Wednesday, 14 November 2007

More on John Stainer

Another view of the recent John Stainer event at Magdalen College from Boydell editor, Bruce Phillips:

To the man on the Clapham omnibus the name John Stainer, if it means anything at all, tends to mean one thing only: his Passion oratorio The Crucifixion, first performed in 1887. Yet, as Jeremy Dibble asserts in John Stainer: A Life in Music, he was by no means a one-work composer. The long list of his musical and literary works in Dibble’s book bears witness to a prolific composer of church and choral music of all kinds, together with books, articles, lectures and musical editions. On top of all this Stainer was a highly accomplished organist and choir director, and played a leading part in the raising of standards in choral singing and music education in Victorian Britain.

In 1860, at the age of only 20, Stainer was appointed organist and informator choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford. It was thus highly appropriate that Magdalen chapel should be the setting for Evensong on Sunday 28th October in which all the music was by Stainer. A group of enthusiasts and Stainer family members (Stainer had five children) gathered there to hear the choir under Bill Ives sing his rarely performed Evening Service in E, and the anthem They were lovely and pleasant in their ways, a setting of verses from Ecclesiasticus, written by Stainer during his twelve years at Magdalen. Both hymns were by Stainer, and one could easily imagine oneself back in the 1860s, Stainer conducting the becassocked and besurpliced choristers, candlelight piercing the gathering darkness, in this wonderfully expressive music so redolent of the Victorian era.

After the service there was an opportunity to congregate in a Magdalen senior common room surrounded by portraits and photographs of its eminent sons (including Stainer himself of course), congratulate Jeremy on his splendid book and drink a toast to the memory of Stainer and to several of his descendants who were present for the occasion. Many copies of the book were bought, and as I left the room I saw Jeremy signing the last three.

As Dibble says in his concluding paragraph, Stainer may be fairly termed the epitome of the Victorian composer. While he could not boast the higher profiles of Sullivan, Parry and Stanford (on the last two of whom Dibble has written outstanding biographies) his contribution to the larger fabric of Britain’s music was immense. We have now moved on from the reaction against Victorian culture and Dibble’s book, the second to appear in Boydell’s new series Music in Britain 1600-1900, will at last help us to get to grips with one of its leading composers.

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