Royal College of Organists' Presentation of Diplomas
24th March 2001
An Address by the President, Simon Lindley,
given in the Church of Saint Andrew, Holborn
Defining moments comprise a significant part of our personal and professional experience. As musicians we seem insatiable in our appetite for anniversaries – where would our concert
planners be without them?
Leaving aside the extraordinary hype generated by the numerical emergence of the millennial year – known mnemonically as Y2K – the past twelvemonth provided a wonderful
opportunity for the celebration of the art of one of the greatest figures in western civilisation.
The death of Johann Sebastian Bach at Leipzig on 28th July of 1750 brought to an end the earthly existence of a master musician par excellence – a human being of remarkably diverse talents as composer and performer. The decline in Bach's artistic fortunes was part of a seemingly unavoidable reaction which seems to follow the death of all distinguished composers.
The absorbing story of the Bach revival – not least of its progress under Samuel Wesley and others here in England – is well documented. On the continent these matters owed an
enormous amount to the advocacy of another master musician of fabulous talent – Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy – whose centenary performance of the St Matthew Passion is generally deemed to have
been the occasion after which the reversal of its composer's declining fortunes was effectively halted.
But other celebrated figures of an earlier generation had themselves no doubt of the world-beating qualities of Bach's music and that of his near contemporary, Handel – it was of Handel
that Haydn is alleged to have declared "he is the master of us all". The young Mozart, on a well recorded visit to Leipzig in 1789, underwent something of the artistic equivalent of a conversion
experience on hearing for the first time Bach's glorious double choir motet Sing ye to the Lord. As the music, sung from parts by the St Thomas Choir, proceeded along its allotted course a
contemporary reported that Mozart's "soul seemed to be in his ears". We know that the young man begged the loan of a set of parts from the cantor and set to at once with a will to copy out a score.
In no area of recent artistic endeavour has the reversal of artistic fortunes been as notable as that regarding the received view of matters Victorian. In a visual sense, it was the
dismantling of Hardman's Doric Arch at London's Euston Station that proved one demolition too many. From that single act of architectural vandalism was born the Victorian Society and then onwards the
proper objective appreciation of all artefacts Victorian began with renewed vigour.
English musicians, being by and large conservative creatures, had perhaps never completely thrown the Victorian baby out with the proverbial bathwater. In part, this has been due to the
inherent quality and worth of Anglican choral repertoire from pens of figures of the stature of Samuel Sebastian Wesley and Charles Villiers Stanford and their successors.
The re-kindling of interest in the music of other "high Victorian" composers owes much to the advocacy of leading choir directors in the half century following the Second World War. Two
former presidents of this College, Dr George Guest and Dr Bernard Rose, were among those who led the way in the rehabilitation of the best Victorian music. Their recordings, together with those Dr
Stanley Vann and Dr Barry Rose, provided special opportunities for revisiting the best music of the Victorian period in stylish, idiomatic, committed – and, perhaps above all – unashamedly
Only in comparatively recent times has this kind of appreciation extended to the repertoire of the organist. Even if English players and teachers had proved reluctant for most of the 20th century to programme Victorian music on a regular basis, the activities of continental publishers have done much to ensure the rehabilitation of the finest music from composers of the calibre of Henry Smart. The music of some figures – notably Parry, Stanford and Wesley, their heirs and successors, had not really fallen totally from favour in quite the same way.
A happy congruence of calendar provides in this year of grace 2001 an opportunity for celebration of two celebrated Victorians of unusual distinction and one who just qualifies for the
definition of possibly the first musical Edwardian by date of birth.
The influence of John Henry, Cardinal Newman, born in 1801, remains particularly profound. If for nothing else, church musicians would have sufficient from the Cardinal's pen for which to
provide cause for real celebration. The catalyst for the most characteristic of Elgar's three oratorios, Newman's poetry (once regarded as sectarian) is now perceived to belong to the whole church in all
its diversity of manifestations.
But his poetry (not least among which are the three famous hymns which grace most quality hymnals of all denominations) is not all from Newman for which we have cause to give thanks. His
signposts to spirituality have proved of ever greater inspiration as the decades have elapsed since his death. Unlike many Victorians, his creative reputation has survived not only intact but very
considerably enhanced to the extent that nowadays it is universally acknowledged that Newman has emerged as the ecumenical Victorian par excellence – a veritable "man for all seasons" one
might say. A recent very moving act of worship broadcast early one Sunday morning from Newman's own spiritual and physical home, the Birmingham Oratory, was a tribute as affectionate as it was catholic
in its choice of music.
