was composed in 1886-87 and first performed in St Marylebone Parish Church on Good Friday 1887. The work’s dedicatee, William Hodge was a pupil and friend of the composer and, aside from being the assistant sub-organist at St Paul’s was also the organist at St Marylebone (The church has kept up a fine tradition of performing the oratorio on every Good Friday since the premiere). Scored for tenor and bass soloists, choir and organ, Stainer conceived The Crucifixion
as ‘A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer’, a work that would not be too taxing for the average village choir and which might also immediately engage an audience. Given its immense popularity, Stainer obviously succeeded in the latter. As to the forces: while the choir parts are more than manageable for a decent amateur choir, the organist has to be more than competent, and the singers, who carry most of the narrative, need to be quite exceptional amateurs and preferably professionals. The structure of The Crucifixion
is inspired by J.S. Bach, the scheme of arias recitatives, choruses and chorales (hymns) reflecting that of the St John and St Matthew Passions. Unlike the passions, however, there is no orchestra to provide light and shade to accompaniments and add piquancy or punch to the drama. It is testament to Stainer’s economy of scale and his deft organ writing that we are barely aware of a solitary instrument accompanying the choir and soloists. Central to the work’s structure and impact are the five hymns which are interspersed throughout the oratorio. These are intended for congregational participation and are as key to the work’s success as even the most lyrical passages for the solo voices or organ. The congregation is invited to stand for these hymns and so directly take part in a communal celebration at this crucial point in the liturgical year. While the first performance was a success, the libretto, by the Reverend William Sparrow-Simpson would soon attract ferocious criticism and the music has also been vilified down the years. It is true that there are some cloying sentimental passages by Sparrow-Simpson and perhaps, at times, an excess of High Victorian piety from Stainer, too—the ‘Fling wide the gates’ chorus has taken many a critical bashing—but there are many more passages of real beauty and invigorating drama. The Crucifixion
can still bat with the best of them every season, its many performances and broadcasts every year at Passiontide gladly attended and participated in with great British gusto.
from notes by M Ross © 2008