Magazine article The Spectator

Breathing Problems

Magazine article The Spectator

Breathing Problems

Article excerpt

Listening afresh to Sir John Stainer's eight-part anthem I saw the Lord, and having always loved the work of the PreRaphaelites, I was struck by the similarities between the two, both in their aesthetic mood and the ability to express it. The smoky atmosphere, the ecstatic vision, the straight-to-the-heart purity of I saw the Lord is every bit as powerful as some of the more sacred inspirations of Holman Hunt and Burne-Jones. Yet Stainer is generally dismissed as a serious force in mid-19th century composition while the painters are admired these days by a broad cross-section of art-lovers. Why the distinction?

The prejudice against Stainer is deeprooted. His problem is that he was a cathedral organist in the High Victorian period. For some reason -- perhaps the rejection of Empire, and with it a notion of the role the Anglican Church played in sustaining that Empire - we do not love organists of that period, and we believe without question that their music was fatally undermined by sentimentality. Despite being Professor of Music at Oxford, an innovatory musicologist, the founder by his reforms at St Paul's of the system that ensures that our modern cathedral choirs are so good, Stainer is often made the scapegoat for our sense of unease at the whole business of Victorian sacred music. I cannot magic away that unease, nor exactly do I want to, but I can see clearly that I saw the Lord is a masterpiece, and that if one damns it one should also damn, for example, Holman Hunt's The Light of the World.

If we have trouble with Victorian organists, there is nowadays an instinctive mistrust of choral music accompanied by the organ. This is hard to explain -- perhaps it seems to us cheap not to have an orchestra involved in a major composition; but it doesn't help that it is the organ which makes I saw the Lord so successful. Unlike the anthems of S.S. Wesley, which benefit from being performed with orchestra, orchestral participation in Stainer's case would diminish the final result. Just as Rossetti and his colleagues required a particular palette to convey the particular look which gives their painting so much intensity, so Stainer used the organ to carefully calculated effect. …

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