125 years ago, in February 1887, as part of a series of Lenten services, the choir of Marylebone Parish Church in London gave the first performance of a Passiontide cantata that was to become an established favourite in churches throughout the country, and still lives on today. The work was dedicated to William Hodge, Stainer’s pupil, friend and colleague at St Paul’s Cathedral, who was organist and choirmaster at Marylebone Parish Church.
When organist at St Paul’s, Stainer raised performance standards and greatly expanded the repertoire, introducing Bach’s St Matthew Passion into the music for Holy Week a decade earlier, but there was at that time no extended Passiontide meditation on a scale and in a musical language that ordinary choirs could perform, and to which congregations could immediately relate.
Stainer’s aim was to provide such a piece, and in this he undoubtedly succeeded. So much so that, although he made an immense contribution as organist, conductor, composer, teacher and author, today Stainer is remembered simply for The Crucifixion and a few rather fine anthems and hymn-tunes! This wasn’t the view at the time: according to Peter Charlton’s biography, Sir Arthur Sullivan’s tribute to Stainer was blunt and memorable: “He is a genius”.
Though intentionally more modest in scale than the Bach Passions, The Crucifixion is clearly modelled on the same scheme of choruses, chorales, recitatives and arias, its five hymns for congregational participation being a direct parallel to the Passion chorales. Of these hymns, “Cross of Jesus” must surely be counted amongst the finest of all hymn tunes.
The Rev William Sparrow-Simpson, another colleague of Stainer at St Paul’s, compiled the libretto, drawing on the Gospel accounts for the narrative elements of the story and writing the texts of the choruses, arias and hymns himself.
Some of the music is arguably sentimental, but its simple melodiousness and the powerful message of Christ’s Passion still elicits a response from the listener. The Crucifixion also has moments of true beauty and significant choral writing skill, “God so loved the world” being a popular anthem in its own right, and there are sections of dramatic interest, in particular a highly effective setting for men’s voices of the seven last words from the cross.
Barry Rose, a lifelong advocate of the piece, wrote; “To [Sparrow-Simpson’s] words Stainer added his music, writing some of the most memorable hymn-tunes we shall ever hear, and showing a rare sense of understanding in painting the text with music that is both thoughtful and dramatic, whilst also giving us the sublime and unsurpassed setting of ‘God so loved the world’”.