Sir John Stainer (6 June 1840 – 31 March 1901) was an English composer and organist whose music, though not generally much performed today (with the exception of The Crucifixion, still heard at Passiontide in many Protestant churches of the former British Empire), was very popular during his lifetime. His work as choir trainer and organist set standards for Anglican church music which are still influential. He was also active as an academic, becoming professor of music at Oxford. According to Peter Charlton's biography, Sir Arthur Sullivan's tribute to Stainer was blunt and memorable: "He is a genius".
Stainer was born in Southwark, London in 1840, the son of a cabinet maker. He became a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral when aged ten and was appointed to the position of organist at St Michael's College, Tenbury at the age of sixteen. He later became organist at Magdalen College, Oxford and subsequently organist at St Paul's Cathedral. When he retired due to his poor eyesight and deteriorating health, he returned to Oxford to become Professor of Music at Oxford University. He died unexpectedly while on holiday in Italy in 1901.
Early years 
John Stainer was the eighth of nine children born to William Stainer and his wife Ann (née Collier) on 6 June 1840. At least three of the children died in infancy and John was much younger than his brother, William and his three sisters, Ann, Sarah and Mary. The family lived in Southwark, London, where his father was a cabinet maker and later a vestry clerk and registrar of births. He was also an untaught musician and player of the piano, violin and flute. He built a small chamber organ at home on which the precocious John used to accompany him when he played hymn tunes on the violin. His sister Ann also used it, - she was the regular organist at Magdalen Hospital, Streatham. It was a happy family and young John seems to have been spoiled by his elders. He was precocious and could play Bach's Fugue in E major at the age of seven.
In 1849, after a year's probation, Stainer became a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral. He was already an accomplished player on keyboard instruments and possessed perfect pitch and a fine treble voice and soon became the choir's principal soloist. He travelled each day between his home in Streatham and the cathedral by steamboat. The choristers were required to sing for services at 9.30 a.m. and 3.15 p.m. In between these times the choristers were instructed in Latin, arithmetic, writing and other subjects, and Stainer probably received a much better education there than he would have done had he been educated at the local elementary school. A house in the cathedral's present choir school has since been named after him. He received organ lessons at St. Sepulchre's Church, Holborn from George Cooper, assistant organist at St Paul's Cathedral under John Goss. He may have met Arthur Sullivan, his junior by two years, there. At any rate they became friends and undertook activities together on half-holidays. In 1855 he was offered a six month contract as organist at St Benet's, Paul's Wharf. He proved successful and his contract was renewed several times for further six-month terms. As he was still a minor, his salary of £30 per year was paid to his father. During this period, he sometimes deputised for the regular organists, Goss and Cooper, at services in St Paul's Cathedral.
At the age of sixteen, he was appointed by Sir Frederick Ouseley to the post of organist at the newly founded St. Michael's College, Tenbury. At that time Ouseley was professor of music at Oxford University and had recently become vicar of St Michael's College on the outskirts of Tenbury Wells, a choir school with a church that he had founded and endowed and which was intended to serve as a model for Anglican church music. Although not much older than they were, Stainer was in charge of the choir and choristers and one of his duties was to give piano lessons to the boys for two hours a day. Ouseley was an antiquarian and had an extensive library. He was much interested in the history of music and acted as Stainer's mentor. Under his guidance, Stainer became the youngest ever successful candidate for the Bachelor of Music degree at Oxford. For this, Stainer wrote a cantata, "Praise the Lord, O my soul", with text from Psalm 103. Its traditional style was designed to appeal to the examining board and sounds stilted when set against his later works. About this time he wrote several anthems, the most successful of which was "I saw the Lord", a bolder and more original work in a more contemporary style.
