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Modelled on the great passion settings of J.S. Bach, Stainer’s Crucifixion is amongst the most popular of all English choral works and vividly portrays the events of the Passion of Christ. Scored for tenor and bass soloists, organ and mixed choir, the piece combines recitatives, solos, and masterful choruses that range from the graphic mob shouts of Crucify Him to the ethereally beautiful meditation at the work's centrepiece God so loved the world.
Sir John Stainer (1840–1901)
Sir John Stainer was organist of St Paul’s Cathedral and professor of music at Oxford, but he made it his special vocation to provide good music for parish choirs of moderate abilities, publishing a large number of anthems, chants and hymn tunes with this end in view. Though undoubtedly there was a financial motive, the cult of simplicity also suited Stainer’s temperament and philosophy. He made himself an expert in the art of drawing emotion and depth of meaning out of commonplace melody and harmony.
In 1887 Stainer conceived the novel idea of writing music for Passion Week that was well within the reach of village choirs. The librettist, W.J. Sparrow-Simpson (1859-1952), was the son of a colleague at St Paul’s, and the first performance was at St Marylebone Parish Church in London. The Crucifixion was not only well received, but has outlived almost all church choir music of its period, becoming a great popular favourite in the teeth of astoundingly harsh judgements by some critics and historians. The qualities that have endeared it to many generations are those that Stainer had consciously cultivated as a happy medium between contrapuntal elaboration and melodramatic tone-painting.
Stainer was writing at a time when Bach’s Passions had been only recently introduced to the British oratorio public, and had at last dislodged Handel from his place as the unquestioned master of sacred choral music. The Crucifixion followed the Lutheran Passions in several respects. Never an oratorio, it was a ‘Meditation’, designed to form an integral part of an Anglican service, using the normal resources of choir and organ, and bringing in the congregation in several simple hymns (though Stainer composed new tunes where Bach had adapted ones already well known). The libretto alternates biblical prose narrative with newly composed verse expressing a Christian’s response to the successive events. This procedure was never used by Handel, but comes directly from Bach oratorios.
Stainer, however, plays down the dramatic elements of the passion story, which in any case were not his forte, especially those that dwell on Christ’s physical agony; Christianity had become more humane in the intervening 150 years. The words ‘scourged him’ are given no musical illustration. Instead, Stainer depicts Jesus in Gethsemane as a pathetic man, begging for the sympathy of his followers. Perhaps the key of C sharp minor is meant to embody the sharpness of death, but this would hardly affect the listeners or even the participants. The expressive song ‘Could ye not watch with me’ is in varied strophic form with chorus. The highest note is skilfully reserved for the word ‘agony’ in the last verse, and the voice then descends to the depths of woe.
After a dramatic recitative comes the most ambitious number, Processional to Calvary, described as if by a Christian bystander. One hears Christ and his followers approaching during the long organ introduction in A minor: first a quiet march which will be the recurring theme of the rondo structure, then (moving to the major mode) a lyrical melody accompanied by repeated chords, lieder style. The chorus enters during the next statement of the rondo theme with a peremptory ‘Fling wide the gates!’, and although there is no mention of gates in the biblical account, the repeated cry is an effective way of integrating this movement, with echoes as if the order was being passed from soldier to soldier. The ‘gates’ theme merges into the rondo theme and passes through various keys before the tenor solo returns to the lyrical theme, in the remote key of A flat major: ‘How sweet is the grace of His sacred Face’. Here the bystander catches a glimpse of the divine countenance as Jesus passes by, while the dotted rhythms of the marchers recede into the background. This idea, perhaps suggested by the ‘Reconnaissance’ in Schumann’s Carnaval, is rather beautifully expressed by Stainer here, but inevitably the insistent chorus march breaks into the dream (‘Then on to the end’), and finally recedes into the distance, towards Calvary.
The crucifixion itself is described in a short chromatic recitative. The reaction comes in the first and best of the congregational hymns, ‘Cross of Jesus’, a truly stirring tune which has become a standard in many hymnals. The Majesty of the Divine Humiliation is a bold experiment in free-form construction, held together by a flexible ‘motto’ theme. It suffers from an impossibly wide range of emotion, inherent in the mystery of the crucifixion, where the humiliation of Jesus is seen as a triumph; Stainer feels compelled to express this with blaring organ chords at the end, which jar against the prevailing mood of sympathy with the sufferings of the human Jesus.
The ‘quartet or chorus’ that follows, God so loved the world, is the one choral movement using biblical words, and as such it is precisely one of those simple anthems in which Stainer excelled — and indeed it quickly became well known when it was separately published in that form. It is self-sufficient; it can be, and often is, sung unaccompanied. The simple ternary structure with coda is easily grasped. Stainer, a master of biblical word setting, happily emphasizes ‘so’ in the opening phrase, and also uses musical accent to reinforce the antithesis: ‘God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.’ The return of the title phrase at the end of the coda with subdominant harmony is not original, but it is nowhere more moving in its effect.
All but one of the remaining four hymns are in trochaic metre, which gives them a certain sameness. The main movements dwell on some of the last words from the Cross, each of which is first stated in a choral recitative. The duet So Thou liftest Thy divine petition is disturbingly emotional, using a harmonic system we now associate with Wagnerian myth rather than Christian feeling; indeed faint echoes of Tristan can be heard. This is relieved by a dactylic hymn ‘Jesus, the Crucified, pleads for me’. The scene of the two malefactors returns to more matter-of-fact description.
After ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’, Sparrow-Simpson invokes famous words from the Old Testament: Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? (Lamentations i. 12), which return to the prevailing message of the work, one of rebuke for humanity’s indifference to Christ’s sacrifice. The same phrase is subtly adapted as a refrain in the last extended chorus, The Appeal of the Crucified. The death of Christ is set in comparatively plain harmony, and at last in unaccompanied recitative, before the hymn For the love of Jesus rounds off the work.
Stainer’s deeply felt Meditation can still have a telling effect in the context for which it was designed, a parish celebration of Christ’s Passion. To appreciate it in concert or recorded form requires a conscious historical effort to overcome ingrained prejudices against things Victorian — prejudices which are themselves now completely out of date.