Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

John Stainer: A Life in Music

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

John Stainer: A Life in Music

Article excerpt

John Stainer: A Life in Music. By Jeremy Dibble. (Rochester, New York: Boydell Press, 2007, Pp. xiv, 318. $67.56.)

John Stainer (1840-1901) was an archtypical Victorian figure. The son of a local schoolmaster, Stainer climbed up the ladder of church music in traditional fashion but participated in the liberal movement that reformed aspects of Oxford University and the Anglican cathedrals. He ended up one of the four or five most prominent musicians of his time thanks largely to his leadership in building national institutions for music education. His oratorio Crucifixion (1887) was performed more widely than almost any other new Anglican piece in the time; it remains in repertory today.

Yet, as Jeremy Dibble puts it in his biography of Stainer, "time has judged him harshly" (xii), treating the music as too sentimental or too Mendelssohnian. In his preface, Dibble writes in shrill terms that "he suffered the ignominy of almost total neglect and excoriation" (xii) . A more balanced assessment comes at the end of the book, where Dibble identifies Stainer as a capable composer; I myself find Crucifixion a vital work. Dibble shows Stainer as a leader who could be conservative or liberal and served variously as a practical musician, a scholar, and a pedagogue. What makes the biography valuable is the detail it devotes to showing how traditional practices functioned in Oxford and in St. Paul's Cathedral, and how Stainer helped change them significantly.

Stainer became a choirboy at St. Paul's when he was nine, an organist at St. Benet's, Paul's Wharf, at fourteen, and organist at the cathedral in 1872. Dibble paints a vivid picture of the sinecures at the cathedral, whereby the ordained "vicars choral" could deputize others to sing for them on a regular basis, or just ignore the duty. …

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