Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Stainer, John
STAINER, Sir JOHN (1840–1901), organist and composer, born on' 6 June 1840, at 2 Broadway, Southwark, was younger son (in a family of six children) of William Stainer, schoolmaster of the parish school at St. Thomas's, Southwark, by his wife Ann Collier, who was descended from an old Huguenot family settled in Spitalfields. The father was much devoted to music, and possessed amongst other musical instruments a chamber organ. The elder son. Dr. William Stainer, died in 1898, after a life devoted to the care of the deaf and dumb. The eldest daughter, Anne Stainer (b. 1825), who was unmarried and is still living (1912), held from 1849 to 1899 the post of organist of the Magdalen Hospital Chapel, Streatham, and during all the fifty years she never missed a single service.
John was indebted to his father for his first music lessons, and for his bias towards the organ. Although he was deprived of the sight of the left eye by an accident when he was five years old, his progress was unimpeded. At the age of seven he could play Bach's Fugue in E major. Early in 1848 he became a probationer in the choir of St. Paul's Cathedral, and on 24 June 1849 he was formally admitted as a full chorister. Under William Bayley, the choirmaster, he studied harmony from the book written by the cathedral organist, (Sir) John Goss [q. v.]. He sang at the funeral of J. M. W. Turner (1851) and of the Duke of Wellington (1852). He possessed a beautiful voice and exceptional ability as a singer, whUe his manner and personality endeared him to his associates.
In 1854 he was appointed organist of St. Benedict and St. Peter, Paul's Wharf. He had a remarkable facility in extemporising on the organ, in the manner of Bach. About this time he had lessons in organ playing from George Cooper, at St. Sepulchre's church. In 1856 Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley [q. v.] came to an afternoon service at St. Paul's and found Stainer deputising at the organ. He was so struck with the youth's ability that he offered him the post of organist at St. Michael's, Tenbury, then; as now, a centre for the study of ecclesiastical music. In 1857 Stainer was settled at Tenbury. He used to ascribe much of his ultimate success as a church musician to his two years' experience here under Ouseley.
Matriculating at Christ Church, Oxford, on 26 May 1859, he proceeded B.Mus. there on 10 June following, whilst he was still at Tenbury. In July 1860 he was appointed organist of Magdalen College, Oxford, and next year became organist to the university. He then went into residence at St. Edmund Hall, in order to read for an arts degree, and he graduated B.A. in 1864. On 9 Nov. 1865 he passed his examination for the degree of doctor of music, the oratorio 'Gideon' being his degree exercise. In 1866 he proceeded M.A., and was appointed a university examiner in music. In this capacity he examined (Sir) Hubert Parry for his bachelor, of music degree. He founded the Oxford Philharmonic Society, and conducted its first concert on 8 June 1866.
The supreme opportunity of his life occurred when in 1872 he became organist at St. Paul's Cathedral. At this period the service music at St. Paul's had drifted into an unsatisfactory condition. Stainer brought to its reform great tact in administration and exceptional musical ability, and the cathedral soon acquired a worldwide reputation for the beauty and reverence of its service music, and for Stainer's masterly organ playing. During his career at St. Paul's he found time for music composition and other exacting work. He was organist to the Royal Choral Society from 1873 until 1888. He was one of the chief founders of the Musical Association, which was established in 1874. In 1876 he became professor of the organ at the new National Training School for Music, and in 1881 he succeeded (Sir) Arthur Sullivan [q. v. Suppl. I] as principal. He was a juror at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, and for his services was created a chevalier of the Legion of Honour in France. In 1882 he was appointed government inspector of music in the training colleges for elementary school teachers in Great Britain. In spite of the blindness of one eye, his sight long bore the strain of music reading and writing without any sign of weakness. But in 1888 he was warned that it was in danger, and he resigned the organistship of St. Paul's and other professional appointments. On 10 July he was knighted by Queen Victoria. In 1889 he succeeded Sir Frederick Ouseley as professor of music in the University of Oxford, and he retained this post until 1899. The last important position he occupied in the musical world was the mastership of the Musicians' Company, which he accepted in 1900.
Among Stainer's other distinctions were honorary fellowships of Magdalen College, Oxford, and of St. Michael's College, Tenbury. At Durham he was made hon. Mus.D. (1858) and hon. D.C.L. (1895). He was also member or officer of the chief musical societies, being vice-president of the Royal College of Organists ; president of the Plain Song and Mediæval Music Society ; president of the London Gregorian Association ; president of the Musical Association. He died suddenly at Verona on 31 March 1901, and was buried at Holywell cemetery, Oxford.
