How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that saith unto Zion ‘Thy God reigneth’.
Sir John Stainer (1840–1901) was one of the most significant figures in the musical life of Victorian England but he has perhaps been unjustly maligned by many writers. The late Dr Arthur Hutchings wrote: ‘Do not let us underestimate Stainer. We ought to have sent most of his church music to be pulped, and let us waste no time in delaying the pulping. And if Stainer’s goes, then let most choir music by his contemporaries and inferiors precede it. Not much is worth saving before the best of Stanford’s.’ This misses an important point: Stainer was neither better nor worse than the best of musicians in any generation; his music is not the product of an inferior composer but that of a man responding to the musical tastes of Victorian England. Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music has had to bear similar verbal lashings. Let us not judge Stainer, then, but rather the musical taste of the Victorians if it does not please our ears today, for the Victorians regarded both Stainer and Sullivan very highly. Dr Peter Charlton, the author of a book on Stainer, has written: ‘Whatever the reactions to his music in his time, he realized that much of it would not last; it was written to serve a need and he made no pretensions to being a great composer.’
Stainer was one of the best organists of his generation and a superb improviser. He helped raise the standard of cathedral music-making and made St Paul’s Cathedral, where he was appointed organist in 1872, a centre for contemporary music.
Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion, a saints’ day anthem, was written in 1871 and is dedicated to the Rev J R G Taylor, Hereford, who may have been the same person to whom Stainer handed over the conductorship of the newly formed Oxford Philharmonic Society in 1866. This extract from that anthem shows that Stainer had flashes of inspiration: the contrapuntal weaving of the beautiful opening line creates a fine effect.