Monday, October 29, 2007

John Stainer

John Stainer (1840-1901) was a noted English organist, choir director, hymnal editor, professor of music, and author. He served as organist at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, Magdalen College at Oxford and the University itself, among other places. He wrote treatises on music theory and history, cantatas and gorgeous choral works, and numerous hymn tunes; and like Barnby, he was knighted in honor of his accomplishments. I have sung, conducted, and loved several of Stainer's choral masterpieces, such as "How beautiful upon the mountains" and "The Lord bless you and keep you." And I have experienced the warmth and dignity of many of his hymn tunes.

Like Barnby, Stainer tended to write melodies that are best appreciated against their harmonic background. Unlike Barnby, in my opinion, Stainer never stooped to maudlin effect. His music appeals to the emotions, but not in an obvious way; they appeal through simple, direct, objective beauty, honest craftmanship, and humble worshipfulness. In short, Stainer was a Romantic composer who did it right. Here are the tunes by Stainer that I have noticed so far in my study of Anglophone Lutheran hymn-books:

Blessed Home
This tune goes with Sir Henry Baker's hymn "There is a blessed home." Having said what I said in my Barnby post about pietism and the emphasis on the paradise to come, I think Baker's text has more going for it than sentimental wallowing in the hope of future joys. It is a hymn that emphasizes the objective facts on which we can rely for our future hope: "To see the Lamb who died, And count each sacred wound In hands, and feet, and side..." And it is a hymn that urges Christians to be patient the meanwhile, "Nor fear to tread below The path your Savior trod Of daily toil and woe: Wait but a little while..." Stainer's tune is a marvel of tightly-written, ear-catching, learnable, singable melody, with noble-sounding strains that only briefly stray into the sound-world of light opera. (Ah! Just wait till I get to the hymn tunes of Arthur Sullivan!)

I found this tune paired with the hymn "The God of Abraham praise." It does have the right kind of pomp-and-circumstance for that hymn, which has more recently become associated with the Hebrew tune Yigdal. As with all of Stainer's tunes, it is well-constructed, learnable, singable, etc. Unfortunately, its melodramatic streak throws an even brighter light-opera spotlight on it than the previous tune. Also, it comes off as just a bit derivative, due to superficial similarities to a couple of hymn tunes written a few years earlier, and of which Stainer may have been aware: Gauntlett's Ascension Tide and Adcock's Derwent. So it's not a bad tune, but neither is it Stainer's best or most original work.

Cross of Jesus
In the earlier parts of the 20th century, this tune found its way into Lutheran hymn-books in conjunction with the hymn "In the cross of Christ I glory." Only more recently has it been joined by the text it was written for: "Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow." The former text (more widely paired with Ithamar Conkey's tune Rathbun) views the cross as an impersonal, abstract entity, conjuring vaguely-described benefits for the individual. The latter hymn is more Christ-centered, focusing on Jesus's sacrificial suffering and death for the whole world. I would sooner see Stainer's gorgeous, touching music associated with the hymn for which it was named; which is even now beginning to happen in many Lutheran churches.

Crux Salutifera
One of the books I have studied put the Lenten litany-hymn "Savior, when in dust to Thee" to this tune. Personally I think it is pointless to look further than Spanish Chant or Joseph Parry's Abersystwyth for this hymn's tune. On the other hand, Stainer's tune is so beautiful, so powerful, so excellently made, that it would be a shame not to revive it. If we cannot find an appropriate hymn text in need of such a wonderful tune, it would be worthwhile to write a hymn to suit it!

Evening Prayer
Both this tune and the same-named tune by George C. Stebbins would fit the words of the hymn "Savior, breathe an evening blessing." Perhaps, outside of Lutheran hymn-books, they do just that; but in Lutheran circles, it is the Stebbins tune that gets that honor. Stainer's Evening Prayer, instead, has been persistently paired with "Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me." Very appropriately, this text is an evening prayer, suitable for children. Also appropriately, Stainer's music is simple, childlike, tender, and supported by poignant harmony. It should be a welcome addition to any collection of hymns for the young.