On 27 Dec. 1865 he married Eliza Cecil, only daughter of Alderman Randall of Oxford. She survived him with four sons and two daughters. His elder daughter. Miss E. C. Stainer, published a 'Dictionary of Violin Makers' in 1896, and she greatly assisted her father in his historical inquiries. His chief compositions were the following oratorios and sacred cantatas : 'Gideon' (his exercise for the degree of doctor of music), 1865 ; 'The Daughter of Jairua ' (Worcester Festival, 1878) ; 'St. Mary Magdalen' (Gloucester Festival, 1887) ; 'Crucifixion' (first performed at St. Marylebone church. 24 Feb. 1887) ; ' The Story of the Cross' (1893), and about forty anthems, the best known of which are : 'I am Alpha and Omega' ; 'Lead, kindly Light ' ; 'What are these arrayed in white robes' ; 'Ye shall dwell in the land' ; 'Sing a song of praise' ; 'O clap your hands.' Stainer himself considered 'I saw the Lord' (eight parts) his most important effort in this form.
Other contributions to ecclesiastical music were services : No. 1 in E flat, No. 2 in A and D, and No. 3 in B flat. A sevenfold Amen has been in constant use throughout the world in the service of the Church. It was used at the coronation of King Edward VII and King George V.
He composed over 150 hymn tunes, many of which were contributed to 'Hymns, Ancient and Modern,' and to other hymnals. The whole collection was published in one volume in 1900 (Novello & Co.). Compositions for the organ are contained in 'Twelve Pieces' (two books), a 'Jubilant March,' 'The Village Organist' (of which he was for some time joint editor), and five numbers of organ arrangements.
His chief works in the category of secular music were a few madrigals and part songs, a book of seven songs, and another book of six Italian songs.
Of his twenty-nine Oxford professorial lectures only one, 'Music in relation to the Intellect and Emotions.' was published (1892). He edited with Rev. H. R. Bramley 'Christmas Carols, New and Old' (1884), and he wrote numerous articles for the 'Dictionary of Musical Terms,' which he compiled with W. A. Barrett (1876). Six essays read before the Musical Association are published in their 'Proceedings' (1874-1901), the first 'On the Principles of Musical Notation,' and the last 'On the Musical Introductions found in Certain Musical Psalters.'
'A Theory of Harmony' (1871) attracted much attention, from the boldness and unconventionality of its treatment. 'Music of the Bible,' a book displaying much knowledge and research, was published in 1879.
His most important contribution to musical history is the volume entitled 'Dufay and his Contemporaries' (1899), in which the evolution of harmony and counterpoint during a somewhat obscure period (the fifteenth century) is traced with great erudition. Another work devoted to early musical history was that on ’Early Bodleian Music' (2 vols. 1902). This was completed just before his death. He was the first editor of Novello's 'Music Primers,' and for this series he wrote his primers on the 'Organ' and 'Harmony,' which have had an immense sale, and others on 'Counterpoint,' and 'Choral Society Vocalisation.' He also edited the 'Church Hymnary' for the united Scotch churches. Stainer gathered a unique collection of old song books, especially of those published during the eighteenth century. In 1891 a catalogue enumerating about 750 volumes of this portion of his library was printed for private circulation. The whole collection of books is now (1912) in the possession of his eldest son.
A portrait of Stainer was painted by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, and is now in the possession of Lady Stainer, at her residence in Oxford. A replica is in the Music School, Oxford. A memorial window was placed in Holywell church in 1902 (reproduced in Musical Times, May 1902). A memorial marble panel was placed in St. Paul's Cathedral on the eastern wall of the north transept in December 1903. A mural tablet of brass is placed on the west wall of the ante-chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford, and another at St. Michael's, Tenbury.
Stainer' s sacred music has enjoyed great vogue, greater probably than that of any other English church musician. It is distinguished by melodiousness, and the harmonic texture is rich, and it is often deeply expressive. Stainer began his career as a composer at a period when the influence of Mendelssohn was great, and that of Spohr only less so. The style of both composers can be traced in the idiom adopted by Stainer, but there was also much that was individual. His knowledge of Bach's music, and his intimate acquaintance with that of the early English school of cathedral composers and the madrigal writers, were also formative influences,
[Personal knowledge ; Musical Times, May 1901 ; Grove's Dictionary ; private information.]