Few musicians have been more beloved both for their music and their personal qualities than was John Stanley, organ virtuoso, composer, and conductor whose tricentenary has now almost passed, though with little comment or commemoration. Stanley was born in 1712, two years before George II arrived from Germany to take the English throne and give his name to an age. Like so many talented Georgian musicians, Stanley pursued the first half of his career in the shadow of the century’s Man Mountain, Handel, whose music Stanley sometimes emulated. On occasion Stanley conducted—in his blindness—Messiah at the annual charity performances of Handel’s great oratorio at London’s Foundling Hospital to whom the composer had donated the piece and where Stanley served as one of the governors from 1770.
For his part, Handel is known to have admired Stanley’s music, often going to hear him play of a Sunday at London’s Temple Church. A notorious “borrower” of other musicians’ ideas (and in some cases an outright plagiarizer of entire movements), Handel might well have appropriated some of the melodies Stanley improvised for his congregation and the many curious musical visitors. It is only fitting that in this 300th year since Stanley’s birth a bit of sunlight should crest the massive shoulders of Mt. Handel and illuminate the groves and streams of Stanley’s music in all its tunefulness, inventive joy, and elegant brilliance.
In the same year that George II ascended the English throne the two-year-old Stanley suffered the accident that would shape his life and image. Charles Burney’s General History of Music, whose four volumes were published between 1776-1789, describes the incident like this: “At two years old he totally lost his sight, by falling on a marble hearth with a china bason [sic] in his hand.” (Somewhat surprisingly, John Hawkins, Burney’s competitor in the newly-born business of writing music history and a sometime neighbor of, and librettist for, Stanley, does not mention him in his own A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, also from 1776.) Burney noted that a disproportionately large number of organists were blind—a tradition that continues to this day—but on behalf of Stanley, looked on the bright side: “Stanley, who delighted lovers of [the organ] for over fifty years, seems, with respect to performance, rather to have gained than lost by his calamity.”
Five years after going blind, Stanley’s father took his son to the London organist John Reading “to learn Music, as an art that was likely to amuse him, but without his friends supposing it possible for him, circumstanced as he was, to make it his profession.” Stanley became not only the greatest English organist of his day, but a fine violinist as well. The boy’s progress was astounding. By eleven he had won the post of organist at All Hallows Church in London. Two years later, he was elected organist of St. Andrew’s Holborn in London, a feat emphasized by Burney through the remark that he won the post “in preference to a great number of candidates.” In London the “young blind Stanley” was in constant demand: “whenever there was a charity sermon, or new organ to be opened, [he] seems to have been preferred to all others.”
At seventeen he became the youngest person to receive a bachelor of music from Oxford, and in 1734 he became organist at the Temple Church and in that capacity a musical destination for musical tourists and London’s own musicians, Handel chief among them. Stanley remained in the post until his death in 1786.
With Handel’s death in 1759, Stanley took over the leadership of the Lenten oratorios in Covent Garden, though his own works in direct emulation of Handel’s great choral efforts seem to have been unsuccessful by comparison. In 1779 he succeeded William Boyce as Master of the King’s Band of Musicians, and as part of these duties wrote some fifteen New Year and birthday odes to honor the mad king and music lover George III.
Stanley was gifted with not only a tremendous ear for music but also a huge memory. He conducted epic scores such as Messiah and his own oratorios, as well concertos and the like that he led at subscription concerts at the London taverns The Swan and The Castle. He could immediately identify all his acquaintances by the sound of their voices and quickly judged the size and layout of rooms he entered by the acoustics. A whist enthusiast, Stanley designed a pack of cards with notched edges so that he could play cards in company, keeping the course of each game in his mind’s eye even as he conversed politely and with great intelligence and manners.
Life rewarded him abundantly not only for his musical gifts and hard work but also for his geniality. In 1738 he married Sarah Arlond, the daughter of an East India Company captain; it was a match that brought with it an ample £7,000 dowry. His wife’s younger sister became his amanuensis, helping him with the notation of his music and literally seeing ten collections of his works into print.
