Sir John Stainer (1840-1901) is not much heard about nowadays, and even less heard. His was the sound of Victorian Anglican church music, especially the sort favored by the Oxfordian High Church movement. He was also a prominent organist — first at the (real) Gothic chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford, then at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His contemporary, Arthur Sullivan, called him a genius. Only one extended work of Stainer’s has held tenuously to the repertory outside Britain, and that is his cantata-oratorio The Crucifixion, from 1887. As a child, the late Rev. Peter Gomes, long the minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, heard his mother conduct this work at their home church in Plymouth; as recently as 2004 Gomes himself led a performance at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge. For these as well as purely artistic and seasonal reasons, Edward Elwyn Jones, the director of the Harvard University Choir, performed this work in memory of Gomes at Memorial Church on April 10.
The Crucifixion is a curious hybrid. Setting texts written by William J. Sparrow-Simpson or selected by him from the Bible, Stainer styled the work “A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer.” Unlike the passion settings by Bach, which combined dramatic narratives of Jesus’ final week with striking personal reflections from the standpoint of putative witnesses (or modern Christians imagining themselves in that position), Sparrow-Simpson’s texts are rather light on narrative and heavy on an abstract and theologically fraught style of speech that rather distances one from the action on the field, and is quite distinct from the blood-curdling immediacy of the Lutheran style, even from Mendelssohn’s suaver version of it. For his part, Stainer took pains to make this work a practical one, intended for non-professional choirs (it is more demanding on the two soloists, tenor and baritone, though operatic chops are not necessary), and also for congregational participation: where Bach interspersed chorales among his arias, choruses and recitatives, Stainer wrote hymns, intending that congregants join in. Jones invited the audience Sunday to do so, and printed the music and texts for them in the program. We don’t know if this participatory methodology was typical of Stainer’s time, but it is a concept that Britten, for example, carried forward to good effect in his Saint Nicolas.
The cantata is in 20 numbers, of which five, mostly in the latter half, are hymns. Some of these are truly lovely, like No. 13, “Jesus, the Crucified, pleads for me,” and the final one, “All for Jesus.” Others are sturdy simple tunes in the spirit of Lowell Mason (who was nearly as popular in England as he was in the US), inflected (we were going to say “tarted up,” but that would scarcely do for a sacred work not by Rossini) with Victorian decorative chromaticism — though there’s a humdinger of a chord progression in No. 15, “I adore thee”). We did wonder, though, about Stainer’s assumptions concerning congregational vocal competence, with some of these hymns requiring F’s and F-sharps atop the treble staff, not really recommended to be sung from the pews. There were also times we thought Stainer rather demanding of a congregation’s patience, as in the musically unvarying ten verses of No. 5.
The rest of the music too has its gratifying moments, as well as a few moments of soporific and even wince-inducing banality. The two strongly narrative and emotive sections, Nos. 3, “Processional to Calvary” and 18, “The Appeal of the Crucified,” showed that Stainer could rise to a solid occasion. The former, influenced by Mendelssohn, was the only one involving noticeable counterpoint, albeit of a rudimentary sort, but it was dramatically effective, with some flashes of harmonic inspiration. The latter, imagining Jesus’ sometimes bitter reaction to the throngs passing beneath him (the best of Sparrow-Simpson’s work on this piece), is the musico-dramatic highlight of the cantata, with an effective chromatic setting of the refrain “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?” Stainer’s skill here, pointed to the max by Jones and his forces, shows how ill-served he was by the foggy High Church piety that smothered so much of the text.
It almost goes without saying, so we will say it, that the HUC and Jones’s leadership were impeccable. So too was the finely varied playing of Christian Lane on the restored Skinner organ of Appleton Chapel. Stainer was careful to specify most of the registrations right in the score, if you’re curious, (after scrolling to the correct title) you can download here, but Lane threw in a few nice touches of his own, including some “harpeggios” at the end of No. 18. Jones took a few liberties of his own with the score, chiefly in the nature of pregnant pauses, most of which seemed appropriate. The two soloists were James Onstad, tenor, and Jonathan Mark Roberts, baritone, both from the Harvard class of ’09 and well embarked on professional careers. Onstad was perfectly spot on in every regard, with a silken tone, excellent diction and phrasing. Roberts too was dramatically effective, always centered on pitch and thrillingly resonant in the (relatively rare) low notes; his projection and diction were a bit weaker. There were four soloists (all male: we’re ever put off by English composers’ apparent disdain for female voices) from among the choir: Ryan Duncan, Jerome Fung, William Hawley and Jack Huizenga, who kept well to pitch and rhythm, but were too often nasal sounding and seemingly off in another room.
This was a worthy effort to bring Stainer to a wider audience. But for Jones’s questionable decision to forbid applause out of a misplaced piety for the dedicatee (Gomes loved applause), we would have given it several hearty rounds.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.