Master Musicologist

by Bernard R. DeRemer

Sir John Stainer (1840-1901) attained fame in various areas, including:

• Organist, St. Paul's Cathedral;

• Founder, Oxford Philharmonic Society;

• Vice president, College of Organists;

• Knighted in 1888 by Queen Victoria for his services to music;

• Wrote more than 150 hymn tunes, anthems, cantatas, and oratorios.

Born at Southwark, Surrey, England, John grew up in a musical home (his father was a schoolmaster) which boasted no fewer than five pianos and a chamber organ. This provided the stimulus for his lifelong dedication to music; by age 7 he had mastered Bach's "Fugue in E Major."

After serving in various capacities, Stainer became organist at historic St. Paul's Cathedral in London—where "as a result of his high standards, the choir became a model throughout England." Eventually he would receive several scholastic degrees. He founded the Oxford Philharmonic Society and conducted its first concert.

Stainer became known primarily as a composer of cathedral music. "His services and anthems, most of them written for St. Paul's, were fashionable throughout the Anglican communion and beyond."

During one of his earlier musical posts, as organist at Magdalen College (part of Oxford University), he met and married (in 1865) Eliza Cecil. The couple retained a home in Oxford throughout his tenure at St. Paul's Cathedral. They raised a family of four sons and two daughters.

He was also a noted collector of music, specializing in 18th century songbooks.

His books include:

• A Theory of Harmony;

• A Dictionary of Musical Terms (with W. A. Barrett);

• The Organ;

• Music of the Bible with an Account of the Development of Modern Musical Instruments from Ancient Types;

• Music in Relation to the Intellect and Emotions;

• Dufay and His Contemporaries.

He also co-edited The Dictionary of Musical Terms.

Stainer married Eliza Cecil;

His elder daughter, E. C. Stainer, published A Dictionary of Violin Makers and greatly helped her father in his historical researches. About a dozen of Stainer's hymn tunes have secured an enduring place in church music. For congregational singing in the U.S., perhaps "The First Noel" and "All for Jesus" are most widely known today. This writer considers his magnificent "God So Loved the World" one of the greatest numbers of all time; it is primarily for choral groups.

Don Hustad, of Southern Baptist Seminary (former Music Department director, Moody Bible Institute),  recalled, "I grew up when [Stainer's] "Crucifixion" was one of the staple Passion cantatas. Today it is rarely heard in the U.S., and probably so in England.... He was a fine scholar and very influential in his day, still acknowledged as one of the pioneers in ethnomusicology (the study of the science of musical forms and methods)."

In January, 1901, the now-retired Stainer embarked upon a European holiday with his wife. In Verona, en route to Venice, he was taken ill and died of heart failure on March 31, at age 60. His body was returned to England for burial at St. Cross Church, Holywell, Oxford. The accounts say that so many people wished to pay their respects that additional coaches had to be added to the afternoon train from London to Oxford.

As a contributor to the Musical Times noted about Stainer's funeral, "…the birds sang an appropriate Requiem as the coffin was laid to rest."

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