The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

The Resurrection of Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’

  20th March 2024

20th March 2024

Widely vilified as the epitome of mawkish late-Victorian religious sentimentality, John Stainer’s The Crucifixion was first performed in St Marylebone Parish Church on 24 February 1887 at the beginning of Lent. Composed as a Passion-themed work within the capabilities of parish choirs as part of the Anglo-Catholic revival, its publication by Novello led to its phenomenal success as churches throughout England quickly took it up. It also spawned many imitations – such as John Henry Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary – which lacked its blend of sincerity, melodic simplicity and harmonic sophistication. Stainer himself is reported to have come to regard the work as ‘rubbish’, no doubt finding its ubiquity irksome when compared to many of his more challenging and original works.

Yet The Crucifixion was born of Stainer’s own exposure, while a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral, to Bach’s St Matthew Passion as part of the work’s first English performance in 1854. Toward the end of the 1850s he took up the post of informator choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford, where the influence of the high-church Tractarians (the ‘Oxford Movement’) was strong. Their attempts to raise the standards of liturgy – particularly in music – clearly rubbed off on Stainer, and when in 1872 he was appointed organist at St Paul’s Cathedral in succession to John Goss, he transformed the quality of performance there, as well as considerably enlarging the choir from a mere 12 choristers to no fewer than 36.

Alongside his activities at St Paul’s, Stainer was also appointed H.M. Inspector of Music in Schools, and the reforming zeal that characterised his busy tenure of this post is also evident in the clear efforts towards singability in his most popular (and notorious) work. The text of The Crucifixion (based on texts from the Gospels and Lamentations) was written by a young theologian and curate, W.J. Sparrow Simpson, who crafted a libretto which complements the biblical texts with words that emphasise the reflective and personal dimensions of the Passion narrative rather than the dramatic. In this, The Crucifixion is comparable to the work of the Lutheran Pietists, while the inclusion of five congregational hymns draws obvious parallels with the chorales in Bach’s Passion settings.

Unlike the vast Baroque canvases of Bach and Handel, however, The Crucifixion is compact at little over and hour in duration, while its performing forces – SATB choir, tenor and bass soloists and organ – were designed to be considerably more practical for parish performance (only the two soloists need to be semi-professional standard). Despite all the flak that has been directed at it over the years (in 1924 the early music scholar Edmund Fellowes declared that ‘Musicians today have no use for The Crucifixion’), it fulfils its aims admirably within the context of its own time. As generations of singers and worshippers will attest, it is eminently performable, and with the greater interest now being shown in the historical and social context of works of music as much as their mere notes and texts, a reappraisal is probably overdue.

Certainly the balance between narrative and reflective elements, as well as the very personal aspect of the theology, make this work suitable for revival, even if the text itself can sometimes grate (the repeated entreaties to ‘Fling wide the gates’ in the march-like ‘Processional to Calvary’ being one example). The solo sections (particularly the melting baritone solo in ‘The Agony’ and the impassioned tenor aria of ‘The Majesty of the Divine Humiliation’) contain much fine music, and the choruses are well deployed across the length of the work. The central chorus, ‘God so loved the world’, with its affective double suspensions is rightly famous, and often excerpted as a standalone item; hearing it in context is arguably even more moving.

And then there are the five hymns that punctuate the work at key moments, including the magnificent ‘Cross of Jesus’ and the concluding ‘All for Jesus’, most of which have become firm favourites in hymnals even beyond the world of the Anglican communion. Again, hearing them performed in situ is a thrilling experience, as proved by a welcome new recording of the work, by the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh under the direction of Duncan Ferguson. With solo singing of great communicativeness from tenor Liam Banthorne and baritone Arthur Bruce, and resplendent organ playing from Imogen Morgan, the soaring choral lines and moments of full-throated splendour give this performance an expressive sincerity that is enormously persuasive. It includes excellent supporting notes from Stainer authority Jeremy Dibble, and it’s a timely addition to the catalogue. Due for release this Good Friday (29 March) on the Delphian label, it should win new friends for this once enormously popular work.

The Recording:
The Crucifixion (St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh) DCD34275

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