Just a century after Newman's birth the year 1901 was marked by the death of John Stainer who succeeded Sir George Macfarren as President of this College in 1887. Few composers have, in their
posthumous reputation, undergone such vilification. His output has been criticised for its sentimentality, supposed weakness of harmony and much else besides. Interestingly, though, very few authorities
have had the temerity to cast doubts on the sincerity of Stainer's musical expression. It is clear, both from his contemporaries and from those who have studied his life and career that Stainer was an inherently good man. Very few Victorians inspired an equal combination of affection and respect. So, to that extent, his personal and professional reputation has never had to endure the same indignities to which his artistic credibility had been so subject in the generations immediately following his comparatively early death at just sixty years of age.
The centenary of the death of Stainer in the Italian city of Verona on Palm Sunday, 31st March 1901 has provided a fitting catalyst for the commemoration of a famous and greatly loved musician. The extent of the esteem in which he was held resulted in fine memorials to this quintessential Englishman in no less than four of the musical foundations he served with such distinction. As an interesting indication of his essential modesty, humility even, it was at his insistence that his remains lie interred not in a grand vault in the capital's cathedral church which he served with such devotion but in the churchyard of the lovely church of St Cross, Holywell, just a short stroll from Oxford's Magdalen College. The wish to rest surrounded by the ambient peace and homely scale of this 'country' church at the very heart of the city provides us with the clue to the homely and gentle nature of a very great Victorian.
Despite the continuing survival of his more virile church music – particularly the grandly festive evening canticles in B flat and the vivid Trinity Sunday anthem I saw the Lord
– the remainder of his extensive output is comparatively little known and appreciated. He remains, to an extent, a "one-work" composer since his posthumous reputation seems entirely bound up with
the fortunes of the Passiontide cantata known universally as Stainer's Crucifixion.
His position in Victorian musical life was utterly unassailable. As a boy, he played by the riverside in Southwark where his father held parochial office as parish clerk and schoolmaster.
Young Stainer became a chorister of St Paul's Cathedral, and, while still only a teenager, the first organist of Ouseley's St Michael's College, Tenbury. From Tenbury he moved on when only
twenty years of age to Magdalen College, Oxford and twelve years later, at the height of his considerable powers, to St Paul's Cathedral.
His immense commitment to the revival of the fortunes of English collegiate and cathedral musical life, together with his work as the undisputed leader of the development of English
musical education is all but forgotten. Not least among Stainer's many claims to fame must be his prodigious scholarship as a researcher into, and editor of what we fashionably refer to as "Early
Music". His masterly study of the music of the Bible remains a standard work of reference, and his Musical Dictionary with Barrett is treasured by those fortunate enough to possess a copy. As for the
music of the Church of England, Stainer it was who published the first pointed Psalter to achieve widespread acceptance, and whose Cathedral Prayer Book provided music for every possible occasion. Nor
should his work as co-editor of the first edition of the another Novello anthology, the Manual of Plainsong, be under-estimated. Oxford Professor, general inspector of musical education, examiner-at-large, presidencies of professional bodies, even music criticism for the Manchester Guardian –
all these were further strings to a very ample musical bow. Interestingly, one of Oxford's most committed chroniclers of matters musical wrote of Stainer's work in education and its influence in these
Anyone studying the state of music in England at that time will realise the tremendous pioneering work done by Stainer upon which subsequent composers have built their edifice. It is
impossible to over-estimate the value of Stainer's influence on the music of his time – not only in Oxford, but on the whole course of musical life in this country. His knowledge was as great as his
predecessor's, his method of imparting it infinitely greater; and those who know him only as a composer know him not at all.
As a composer, his cantatas and sacred choral music were once far more popular than those of more famous names with whom posterity has, perhaps, dealt rather more kindly. His hymn tunes have
fallen on less friendly times. The once obiquitous (and, at the wrong hands, rather saccharine) Love Divine has now given place to the more robustly stirring Blaenwern for Wesley's Love
Divine, all loves excelling. Even his output in that most elusive of musical forms, the Anglican chant, has failed to thrive, whereas the music of far lesser talents such as Westminster Abbey's
James Turle is used daily in "quires and places where they sing".