Magdalen College 
In 1860 he became organist at Magdalen College, Oxford, initially for a period of six months, at a salary of £120 per year. His duties included playing for services, training the choir and leading them on Fridays, a day on which the organ was not used. A new organ had been installed five years earlier which was ideal for developing his talent. He proved satisfactory in the post and his contract was made permanent. He was permitted to study for a degree as long as it did not interfere with his duties and he chose to do so in the expectation that it would raise his social status. He gained his BA in 1864 and his MA two years later and was keen to proceed to his Mus Doc which would raise his standing within the university.
Unfailingly conscientious as a choirmaster, Stainer introduced new anthems and service music, bringing the choir to a higher level of attainment than it had previously seen. It had been the custom for the adult choir members, the lay clerks, not to attend practice at all; but Stainer had a magnetic personality and persuaded them to come. Their more regular attendance enabled the repertoire to be enlarged. Stainer's skill on the organ was much respected, and he was regarded as "the finest organist Oxford had seen in many generations". The Vice-Chancellor, Dr Francis Jeune, was an admirer, and in 1861, appointed Stainer to the prestigious post of University Organist at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. Here he was expected to play for a service every Sunday (at a later time in the morning than the Magdalen service).
At this time he was composing liturgical music and developing his musical style. There were several anthems and two more technically assured multi-sectioned verse anthems, "Drop down, ye heavens from above" and "They were lovely and pleasant in their lives". His routine included two services daily, rehearsals, lectures, tutorials, attendance at Ouseley's lectures, and visits home to Southwark in the vacations. He must have performed his duties with diligence as his salary was raised by £10 a year and after 1862 he received an allowance towards his rent.
Stainer was also conductor of the Magdalen Madrigal Society which gave concerts in the College Hall and the Magdalen Vagabonds which performed during vacations. This gave concerts in various towns and cities and raised money for church restoration. He wrote some madrigals himself which were published by Novello, a company with which he was to do much future business. He also wrote an oratorio, "Gideon", as the exercise for his Mus Doc, and it was performed in November 1865. It was well received on the day and was sufficient to gain him his doctorate but has not been performed since.
After Stainer had obtained his doctorate, Ouseley enrolled him as an examiner for Oxford musical degrees. In this capacity he met and later became friends with Hubert Parry. Attending at evensong at Magdalen College in 1866, Parry wrote in his diary "Stainer played the last 3 movements of the Sonata in B flat (Mendelssohn) afterwards most gloriously".  He examined William Pole and Frederick Bridge and became involved in organ and music tuition and wider musical activities. He had considerable influence on sacred music in Oxford and his reputation spread beyond the confines of the city. He was employed to play solo organ works at weekly concerts at Crystal Palace and took part regularly in the Three Choirs Festival.
Stainer was interested in the history of music and traditional folk songs. There was a revised interest in carols at the time and he rediscovered old carols, provided new settings for others and introduced contemporary works. Many of his harmonisations are still in use today. He published a volume "Christmas Carols New and Old" which was a considerable success, with thousands of copies sold. He followed this up with another edition the following year to which he persuaded Arthur Sullivan to contribute. He also composed several hymn tunes and some of these are still to be found in Anglican hymnals, with "Love divine, all loves excelling" being popular at wedding services. Other "parish" music followed with a congregational Te Deum in C which was regularly sung at Magdalen on Sundays and a verse anthem "Sing a song of praise". Two more substantial anthems, intended for use in cathedrals, were "Lead kindly light" composed in 1868, followed by "Awake, awake, put on thy strength" in 1871. He also produced two evening canticles and a comprehensive set of music for Morning, Communion and Evening Services. He had also been working for a long time on his first theoretical work, "A Theory of Harmony Founded on the Tempered Scale", and this was published by Novello in 1871.
