by Brian Smith
2001 has been good to musicians in terms of centenaries.Towering, quite rightly, over all other is Verdi, composer of twenty-six operas, whose career stretched from the bel canto era until the late masterpiece, Otello.We may include him in this journal, for he was an organist, and his Requiem has a unique grandeur.He did not die until 1901, his death causing an outpouring of national fervour and grief unparalleled in the brief history of the Italian nation.
But there were others, too. We may give a passing nod to a fine German composer Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901), author of twenty fine organ sonatas.Many will be acquainted with these through the Harvey Grace editions.They contain much fine music, and are well worth exploring.He wrote, also, two organ concertos, of which I have an old recording with E. Power Biggs.
But we should celebrate and honour two British composers: Sir John Stainer and Sir Henry Walford Davies.Both have seen reputations and high esteem in their lifetime disappear to indifference in the case of the latter, and unwarranted hostility in the case of the former. Sir John Stainer was born in London in 1840 and died in Verona in March 1901 Nowadays, he is remembered mostly for the oratorio The Crucifixion, which must surely merit the dubious distinction of being the most performed and reviled of works.
For most of the twentieth century, church musicologists, such as Eric Routley, poured scorn on The Crucifixion They decried the words of the Revd.J.F.Sparrow-Simpson, and considered the music mawkish, banal and vulgar.Unfortunately for them, the Stainerite may say But it works! and indeed it does.The reason why this work has endured is because of its ability to draw the listener in to the story it tells.Much of his other choral music remains unheard.I was fortunate enough to obtain orchestral parts for The Daughter of Jairus, his cantata for the 1888 Worcester Festival.We performed this work at St. Marys Bromley last year, and it was a revelation.The orchestral writing is rich and imaginative, and it was a memorable experience. Little else is heard, except I saw the Lord, but he wrote much that is good, including preludes and fugues for the organ, which are well within the scope of the moderate player.Stainer, like Rheinberger, was as much regarded in his lifetime as a teacher he was Professor of Music at Oxford from 1899 and did much to establish the teaching of music. This sort of reputation is always difficult to maintain after ones death because it depends so intimately on personal contact and personality.
What Stainer did to lasting effect was to help raise the standards of cathedral worship through the example of St. Pauls Cathedral.He succeeded Sir John Goss as organist in 1872, and set about raising the musical standard, both in terms of repertoire and performance.He had been closely associated with St. Michaels, Tenbury and its founder, the Revd. Sir Frederick Gore-Ouseley, Bart., who shared his commitment to attaining a high and dignified standard of sung worship.
That legacy certainly lives on today in the English cathedral choral tradition, surely unmatched in the world.
Recent years have been slightly kinder to Stainer.Oecumuse have published a range of anthems and all the extant organ music.The settings of the Great O Antiphons are well worth a look, and I use these each year as the musical spine of an Advent Service of Light, together with the charming anthem How beautiful upon the mountains, itself an excerpt from the full anthem Awake! Awake! Put on thy Strength, O Zion.
It is a sad fact that much music simply falls into disuse with the passing of time, with Victorian music being particularly the victim of changed taste in the tremendous reaction arising from the Great War.But it is always worth delving, and my feeling is to trust ones instincts as is so often the case with music which is not of the first rank, it needs to be performed with conviction and sincerity, if it is to work.
Walford Davies (Sept. 1869 March 1941) is nowadays remembered for the Solemn Melody, and, perhaps, for being the organist of the Temple Church before the great George Thalben-Ball. But, in his lifetime, his reputation stood high.His career has some similarities to that of Stainer.He, too, was a Professor of Music (at the University of Wales), and a fine teacher.A fine organist, he was a magnificent choir trainer, and gave the Temple Church choir the cachetwhich it still has today. He was also, from 1927-1932, organist at St. Georges Chapel, Windsor.
His good fortune was to be a natural on the wireless. His programmes brought an appreciation of music to the ever-growing numbers of eager listeners.His gift of revealing the substance of music, analytically, but painlessly as his Grove entry puts it, helped to give music broadcasts on the BBC the ability to both entertain and educate a very Reithian concept.
Again, he wrote much choral music that is almost entirely neglected.Some works have been resurrected for the centenary; they have been appreciated enough to confirm that, like Stainer, they need only enthusiastic advocacy to reach a willing audience.
They wrote with sincerity, and no little skill. These were practitioners, to whom divine worship was central in their work; they were craftsmen in fashioning words and music to the glory of God.They deserve, at least, respect for that; but much more awaits those who are willing to look beyond the superficial and the workaday compositions.If you are of that number, you will not be disappointed.
If you may, perchance, wonder who might be coming up in 2002, the answer is Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, marking 150 years since his birth.No loss of reputation there (just a narrowing of scope), and many unheard treasures to be mined.He was a composer of operas, piano concertos and much more besides. A pen other than mine will, hopefully, tell you something more of this most English of Irishmen in a future edition.
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