A twilight glow hangs around this gentle, prayerful composition, which I found paired with the text "The sun declines o'er land and sea." And a fine composition it is; it simply isn't a hymn tune for corporate singing. Like a delicate piece of stained glass, it should be preserved, recorded, remembered as an artistic treasure of the church, and performed to the congregation - but will most likely never be performed by the congregation.

In memoriam
An Australian Lutheran hymnal pairs this tune with a children's hymn for children's funerals, "There's a friend for little children." The book declares that this hymn is "for the young," but I find it is rather for the birds. Syrupy, insipid, exploitative, the hymn sets out to make heaven sound like a fairy tale. I feel badly for Stainer, for at least his tune is better than the one more generally associated with this hymn - Samuel Smith's Edengrove, which is all that I said about the text and more. Nevertheless, I care less for In memoriam than for most other tunes by Stainer. Perhaps it is the deadly 6/8 metre that finally ruins it for me.

I found this tune, also known as Oxford, paired with the text "God is love; His mercy brightens" - a hymn by John Bowring that meditates on the mystery that "God is wisdom, God is love." Stainer's tune has a winsome simplicity, combined with that subtle artistry that makes it seem more than the sum of its parts. Sweet, tender, even pleading in its appeal, it wants only to be transposed to a lower key and it will be road-ready for a whole range of hymns in the 8787 metre.

All the Anglophone Missouri Synod hymnals, and the more recent WELS and ELS books that I daresay have been influenced by the Missouri Synod, set Edward Mote's hymn "My hope is built on nothing less" to this profoundly moving tune, also called Rest. It is hard not to love this hymn, which meditates on God's all-sufficient grace in Christ as the "solid rock" for faith. The tune's dramatic arch and rich harmony contribute much to the power of this hymn - so much that we are willing to overlook the weaknesses of the text ("My anchor holds within the veil"???). It is not, however, the only hymn I have found paired with this tune; other texts include "The saints of God, their conflict past" and "The hidden love of God, whose height."

One early-twentieth-century Lutheran hymnal used this tune four times; another used it on two of the same hymns. The texts were: "Come unto Me, ye weary"; "I could not do without Thee"; "Light of the Gentile nations"; and "O Father, all-creating." I can understand why, at one time, this tune was so well-loved. It is a fine, Romantic melody, almost like an alma mater, and shows Stainer's musicianship to noble effect. Unfortunately, like Gloaming, it simply isn't geared for congregational singing. From the fact that it hasn't been published in a Lutheran hymnal since 1930, I gather that the consensus is with me on this.

Sturdy, graceful, rich, and colorful, this little Romantic gem has been paired with Richard H. Robinson's hymn "Holy Father, cheer our way." The latter is a compact little prayer for "light at evening time" - both the present evening and the final dusk of old age and death. I think the concluding doxology is worth quoting: "Holy, Blessed Trinity, Darkness is not dark to Thee; Those Thou keepest always see Light at evening time." I am very impressed by this hymn, both words and music; for it expresses something familiar and close to the everyone's heart, in terms at once simple and unusual.

Jacques Bridaine's hymn, which in Thomas B. Pollock's translation begins "My Lord, my Master, at Thy feet adoring," is a moving reflection on the Passion of Christ, and well worth knowing. Stainer's musical setting all but gushes with passion, its opening and closing tonality of E-flat darkening toward C minor through most of the tune. But this is, alas, another fine composition that is simply not suited for parish hymn-singing. The Common Service Book actually stipulates that the third phrase be sung in unison over organ accompaniment, and the final phrase is marked "voices in harmony." The music also includes cresc., dim., and rall. markings. All these clues suggest that a choir, or perhaps solo quartet, is the intended medium for performing this piece.

Conclusion: While every bit the Romantic composer Barnby was, Stainer produced church music that emphasizes a more objective, Christ-centered spirituality, as opposed to the Arminianism and sentimental pietism that so often causes Romantic hymns to clash with Lutheranism. With a few reservations, I commend the hymn tunes of John Stainer to the choirs and congregations of the Anglophone Lutheran church.

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