslycultivated as a happy medium between contrapuntalelaboration and melodramatic tone-painting.

Stainer was writing at a time when Bach's Passionshad been only recently introduced to the British oratoriopublic, and had at last dislodged Handel from his placeas the unquestioned master of sacred choral music. TheCrucifixion followed the Lutheran Passions in severalrespects. Never an oratorio, it was a 'Meditation',designed to form an integral part of an Anglican service,using the normal resources of choir and organ, andbringing in the congregation in several simple hymns(though Stainer composed new tunes where Bach hadadapted ones already well known). The librettoalternates biblical prose narrative with newly composedverse expressing a Christian's response to the successiveevents. This procedure was never used by Handel, butcomes directly from Bach oratorios.

Stainer, however, plays down the dramatic elementsof the passion story, which in any case were not hisforte, especially those that dwell on Christ's physicalagony; Christianity had become more humane in theintervening 150 years. The words 'scourged him' aregiven no musical illustration. Instead, Stainer depictsJesus in Gethsemane as a pathetic man, begging for thesympathy of his followers. Perhaps the key of C sharpminor is meant to embody the sharpness of death, butthis would hardly affect the listeners or even theparticipants. The expressive song 'Could ye not watchwith me' is in varied strophic form with chorus. Thehighest note is skilfully reserved for the word 'agony' inthe last verse, and the voice then descends to the depthsof woe.

After a dramatic recitative comes the mostambitious number, Processional to Calvary, describedas if by a Christian bystander. One hears Christ and hisfollowers approaching during the long organintroduction in A minor: first a quiet march which willbe the recurring theme of the rondo structure, then(moving to the major mode) a lyrical melodyaccompanied by repeated chords, lieder style. Thechorus enters during the next statement of the rondotheme with a peremptory 'Fling wide the gates!', andalthough there is no mention of gates in the biblicalaccount, the repeated cry is an effective way ofintegrating this movement, with echoes as if the orderwas being passed from soldier to soldier. The 'gates'theme merges into the rondo theme and passes throughvarious keys before the tenor solo returns to the lyricaltheme, in the remote key of A flat major: 'How sweet isthe grace of His sacred Face'. Here the bystandercatches a glimpse of the divine countenance as Jesuspasses by, while the dotted rhythms of the marchersrecede into the background. This idea, perhapssuggested by the 'Reconnaissance' in Schumann'sCarnaval, is rather beautifully expressed by Stainerhere, but inevitably the insistent chorus march breaksinto the dream ('Then on to the end'), and finallyrecedes into the distance, towards Calvary.

The crucifixion itself is described in a shortchromatic recitative. The reaction comes in the first andbest of the congregational hymns, 'Cross of Jesus', atruly stirring tune which has become a standard in manyhymnals. The Majesty of the Divine Humiliation is abold experiment in free-form construction, held togetherby a flexible 'motto' theme. It suffers from animpossibly wide range of emotion, inherent in themystery of the crucifixion, where the humiliation ofJesus is seen as a triumph; Stainer feels compelled toexpress this with blaring organ chords at the end, whichjar against the prevailing mood of sympathy with thesufferings of the human Jesus.

The 'quartet or chorus' that follows, God so lovedthe world, is the one choral movement using biblicalwords, and as such it is precisely one of those simpleanthems in which Stainer excelled -- and indeed itquickly became well known when it was separatelypublished in that form. It is self-sufficient; it can be, andoften is, sung unaccompanied. The simple ternarystructure with coda is easily grasped. Stainer, a master ofbiblical word setting, happily emphasizes 'so' in theopening phrase, and also uses musical accent toreinforce the antithesis: 'God sent not his son into theworld to condemn the world; but that the world throughhim might be saved.' The return of the title phrase at theend of the coda with subdominant harmony is notoriginal, but it is nowhere more moving in its effect.

All but one of the remaining four hymns are introchaic metre, which gives them a certain sameness.

The main movements dwell on some of the last wordsfrom the Cross, each of which is first stated in a choralrecitative. The duet So Thou liftest Thy divine petition isdisturbingly emotional, using a harmonic system wenow associate with Wagnerian myth rather thanChristian feeling; indeed faint echoes of Tristan can beheard. This is relieved by a dactylic hymn 'Jesus, theCrucified, pleads for me'. The scene of the twomalefactors returns to more matter-of-fact description.

After 'My God, why hast thou forsaken me?',Sparrow-Simpson invokes famous words from the OldTestament: Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?(Lamentations i. 12), which return to the prevailingmessage of the work, one of rebuke for humanity'sindifference to Christ's sacrifice. The same phrase issubtly adapted as a refrain in the last extended chorus,The Appeal of the Crucified. The death of Christ is set incomparatively plain harmony, and at last inunaccompanied recitative, before the hymn For the loveof Jesus rounds off the work.

Stainer's deeply felt Meditation can still have atelling effect in the context for which it was designed, aparish celebration of Christ's Passion. To appreciate it inconcert or recorded form requires a conscious historicaleffort to overcome ingrained prejudices against thingsVictorian -- prejudices which are themselves nowcompletely out of date.

Nicholas Temperley
Item number 8557624
Barcode 747313262427
Release date 04/01/2005
Category Sacred
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Gilchrist, James
Farr, Stephen
Bailey, Simon
Gilchrist, James
Bailey, Simon
Farr, Stephen
Composers Stainer, John
Stainer, John
Conductors Brown, Tim
Brown, Tim
Orchestras Clare College Choir, Cambridge
Clare College Choir, Cambridge
Disc: 1
The Crucifixion
1 Recitative: And they came to a place named Gethsem
2 The Agony (Bass, Chorus) - Recitative: And they la
3 Processional to Calvary (Tenor, Chorus)
4 Recitative: And when they were come (Bass)
5 Hymn: The Mystery of the Divine Humiliation
6 Recitative: He made Himself of no reputation (Bass
7 The Majesty of the Divine Humiliation (Tenor)
8 Recitative: And as Moses lifted up the serpent (Ba
9 Chorus: God so loved the world
10 Hymn: Litany of the Passion
11 Recitative: Jesus said, “Father, forgive them" (Te
12 Duet: So Thou liftest Thy divine petition (Tenor,
13 Hymn: The Mystery of the Intercession
14 Recitative: And one of the malefactors (Tenor, Bas
15 Hymn: The Adoration of the Crucified
16 Recitative: When Jesus therefore saw His mother (T
17 Recitative: Is it nothing to you? (Bass)
18 Chorus: The Appeal of the Crucified
19 Recitative: After this, Jesus knowing that all thi
20 Hymn: For the love of Jesus
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