On Stainer and Maunder…

January 6th, 2017

www.phillipcooke.comOne of the unexpected joys (and I use that word with some trepidation here) of my summer vacation this year was wading my way through my Grandmother’s hoard of aging choral music, much of it dog-eared and buried deep in various antique bits of furniture – in fact I should qualify this by noting that much of the music was her mother and father’s, so music that was being performed regularly in the 1920s and 30s. That’s not to say it was music written in the 20s and 30s (so no Vaughan Williams and Holst) but music that was still being performed with some regularity in the provinces, particularly in County Durham where my paternal family hail from. Many of the scores bore testament to concerts by long-defunct choral societies and light opera groups and to no-doubt wonderful evenings of amateur music making and revelry in the concert halls and parish churches of Barnard Castle, Darlington and Bishop Auckland. It was like researching a family tree, but through the medium of long-forgotten cantatas and curious operetta – I loved it.

Many of the scores were copies of The Messiah, each showing differing amounts of wear and tear – some covered in brown paper to preserve a much-loved and performed copy. There were copies of Elijah and The Creation and various other pot-boilers that have long been the staple of choral societies country-wide. There was no Elgar (which was a surprise) – The Dream of Gerontius was either too big, too modern or too Catholic to have made its way that far north – and certainly nothing more modern (a rogue piano copy of The Beatles’ Lady Madonna suggested a failed attempt to get my father to play the piano). What was there was a myriad of cantatas and oratorios by a host of now largely forgotten British composers who were plying their trade in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – I played through them all, and revelled in my time travel and commune with my forefathers (both familial and compositional).

Nicholas Kilburn’s Babylon, Michael Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl, Alfred Gaul’s The Holy City and Frederic Cowen’s Rose Maiden were a quartet of favourites all since long departed from concert programmes, but evidently quite performable in the 1920s. My particular favourite was Fred W. Peace’s Nature’s Guerdon (who knows what a ‘guerdon’ is…) – I could find no information about this piece, though it was published by the Peace Brothers Music Publishers of Ravensthorpe, Yorkshire, so the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree with that one. Unfortunately, despite much hunting, I couldn’t find a copy of George Tolhurst’s Ruth, generally considered to be one of the worst pieces of music ever committed to print. What I did find amongst this fragrant (and I mean that in the literal and figurative senses) collection of Victoriana was two works that kept appearing in multiple copies: John Stainer’s The Crucifixion and John Henry Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary.

Much has been written about The Crucifixion and the place it holds in British choral life, it is really a ‘love it or loathe’ it sort of work, though I’m not sure if anyone actually ‘loves’ the piece, rather perversely looks forward to encountering it once a year, like one might a maiden aunt or a friend of your parents. The work is a by-word for amateur music making of the sort that has largely disappeared and at one time would have been a lingua franca across the British Isles. It was designed for performance by the parish church choir and is wholly the preserve of such, rarely moving to the cathedral or the professional concert hall. It divides the musical world in certain areas: constantly sneered at by critics and professionals, admired by those who respect the intention and the rhetoric of the work. The mid-twentieth century musicologist Erik Routley was not particularly fond of it, in a chapter entitled ‘Bad Music’ in his 1964 book Church Music and Theology he goes to great length to dismiss the piece before finishing, ‘I feel, then, that it is fair to say (a) that the music of this work is second-rate; (b) that its libretto is profane and unpleasant…; (c) that the worst thing about it is what it has done to people.’ No holding back there. He echoes another church music critic, Edmund Fellowes from a generation earlier who referred to the piece as ‘a work for which no musician can honestly find a word of praise’ in his 1941 book English Cathedral Music. Even Stainer is purported to have called the work ‘utter rubbish’.

Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary is tarred with the same brush, as you might expect from a work that is so obviously modelled on The Crucifixion – Routley snipes ‘[Olivet to Calvary] is less unfortunate in the words and more so in its music’. It was written in 1904, nearly 20 years after the 1887 premiere of The Crucifixion, but is hugely indebted to the earlier work and the same sense of amateur, congregational music making is prevalent. In the 1955 edition of the Oxford Companion to Music Percy Scholes enforces the provincialism of the work (whilst giving Maunder a good kick), stating ‘Olivet to Calvary has long enjoyed popularity, and still aids the devotions of undemanding congregations in less sophisticated areas.’ People change, society changes, tastes change but critics have always despised these two works.

From playing through these works for the past five weeks I can readily agree with Routley, Fellowes and Scholes – there is little to redeem these works to our post-Christian obedience ways and dissonance emancipated ears…or so I thought! Yes, both are incredibly twee, archaic and, well, amateurish (and not in a good way), though there is something redeemable in both, even if it is often intangible. There is something fastidious and buttoned-up about them (as you would imagine from Victorians) and this continues right down to the harmony – it is so prosaic and regimented: phrase, phrase, diminished seventh, repeat. There is such a restricted harmonic vocabulary that you are left longing for a major seventh or a minor sixth, but there is something quite astonishing at the ‘tautness’ (particularly in the Maunder) of the harmony how the very restrictedness actually binds the whole work together – as a purely technical exercise, I was quietly impressed. And at its very core, I like the idea of writing a work that is written specifically for parish church use, I think that is an admirable cause, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be done in such banal way.

So there you go, that was my holiday. I’m intrigued to see that Maunder wrote two operas, the second of which was called Daisy Dingle, maybe I’ll bookmark that one for Christmas.


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