The Crucifixion was published in 1887. The libretto and score were written following the period when both W J Sparrow Simpson Sr. (father to the younger W J Sparrow Simpson) and John Stainer had worked at St. Paul's Cathedral, London, England, which was 1876-1882. W J Sparrow Simpson Sr. was appointed Succentor at St. Paul's Cathedral in 1876, which was 4 years after Stainer was appointed Organist at St. Paul's Cathederal in 1872.
Stainer had previously been influenced by J.S.Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. In 1854, 7 years after Felix Mendelssohn's death in November 1847, who had championed revival of J.S.Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, Stainer was invited to sing in the first English performance of Bach's St Matthew's Passion under William Sterndale Bennett at the Hanover Square Rooms. Eighteen years later, Stainer was appointed organist at St. Paul's Cathedral, London in 1872. The following year, 1873, he made the St Matthew's Passion part of St. Paul's Cathedral's Holy Week liturgies.
Stainer was thus familiar with the musical structure of the St. Matthew's Passion and chose to model his score for The Crucifixion on the scheme of choruses, chorales, recitatives and arias as used by J.S.Bach in his St Matthew's Passion. Thus, Stainer's score gave his soloists a mixture of recitative and reflective arias, while the chorus commented on the action and also took part in it.
It was dedicated to Stainer’s pupil and friend William Hodge, assistant sub-organist at St Paul’s Cathedral and organist and choirmaster at Marylebone Parish Church, where the cantata was first performed in February 1887, conducted by the composer with Hodge at the organ.
For those interested in a bit of the history of how J S Bach's St Matthew's Passion became established in England and thus became the model Stainer used for his score for The Crucifixion, you can read about it by opening the window below. It is an interesting story.
W J Sparrow Simpson the younger was born in 1859, obtained his BA from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1882, with first-class honours in the Theological Tripos, and was ordained. After ordination he was a curate at Christ Church, Albany Street, (just down the road from Marylebone Parish Church where the first performance of this score was given).
The Crucifixion was the second libretto Simpson the younger wrote for Stainer while a curate at Albany Street in Marylebone, London. (The musical score was composed by John Stainer, who died in 1901.) The year following publication of The Crucifixion, Simpson left Albany Street in Marylebone where he was a curate and became vicar of St Mark's, Regent’s Park, 1888–1904. In 1904 he became chaplain of Ilford Hospital Chapel until his death in 1952. (Thus, the beginning of the 71st year after the death of W J Sparrow Simpson the younger, the score for The Crucifixion became Public Domain January 2023.)
J.S.Bach lived his entire life in North East Germany. (That is the area where Martin Luther established Lutheranism and which after WW II became part of East Germany.) J.S. Bach died in 1750, and by 1829 in Germany, when Mendelssohn was only 20, J.S. Bach's works had become popularly unknown. That year Felix Mendelssohn mounted a performance of his shortened version of J.S.Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, to great success. (Subsequent performances added back more parts of the Passion getting closer to the original version of J.S.Bach's composition.)
Mendelssohn first visited Britain in 1829, the same year he premiered his revival of the St Matthew's Passion in Germany. He returned to Britain in 1832 for what is called his Grand Tour. He returned a number of times afterward, and on a visit in 1842, Mendelssohn spent an evening at the Palace accompanying the 23-year-old Queen Victoria in songs composed by himself and his sister Fanny. After which, Victoria gave him two themes on which he extemporized.
Mendelssohn continued to be based in Germany, where in 1843 he helped set up the Leipzig Conservatory. (Note. The American hymnist, William Batchelder Bradbury, departed for Europe in July 1847 to study under Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Conservatory. Unfortunately for Bradbury, Mendelssohn died in November that year, age 38. That was shorthly after his sister Fanny died in May 1847.)
Perhaps Mendelssohn's greatest musical success came the year before in 1846, the year before his death. In Birmingham, England he premiered his oratorio Elijah.
He was quite overwhelmed by the warmth and enthusiasm of the audience that night: "No work of mine ever went so admirably at its first performance," he reported, "nor was received with such enthusiasm by both the musicians and the audience alike as this oratorio. No fewer than four choruses and four arias were encored!"
