John Stanley (17121786)



  • Composer
  • Performer
  • Organist

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
June 2023

John Stanley (1712/13–86) was born in London, near Canon Street, the son of a postal worker. At the age of two, he suffered an accident which left him blind. Whether he had any residual sight has not been proved. His subsequent career is a story of triumph over adversity as Stanley became one of the most important musicians in London. After initial lessons with John Reading (ca. 1685/86–1764), Stanley became a pupil of Maurice Greene (1696–1755), the organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Under the latter’s tutelage, Stanley’s progress was swift and he was appointed the organist of All Hallows Bread Street in 1723. A more prestigious position followed in 1726—that of St. Andrew’s, Holborn. In 1734, he was appointed organist to the Society of the Inner Temple. He eventually resigned the position at All Hallows, but retained the other two posts until his death. Although he could not see musical scores, his highly developed musical ear and prodigious memory allowed him to perform any piece after hearing it only once. Thus, Stanley was a member of a long line of blind organists in history that extends from Antonio de Cabezon (1510–66) to Helmut Walcha (1907–91). Although his “blindness excited the pity” of audiences, Charles Burney wrote, Stanley’s performances needed none. “Few professor have spent a more active life in every branch of his art, than this extraordinary musician; having been not only a most neat, pleasing, and accurate performer, but a natural and agreeable composer, and an intelligent instructor” (General History of Music, vol. 3, 1776).

In addition to being much in demand as a teacher, Stanley was also a professional violinist who played solos and led orchestras from the position of first violin. The term conductor was sometimes applied to this position, as did Charles Burney when he wrote that Stanley “was the conductor and soul of the Swan and Castle concerts in the city, as long as they subsisted” (General History of Music, vol. 3, 1776). Burney’s reference is to the concert series given at The Swan tavern in Cornhill and The Castle tavern in Paternoster Row. Stanley owned two valuable violins which he used in these concerts. Sadly, both were lost when The Swan tavern burned in 1748. After Handel (1685–1759) lost his eyesight and could no longer lead his Lenten oratorios at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Stanley was recommended to take to take his place. Handel is alleged to have burst out laughing and said, “Mr. Sharpe, have you never read the Scriptures? do you not remember, if the blind lead the blind, they will both fall into the ditch?” (William Coxe, Anecdotes of G.F. Handel and J.C. Smith, 1799). Handel preferred to entrust his oratorios to John Christopher Smith (1712–95), but it was Stanley to whom Smith turned for assistance following the death of Handel. The oratorios moved to the Drury Lane theatre in 1770; following Smith’s retirement in 1776, Stanley presented oratorios in the latter location in conjunction with the elder Thomas Linley (1733–95). Stanley continued in this partnership until 1785. Following the death of William Boyce (1711–79), Stanley was appointed master of his Majesty’s band. This was one of the highest honours given to a British musician. In this position, Stanley produced fifteen odes for birthdays and celebrations attendant to the New Year for the royal family. Sadly, the music for most of these is lost.

Stanley demonstrated compositional prowess at an early age. While still a teenager in 1729, he presented his graduation exercise to the University of Oxford, an ode called The Power of Musick. He then became the youngest person to graduate with a BMus degree. Stanley obviously thought highly of his overture to the ode because he used a slightly modified version of it in his last major work, an oratorio from 1774 called The Fall of Egypt. A compositional career of half a century reveals how Stanley reacted to the stylistic changes that evolved in eighteenth-century music. His early music was influenced by the traditions of the late Baroque, and Handel in particular. His later music demonstrates the influence of the Rococo and the emerging early classical styles.