St Paul's Cathedral 
In 1871, Goss resigned as organist of St Paul's Cathedral and Stainer was appointed to the position early in 1872 at a salary of £400 per annum. By this time he had been married for seven years and had five children with another due shortly. The organ was in the process of being rebuilt, by the organ builder Henry Willis to Stainer's design, with portions on either side of the entrance to the choir stalls. Around this time he was asked to help revise Hymns Ancient & Modern which he did with enthusiasm. At St Paul's, he soon set about reinvigorating the choir. The appointment of vicars choral was for life and the tenor and bass voices saw no need for rehearsal and this meant that the repertoire was static. Stainer was able to change their attitude and new anthems and liturgies were introduced, a choir school built, and the number of choristers increased from twelve to thirty-five. When William Sparrow Simpson was appointed Succentor the raising of standards continued and St Paul's Cathedral became the focus of religious ceremony in the capital; state occasions, ceremonial events, memorial services and the funerals of the great and famous. A peal of twelve bells was installed in 1878.
Further appointments followed. Stainer became an honorary fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1877 and an examiner for the Doctor of Music degree at Cambridge and London Universities. He accepted the post of Musical Director of the Madrigal Society of London. He was particularly honoured to be asked to be a juror at the French Exhibition in Paris in 1878 and in 1880 was an adjudicator at the Welsh Eisteddfod at Caernarvon.
In 1882, Stainer was offered the post of Inspector of Music in Schools and Colleges, a position he took with great seriousness and which he occupied for six years. He worked towards the raising of standards in the teaching of music and toured the country, visiting schools and colleges and examining candidates. He advocated the use of musical notation and tonic sol-fa rather than the learning by ear method previously used. He was by now treated with the greatest respect in musical circles but his many activities diminished the time available for composition. The flow of new anthems and service music slowed down but in 1883 he completed his oratorio Mary Magdalen which was followed in 1887 by The Crucifixion, the work for which he is most remembered.
In 1885, he was awarded an honorary degree by Durham University and he became professor of music at Oxford University in 1889 following the death of Ouseley. He conducted pioneering research into early music, notably the output of Guillaume Dufay, then scarcely known even among experts. He also contributed a small treatise, Harmony, and another, Composition, to the famous series of Novello musical primers. For budding organists he wrote a primer called, simply, The Organ, which continues to have a following. In recognition of his services to British music, he received a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1888.
Following a childhood accident, Stainer had lost the use of one eye. There is some confusion about this and he may merely have had a lazy eye but for a brief period in 1875 he feared he was losing the sight of the other eye. This proved not to be the case but he suffered from eye strain and impairment to his vision for much of his life and this was a major reason for his decision to retire from St Paul's Cathedral in 1888. As Bumpus was to write, "Such honours as are at the disposal of his fellow musicians have been freely showered upon him, for he is universally beloved and esteemed, but his many onerous duties, his organistship of this, his presidency of that, and his incessant hard work as an examiner, have all involved responsibility and constant application, and the result is that his sight and general health have given way under the severe strain of sheer hard work."
In later life, he and his wife took to travelling to the Riviera, Florence or Mentone each year for him to relax and recuperate. It was on such a visit to Italy in 1901 when the couple were in Verona, that on Palm Sunday, 31 March he felt unwell and retired to his room. Later that afternoon he died of a heart attack. He was sixty. His body was taken back to England and his funeral was held on 6 April at St Cross Church, Oxford with a large number of friends and colleagues present.
Lady Stainer was devastated by his death and went into mourning for a year, but as she confided to a friend, the pianist Francesco Berger, "I am thankful he has been spared long illness and the weariness of old age, which he always dreaded". She gave a memorial stained glass window to St Cross Church and arranged for a monument to be erected at Magdalen College. Her husband's valuable library of antiquarian music books passed to his elder son, J F R Stainer, who allowed its use for study and research purposes. It was sold to an American collector in 1932 but on his death in 1973 was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library where it remains. Lady Stainer died in 1916 leaving six children. She is buried at Holy Cross Church beside her husband.
Notable works 
Stainer's output of sacred music was extensive, including the Passion cantata or oratorio The Crucifixion (1887), the Sevenfold Amen (this latter piece especially admired by the lexicographer Sir George Grove), and numerous hymn tunes, including "Cross of Jesus", "All for Jesus" (both from The Crucifixion), and "Love Divine". His evening canticles (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis) are occasionally revived, as are the anthems How beautiful upon the mountains and I saw the Lord.
