I checked and it seems I have performed John Stainer’s oratorio “The Crucifixion” with the choir here at St Thomas Becket in Hamburg four times already (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014). (We have to ask Jochim, organist in this parish for over 50 years, when it was done before I started working here!) In 2015 we performed a cantata on “Forty days and forty nights” which I composed. In 2016 we performed West Gallery Anthems interspersed in the reading of the Passion story.
Some people love Stainer’s “The Crucifixion”. It is quite popular. In other circles it is being ridiculed. To be honest I am always anxious when it’s on our programme. And after these years I cannot even say why I feel quite ambiguous about this piece.
It is a good composition. It is beautiful music. It is fun to sing. It’s manageable for parish choirs. It has its effects. It is also deeply spiritual: In the centre of the piece John Stainer placed the a capella anthem “God so loved the world”. After that central piece all the so called “Seven last words of Christ” are rendered by the mens’ choir. So Stainer clearly has highlighted – with a shimmering light like that of a Turner painting – what he considered to be the message of that story of broken trust, violence, suffering and death: That God loves this world.
So what exactly are my questions here?
Or are there just random personal issues triggered by performing Stainer’s “The Crucifixion”? We were not always lucky with the same bass soloists calling off his gig two years in a row. One year I thought the choir was behaving somewhat cocky never showing up to rehearsals and telling me everything would be just fine.
Well I guess my questions here are: Is this the right music to tell the story? (It certainly was the right music in 1887 one day after Ash Wednesday at St Marylebone Parish Church.) Is this the right music to tell the story today? What is the music saying about the suffering servant? What kind of reactions towards suffering in general does this piece present us with?
There was a telling moment at our last rehearsal when it suddenly became clear to me how Victorian this piece is. It’s on page 19 in the score: In the “Procession to Calvary” the choir addresses Christ saying “Then on to the end, my God and my Friend, / With Thy banner lifted high!” They do this two times, first in a minor, then in major key. First piano (soft), then forte (strong). There is no other link than strong chords by the organ between that soft mourning chant to the pompous march. Mourning turns to being confident of victory just like that. I am baffled by this change of mood without any process and development. Forgive me, but could that perhaps be compared to the oblivious naivete of young soldiers marching into wars?
So while presenting us with the story of a man whose life and death was about the kingdom “not of this world” Stainer’s “The Crucifixion” is also very much music from an old empire. One shouldn’t deny the Victorian aura of this piece. So today in 2017 this piece from the old empire meets the world of Brexit. And isn’t that just an interesting match?
We shouldn’t worry too much about these questions though. The choir just sounded so, so good at our last rehearsal – and speaking about our musical performance I think we know what we’re doing. That’s what we are going to offer on Palm Sunday evening. Everything else has to happen in the silence between the music.