While Stanley wrote much vocal music, there is not much intended for sacred use beyond a small collection of hymns and anthems. In the area of secular vocal cantatas, however, Stanley’s output is far more significant. Three collections of secular cantatas were published (Op. 3:1742, Op. 8: 1748 and Op. 9: 1751), as well as a single cantata called The Redbreast in 1784. The cantatas in the three collections are all set to pastoral poetry by Sir John Hawkins (1719–89), a potential liability for their use in modern times. The poetic conventions did not hinder Stanley’s creativity, however, and the cantata settings are graceful and melodious. The collection from 1742 shows its Baroque influences with two thirds of the arias being cast in da capo forms where the opening section is repeated and ornamented. This aria design had dominated Italian operas and cantatas from the end of the seventeenth century and was commonly found in the earliest English cantatas. As musical styles changed in the mid-eighteenth century, interest in the da capo design declined. Stanley was acutely aware of this shift, with the result that not a single da capo aria can be found in Stanley’s second set of six cantatas, published in 1748.

Given Stanley’s acclaim as an organist, it is not surprising that he composed for his own instrument. These compositions took the form of organ voluntaries which Stanley published in three sets, each containing ten works (Op. 5: 1748, Op. 6: 1752 and Op. 7: 1754).[1] They were designed to display the various divisions of the organ, especially diapasons and the contrasting sounds of the cornet and trumpet. Not only were these pieces of great utility for church services, they could also be played at home on a harpsichord, there being no written pedal parts. All but five of the voluntaries are in two movements, the remainder in three or four. Although published in mid-century, Barry Cooper has shown the music was actually composed as early as 1732, although Stanley did revise some of the music prior to publication. Cooper writes that “their popularity was unrivalled in their day, and Stanley is regarded as the greatest English organ composer of the eighteenth century” (“New Light on John Stanley's Organ Music,” PRMA, 1974–75).

Stanley’s other published music includes Eight Solo’s for a German flute, Violin or Harpsichord (Op. 1: 1740). While these pieces could be played as keyboard solos, they make a greater impact when performed by a treble instrument and basso continuo. Two years later, Stanley published his Six Concertos in Seven Parts (Op. 2: 1742), a collection of concerti grossi in the manner of Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) and Handel.[2] These are some of the most successful British concerti grossi; self-published at first, the collection was soon taken over by the London publisher John Walsh who reissued it several times. There are prominent keyboard passages in these works, presumably played on the organ when Stanley performed the music. The concerto grosso form enjoyed a continued popularity in Britain, long after it had diminished in importance on the Continent. The reason for this is that the amateur music societies outside of London found these works easier to perform than the more complex orchestral music emanating out of the German-speaking realms.

In 1775, Stanley published his Six Concertos for the Organ, Harpsichord, or Forte Piano (Op. 10).[3] The published short score indicates parts for two violins and bass, but the string parts need to be realized before performances can be attempted. The mention of harpsichord and the very up-to-date fortepiano in the title demonstrates that Stanley hoped that these concerti would have utility in a variety of settings. Once again, while the publication date is late in the composer’s life, the music appears to have been compiled from existing sources, some from much earlier in his career. The first two concerti are in two movements and show the influence of Handel, whose organ concerti would have been well known to Stanley. The third concerto is a version for keyboard of the sixth concerto grosso from 1742. The later works in the collection are longer and look forward to the music of C.P.E. Bach (1714–86) and even Josef Haydn (1732–1809).

Although Stanley’s music is not remembered today with the same appreciation as that by Handel, it was much admired by his contemporaries, including Handel, leaving some critics to believe that Stanley’s s place in the history of British music needs to be re-evaluated. As Gerald Finzi noted, “In his active and productive life of seventy-three years he left behind enough works in almost every sphere (except, perhaps, that of Church music) to ensure him a far more important place in the history of our music than he had hitherto been allowed” (“John Stanley (1713–1786),” Tempo, No. 27, 1953).

[1] There have been numerous recordings of individual voluntaries. The complete set was recorded by Margaret Phillips: Regent REGD 190.

[2] Recorded by Roy Goodman and the Parley of Instruments: Hyperion CDA 6638.

[3] Recorded by Gerald Gifford and Northern Sinfonia: CRD 3365.