Magazine article The American Organist

Style and Substance in the Evaluation of John Stainer's Solo Organ Works

Magazine article The American Organist

Style and Substance in the Evaluation of John Stainer's Solo Organ Works

Article excerpt

John Stainer (1840-1901) was a well-known and highly respected British musician during the Victorian era. He accrued many credentials and honors during his career: he received his doctorate in music from Oxford University in 1865; he began work in the prominent post of organist of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, in 1872; upon his retirement from St. Paul's, he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1888; then in 1889, Stainer returned to Oxford, where he was appointed professor of music.1 He made a lasting contribution to the music world, for "not only did he prove himself a first-class administrator, organist, and organ accompanist, but he wrote standard textbooks on Harmony and The Organ, was part-editor of a famous Dictionary of Musical Terms, and was a scholar and musicologist of considerable repute."2

Additionally, Stainer was well established as a composer, primarily of church music. He wrote oratorios and cantatas, services, anthems, organ and vocal music, and over 150 hymn tunes. His oratorio, The Crucifixion (1887), is his best-known work, still enjoying performances more than 125 years after its publication.3 However, aside from The Crucifixion and a few hymn tunes, Stainer's compositions, in particular his organ works, are almost entirely forgotten in spite of his accomplishments and successes.4

Evidence of the obscurity of Stainer's organ music is found in the divergence of opinions as to what pieces exist. Many authoritative studies on organ literature altogether ignore Stainer as a composer for organ, most notably Organ Literature by Corliss Richard Arnold and Survey of Organ Literature and Editions by Marilou Kratzenstein. Studies that focus specifically on English organ music might be expected to make mention of Stainer's works, yet they also are often silent on the subject. For example, in The Cambridge Companion to the Organ, Andrew McCrea's article, "British Organ Music after 1800," treats specifically the time and place in which Stainer thrived as a composer, and yet McCrea makes no reference to Stainer at all. Interestingly, in British Organ Music of the Twentieth Century Peter Hardwick likens the "romantic fervor" of early works of Healey Willan to a similar affect in works of John Stainer,5 but as the book is a study of 20th-century music, his discussion of Stainer stops there.

Two sources do discuss Stainer's organ works at length. Stainer's biographer, Peter Charlton, lists several organ works: the 1897 collection, Six Pieces for the Organ, including an "Andante" in A-flat major, a "Prelude and Fughetta" in C major, an "Adagio (ma non troppo)" in E-flat major, "On a Bass" in G minor, an "Impromptu" in E minor, and "Rêverie" in A-flat major; the 1900 collection, Twelve Pieces for the Organ,6 consisting of an "Andante Pathetique" in E major, "Praeludium Pastorale (super gamut descendens)" in C major, "A Church Prelude" in E-flat major, an "Introduction and Fughetta" in E minor, a "Fantasia" in C major, and "Finale Alla Marcia" in D major; in The Village Organist series, which was edited in part by Stainer, "A Song of Praise" (1897) and "Procession [sic] to Calvary," the latter excerpted from The Crucifixion; and Jubilant March, published independently of any collection.7 John Henderson's list in A Directory of Composers for Organ largely aligns with Charlton's, though in the discussion of The Village Organist series an "Andante Religiose" replaces "Processional to Calvary."8 It might seem likely that the different titles in fact refer to the very same piece, but the tempo indication printed on the score of "Processional to Calvary" is Moderato maestoso, not Andante religioso.

Both Charlton and Henderson refer to Stainer's treatise on organ technique, The Organ (1877), but again there is a discrepancy regarding its contents; Charlton does not mention that it includes any original organ works by Stainer, and Henderson states that it contains the same "Prelude and Fughetta" in C major found in Six Pieces for the Organ. …

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