His work as composer has lost most of its fame since his death. The Crucifixion is one of the few major works of his that is still regularly performed. It is often given in English churches during Holy Week and forms part of the repertoire of numerous choirs. He also made a lasting contribution to the music of Christmas in his Christmas Carols New and Old (1871), produced in collaboration with the Revd. H. R. Bramley, which marked an important stage in the revival of the Christmas carol. The book includes Stainer's arrangements of what were to become the standard versions of "What Child Is This", "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", "Good King Wenceslas", "The First Nowell", and "I Saw Three Ships", among others.
Incomplete list of works 
A list of Stainer's more prominent works is provided below.
- Awake, awake, put on thy strength, O Zion
- Drop down, ye heavens, from above
- God so loved the world (chorus from The Crucifixion)
- Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God
- How beautiful upon the mountains
- I desired wisdom
- I saw the Lord
- Lead kindly light
- What are these that are arrayed in white robes
- The Daughter of Jairus (1878)
- St. Mary Magdalen (1883)
- The Crucifixion (1887)
- Full services in E flat, D/A, B flat and D
- Communion services in A, F and C
- Christmas Carols, New and Old, with Henry Bramley (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., 1871)
- A Theory of Harmony (1871)
- The Present State of Music in England (Oxford, England: Horace Hart, 1889)
- Music in Relation to the Intellect and Emotions (1892)
- The Story of the Cross (1893)
- Dibble, pps. 5–6.
- Bumpus, p. 175.
- Dibble, pps. 11–12.
- Dibble, p. 34.
- Dibble, p. 36.
- Tenbury Wells and the Teme Valley, 2007, p10
- Dibble, p. 42.
- Dibble, p. 52.
- Dibble, pps. 55–62.
- Dibble, pps. 102–104.
- Bumpus, p. 176.
- Dibble, p. 73.
- Dibble, pps. 84–85.
- Dibble, pps. 104–105.
- Dibble, Jeremy (2004). "Parry, Sir (Charles) Hubert Hastings, baronet (1848–1918)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2013-02-14.
- Dibble, pps. 109–115.
- Dibble, pps. 118–119.
- Dibble, pps. 124–129.
- Bumpus, p. 59.
- Dibble, p. 138.
- Dibble, p. 194.
- Dibble, p. 196, 237.
- Dibble, pps. 199–201.
- Dibble, pps. 214–238.
- Bumpus, p. 178.
- Dibble, p. 247.
- Dibble, pps. 108–109.
- Bumpus, p. 180.
- Dibble, p. 308.
- Dibble, pps. 309–310.
- Dearmer, Percy; Vaughan Williams, Ralph; Shaw, Martin (1918). Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0193533154.
- "John Stainer". NetHymnal. 2011. Retrieved 2013-02-14.
- Dibble, Jeremy (2007). John Stainer: A life in music. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 978-184383-297-3.
- Peter Charlton, John Stainer and the musical life of Victorian Britain (Newton Abbot, Devon: David & Charles, 1984)
- H. R. Bramley (ed. words) J. Stainer (ed. music) Christmas Carols, New and Old (London, Novello, 1871)
- The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford University Press, 1928), pp. xvi-xvii.
- Bumpus, John Skelton (1891). The Organists and Composers of St Paul's Cathedral. Bowen, Hudson &. Co.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Sir John Stainer|
- Free scores by John Stainer in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
- Free scores by John Stainer at the International Music Score Library Project
- The Mutopia Project has compositions by John Stainer
- St. Cross Church, Oxford: Sir John Stainer, Composer, Organist & Musicologist
- Listen to a free recording of God so loved the world from Coro Nostro, a mixed chamber choir based in Leicester, UK.
- Lewisham Primary School named after John Stainer
|Organist and Master of the Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral
1872 - 1888
George Clement Martin