Stanley’s legacy now rests on three volumes of organ voluntaries. A section of one of these—variously known as Trumpet Tune or Trumpet Voluntary in C—has somehow made its way into the Anglo-American wedding repertoire and is often heard with trumpet and organ. Like all of Stanley’s voluntaries this one is immediately memorable, sounding so natural and easy that it is as if it had always existed, like a perfect stone picked up by the composer on the vast musical beach of gray, indifferent ideas. But just as important as invention—or discovery—is elaboration, and Stanley had the knack of polishing that stone, of developing the idea with tasteful imagination that showed the hues and contours of the theme to perfect effect in varying lights and with a range of finishes. Like two of his most important models Corelli and Handel, Stanley seemed always to be able to find a convincing, elegant way of moving the musical discourse forward without sounding at all ponderous. Even in his early works that show a proclivity for, and mastery of, fugue, the contrapuntal argument is ingenious without becoming abstruse. At every turn there is insight that sparkles, but never risks drawing brazen attention to itself. It is unfortunate that only the Voluntary in C now peeks above the historical horizon: the three books of voluntaries (amounting to some thirty pieces) seem automatically to renew themselves; even when exploring darker, dissonant moods, they radiate optimism—one might even say Georgian optimism—through an elegant exuberance that constantly refreshes.
Stanley lived through the reign of Handel and into the ascendance of the gallant, Italianate style of Gluck, Mozart and the London Bach—Johann Christian. When in 1770 this Bach began to play the organ at an oratorio concert in emulation of Handel at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket he was deemed “too much out of practice to satisfy Stanley’s friends.” To outdo a Bach at the organ was an Olympian accomplishment. Yet Stanley’s late organ concertos reflect the influence of the lighter style of the youngest Bach son. By contrast, Stanley’s earlier opus 2 string concertos of 1742 (a few years later to be adapted by the composer also for organ and orchestra) have that Handelian verve—the bracing confidence that is sure that every melodic gesture and harmonic turn, well-known yet deployed in a novel way, is exactly the right thing to do. And it always is, from the regal overture, to the sprightly dance, to the deft pause, and to the virtuosic skein of euphoric sequences.
Sadly Stanley’s music remains under-recorded in our own time. The late organ concertos of 1775 (his final opus, number 10) await a convincing performance. In the halcyon days of the late 1980s when there was still a robust market for recordings of 18th-century classics buried by history, two separate CDs of the Six Concertos in Seven Parts, opus 2, were issued, both by London bands: one with Roy Goodman at the head of the Parley of Instruments; the other with Simon Standage leading the Collegium Musicum 90. As a violinist Standage is flawless, while Goodman’s reading occasionally adds at least a touch of grit to the gleaming Georgian façade.
A month after Stanley’s death in May of 1786, his family auctioned his entire collection of scores and musical instruments at Christie’s. This seemingly ruthless, but perhaps exigent act explains why his ceremonial odes and so much else from his mind—to his sister-in-law’s pen—is lost. His three oratorios on themes as grand as those of Handel await resuscitation. His pastoral drama Arcadia, a frolic peopled with buxom shepherdesses and pleasure-loving boaters on foot and on barges was revived for the 1986 nuptials of the Duke and Duchess of York, but its popularity lasted far shorter than the marriage it was called on to celebrate. Even in this anniversary year of 2012, we will have to content ourselves with the concertos and the voluntaries—mandatory for anyone who wants to marvel at how musical perfection can sound spontaneous.
In the History, Burney writes: “This ingenious and worthy professor, whose blindness excited the pity, and performance the admiration, of the public, for so many years, will be long lamented by his surviving friends; for they have lost in him, exclusive of his musical talents, a most intelligent and agreeable companion, who contributed to the pleasures of society as much by his conversation in private, as by his professional merit in public.” One hears that convivial generosity and genius in his music, and thanks him for it still.