John Stainer, Composer of The Crucifixion

Dan Graves, MSL

John Stainer, Composer of The Crucifixion

Not many religious composers are knighted. John Stainer was. He wrote a masterpiece of Christian religious music that was compared in its day with Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah. Today almost everyone agrees that was a bit too high to rank The Crucifixion, but other oratorios cannot claim its strong evangelical emphasis.

Here are three stanzas from "Cross of Jesus," just one of its songs, written by William J. Sparrow-Simpson:

Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow,
Where the blood of Christ was shed,
Perfect Man on thee did suffer,
Perfect God on thee has bled!

Here the King of all the ages,
Throned in light ere worlds could be,
Robed in mortal flesh is dying,
Crucified by sin for me....

....This "all human thought surpassing;"
This is earth's most awful hour,
God has taken mortal weakness!
God has laid aside His Power!

Born in 1840, John Stainer lost the sight of an eye in a childhood accident. This did not deter him from becoming a leading organist of his age and a musical educator at Oxford. For years he served at St. Paul's, London, first as a chorister and then as organist. Contemporaries said he raised the cathedral's standard of music to new heights of excellence, not least by enlarging the choir staff. In addition to his famous oratorio, he wrote over 230 services for St. Paul's cathedral as well as anthems, hymns cantatas, and another oratorio. He founded the Oxford Philharmonic Society. Queen Victoria knighted him in 1888.

After he resigned as organist of St. Paul's, Stainer faithfully attended St. Cross Church, Oxford although he held no musical office there. He was active in all the affairs of the church, which later installed a stained glass window in his memory. The window shows angels with musical instruments adoring the Lamb of God. After his death, the Vicar wrote to his widow, "no-one could make up to us for the loss of one who so thoroughly gave himself to help forward all that was for the good of the people."

When Stainer died on this day, March 31, 1901, his music was passing out of fashion. In the early twentieth century, his work was derided. But now, more than a century later, The Crucifixion is still played around the world. Churches frequently put it on and its choruses are popular among professional performers.

Bibliography:

  1. Bratby, R. G. "John Stainer 1840 - 1901; The Crucifixion." http://www.classicalnotes.co.uk/home.html
  2. Charlton, Peter. John Stainer and the Musical Life of Victorian Britain. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, c1984.
  3. "Sir John Stainer Photographs." http://www.pennantpublishing.co.uk/sirjohn.htm. Source of the portrait.
  4. Sparrow-Simpson, William John. "Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow." http://www.issuesetc.org/resource/archives/cross.htm).
  5. "Stainer, Sir John." Encyclopedia Britannica. Britannica Corp., 1911.
  6. "Stainer, Sir John." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  7. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.
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