"Father of modern hymns" - John Stainer Archive acquired by Durham University

By Culture24 Staff | 11 March 2010
a photograph of the frontispiece of an open book with a dedication written into it

(Above) Stainer's first edition of his collected hymns, dedicated to his wife. Courtesy Durham University Archives

The archive of John Stainer, the man whose influence can still be heard in churches and cathedrals up and down the country, is to be made publicly available after it was donated to Durham University by his descendants.

Credited with transforming dreary church music of the 19th century, Stainer composed the Easter music The Crucifixion, and the classic hymn Love Divine, which still used in marriage services across the world.

The rich archive includes these and other world-famous hymns, compositions and arrangements together with historical documents, manuscripts, paintings, letters and photographs.

a sepia photograph of man in jacket and waistcoat leaning on a chair thoughtfully

Stainer pictured in 1872. Courtesy Durham University Archives

An organist and conductor, Stainer reformed church choirs. Arriving at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1872 he tripled the size of the choir from 12 boys and six men to 36 boys and 18 men.

According to Durham University Professor Jeremy Dibble, the author of a book on Stainer, the archive “represents a major part of our national musical heritage”.

“John Stainer radically reformed church music in England,” he explained. “He helped transform church and cathedral choirs from being often dreary, dreadful and undisciplined, particularly at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and turned choral singing into a brilliant art form.

“The Crucifixion is still a highlight of many church services at Easter and his arrangements of carols such as The First Nowell are national treasures.”

a page from a book showing the music and words of a hymn

The words and music for Stainer's arrangement of Love Divine. Courtesy Durham University Archives.

As well as authoring and arranging hymns and carols now regarded as national treasures, Stainer was hugely admired by his contemporaries – during his time at St Paul’s thousands of people flocked to hear performances conducted by him and his playing.

His musical arrangements of Christmas Carols soon became the standard versions of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The First Nowell, Good King Wenceslas and I Saw Three Ships.

The donation by the Stainer family means that Durham now holds the definitive Stainer archive globally.

a black and white photograph of an elderly man in a frock coat sat on a chair

Stainer pictured in later life. Courtesy Durham University Archives

John Stainer’s grandson, John Ranald Stainer OBE, said he was “delighted” the material will now go to Durham University, which he hailed as “specialists in the music of my grandfather’s period.”

The archive will be publicly available for scholars to study and a public exhibition is also planned in time for the 170th anniversary of his birth in June 2010. There are also plans to digitise some of the resources and make them available for study online.

To recognise the donation, Durham University is holding a celebration of John Stainer and his music at a reception for invited guests on Thursday March 11.

Find out more about Durham University Archives at www.dur.ac.uk/library/asc/.

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