Yes, it is certainly The Crucifixion that keeps his name alive. The piece was composed for his friend and pupil William Hodge, Assistant Sub Organist at St Paul's and Organist of London's
St Marylebone Parish Church where a performance on Good Friday has been presented every year since the work's first hearing in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.
As a young lad of just thirteen, Stainer had sung treble in the very first English performance of the Matthew Passion. His Crucifixion contains important elements in common with the Protestant Passion
tradition seen at its most glorious in the two monumental essays of the great Bach himself. Stainer uses narrative recitative to recount the events of the Passion. He is at his surest in the
straightforwardly simple manner used to announce the actual words of Christ - the Seven Last Words from the Cross - which are allotted to male chorus divisi. There are arioso passages meditating
upon the events of that first Holy Week, and, maybe most significant of all - stirring hymns in which all present can join.
Stainer's librettist, The Reverend William J Sparrow Simpson – whose father was a colleague of Stainer as Succentor and Librarian of St Paul's – was clearly more pastor than
poet and some of the verbal language is far more "dated" than the music which accompanies it. And yet, The Crucifixion has enjoyed - and continues to enjoy - a great revival of support,
possibly to a degree in reaction to the extraordinarily vehement antagonism that anything "Victorian" once inspired.
His gifts for melody and harmony often combine in Stainer's music with a sense of the dramatic, yielding moments of great pathos and impact. The stirring setting of that powerful
penultimate cry from the Cross - My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? – is an outburst made all the more impressive by its placement following some sinister chromatic unisons for solo
pedal in the organ part.
Many have found that the music's most persuasive utterances are to be experienced in the superb, and stirring, melodies to the five hymns. Of these, the first and last are - qua hymn
tunes - so well-crafted that both have achieved widespread provenance in their own right. Popular usage has resulted in almost universal adoption of Cross of Jesus by Wesley's Advent text Come,
Thou long -expected Jesus while All for Jesus - with Sparrow-Simpson's words - is increasingly to be found in the corpus of hymnody for the Eucharist in present-day collections.
At the musical, spiritual and emotional heart of the work is the expressive quartet God so loved the world. Long used separately as an anthem, this unaccompanied gem represents the
quintessential Victorian style - sequential melodically, compelling harmonically, and - above all - simple and direct in expression. Its long sustained lines challenge the singer and enhance the
experience of the listener.
Another focus of celebration this year will undoubtedly be centred on the music of Gerald Finzi – that most English of English composers, and yet one with a background thoroughly
cosmopolitan. Arguably the composer most sensitive to the natural inflexion of words since the days of John Dowland and Henry Purcell, Finzi and his vocal and choral output need no apologist with regard
to its inherently heart-easing beauty and exquisite nuance. In view of his immensely idiomatic organ writing found within the pages of many of his choral scores, it is perhaps a sadness that as organists
we have no solo work from his pen. However, the recent issuing of some finely crafted arrangements by Mr Robert Gower and others of instrumental pieces devised originally for other musical media has, to
a degree, done something to assuage such disappointment.
Like Stainer, Finzi is strong on rhetoric. Stylistically, Finzi's language is sui generis – his utterance inimitable, its expressive power ranging – in common with that of
Howells – from agony to ecstasy with every level of emotion between these two extremes: a reflection of human existence itself, in fact.
Standing here at the outset of a new century, some might consider such retrospective celebration irresponsible – indulgent even. It could be cogently argued that such a platform should,
perforce, be used to press with urgency the claims of contemporary creativity. Proselytising on behalf of the composers of today and even tomorrow is as deserving – if not more deserving – a
cause than such efforts sustained in the furtherance of the appreciation and revaluation of the art of earlier generations.
Of course such a claim is wholly valid and it is a hope that something of such current composition can be a focus of the lecture sponsored by the College at this year's congress of the
Incorporated Association of Organists in Gloucester.
It is a pleasure as well as a duty to congratulate most warmly today's new diploma holders. Perhaps it is not out of order, too, to offer a word of particular appreciation to colleagues on
the committees of the College for all the work undertaken voluntarily behind the scenes to plan for the continued present and future well-being of the institution. While it may seem invidious to single
out some activity for special mention, it is wholly appropriate at today's gathering to tender particular thanks to the Chairman, Secretary and members of the Syllabus Revision Sub-Committee, recently
re-constituted as the College's first Academic Board. In wishing the members of the Board well as they undertake their ongoing duties, it is right to close by thanking them, and all whom they have
consulted, with sincere gratitude for their endeavours.