Although he died the following year in 1847, his influence in England held strong throughout the century, exerting a dominate influence on the entire British school of composers. Mendelssohn loved England from the moment he first arrived in London in 1829. His popularity in England contributed to them also embracing Mendelssohn's revival of J.S.Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. As noted above, the first English performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion was in 1854, 7 years after Mendelssohn's death, with Stainer a praticipant singer.
How pervasive Mendelssohn's influence was on the continuing popularity of J.S.Bach's music in England is illustrated by the fact that 66 years after the 1854 first performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion in England, in 1920, Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965) heard a rehearsal by the Bach Choir of London of Bach's Cantata 147. She decided she really liked the last chorus of Part II of that cantata and proceeded to popularize it under the title of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."
Dame Hess began including a piano arrangement of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" as an encore number to her performances. She was persuaded to write down and publish her piano transcription in 1926 for piano solo and in 1934 for two pianos, i.e., a piano duet.
Note. This song is included as song 17 on David Goettee's Hymns and Songs for Living album. See Hymns and Songs Playlist. More history about this song is included in David's History Through 26 Hymns and Songs, which is the companion to the album. The English lyrics to this song were created by the Englishman Lord Robert S. Bridges as a "Very Loose" translation, with much poetic license from the original lyrics by Martin Janus (c. 1620 – c. 1682).
-- End of Accordian Window on J.S.Bach in Britain --
The first performance of The Crucifixion was at Marylebone Parish Church in London, February 24, 1887. The simplicity of the music in The Crucifixion is perhaps an indication of the limited capability of the Marylebone Church choir. After all, many of Stainer's other works display his skill in things like fugue writing, which is usually more demanding for a choir to sing than the homophonic writing here (characterized by the movement of accompanying parts in the same rhythm as the melody). Also to keep performance of this score more managable by churches, Stainer only scored it for organ accompaniment.
Not only was the Crucifixion well received, but it has outlived almost all church choir music from the period. Never an Oratorio, it is a “meditation” designed to form an integral part of a Church of England service.
However, that has not stopped some critics of both the literary quality for the libretto and the musical quality of the composition. Those attacks by some say it is not high quality poetry or composition. (I would not say some Opera librettos would pass that level of criticism either.)
It seems likely the compositions The Crucifixion is being compared to as the basis for those comments are inappropriately, Oratorios, which are designed as concert pieces. They require trained/professional cathedral (or secular) choirs and orchestras.
It is worthwhile understanding, the target/goal for this composition was for performances in church Parishes. Namely, it was explicitly intended as an extended Passiontide (Easter season) "meditation" for ordinary Parish choirs in Britain to perform, and to which their congregations could immediately relate. There was no piece of English church music fitting that goal in England at the time Stainer wrote The Crucifixion.
That goal also seems to explain why Stainer's accompaniment score for The Crucifixion only uses pipe organ. That is because pipe organs were available in almost all parish churches. Using only pipe organ accompaniment for The Crucifixion was in contrast with many orchestrated oratorios, such as: Handel's Judas Maccabaeus (and even the Messiah); and Mendelssohn's Elijah. Those oratorios are essentially concert pieces, requiring more expansive resources of professional soloists, choirs and orchestra.
Stainer's success at meeting his goal of creating a "meditation" performable by parish choirs is clear, as is testified to by the enduring popularity of The Crucifixion as a solid favorite in churches. Its simple melodiousness does nothing to hamper its beauty, and those who dismiss it fail to recognize its (arguably sometimes patchy) worth, which is surely indicated by its seasonal staying power. As a Passiontide meditation it continues to live on, in the role for which it was intended. The Crucifixion's memorable tunes are a hit, and seem to have a continuing future.
Note. The AHS choirs' vintage, historic performance of this work in 1959 is likely a reasonable representation of musical capabilities you might find in larger Church of England parish churches.
The 1959 AHS choir's vintage, historic performances were only 72 years after The Crucifixion was written. Even now, Stainer's setting of the chorus "God so loved the world" continues to be performed as an anthem by many churches in its own right.
Many still enjoy the palpable sense of ritual, which folklore status has given to The Crucifixion. For such reasons, including the character of music and text, even in 2023, 136 years after it was first performed, few towns in England are likely to find themselves in Holy Week without any local performance of Stainer’s The Crucifixion.
For those that consider The Crucifixion to be musically less worthy of attention, it is interesting to note that in addition to the observation that this work is a perennial Holy Week favorite, there have been at least two orchestrations produced for this work since the turn of the 21st century.
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