This evening, we went to a performance of John Stainer’s The Crucifixion at St. Cuthbert’s Church, performed by the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union. St. Cuthbert’s was an ideal setting for this triumphal oratorio of the greatness of Christ’s Victory over sin and death upon the Cross. The space is light and airy, with beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the half-dome of the apse behind the choir, as well as the beautiful frieze of the Last Supper, the magnificent pulpit, and the copy of a statue by Michelangelo atop the font. Somehow, whoever took this photo made the place look dark:
St. Cuthbert’s is worthy of a post itself. Yet as lovely as that place of worship is, we were there for Stainer’s choral masterpiece tonight.
The Crucifixion (libretto here) begins in the Garden of Gethsemane and takes us to Christ’s last (pre-Resurrection) breath. We move from a brief narration straight into The Agony. Here, the recitative was followed by the choir:
Jesu, Lord Jesu, bowed in bitter anguish, and bearing all the evil we have done, Oh, teach us, teach us how to love thee for thy love; Help us to pray, and watch, and mourn with thee.
This choral verse is minor and potent, carrying the weight of the words of that prayer, the weight of our souls witnessing the anguish Christ suffered on our behalf. And when Christ is led away to be crucified , the singer has a rest, and crucified lengthens syllable by syllable, with the final line, ‘And the soldiers led him away,’ notable for its ritardando.
Then there is a brief interlude while the organist plays music from Nintendo’s Dragon Warrior 4, suited for when Our Hero is in a village.
The Processional to Calvary follows this RPG Village Music, and it is triumphal, with the choir singing the refrain: ‘Fling wide the gates! Fling wide the gates!’ Indeed, Christ is seen as the king here and now. This is his true triumph, not Palm Sunday.
Soon, there is a hymn. Stainer and Sparrow-Simpson (the librettist) wrote hymns. We were encouraged to join the choir for the verses in bold. So we did in all of them, beginning with ‘Cross of Jesus, Cross of sorrow,’ which had a familiar tune that I’m used to accompanying a different hymn; my music memory is faulty, and it may have been the final hymn of the work. The second-last verse of this, one of those sung by choir alone, began with quiet organ (was it acapella??):
From the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,
We adore thee, O most high,’
And then the full blast of the organ’s potency for:
Down to earth’s blaspheming voices
And the shout of ‘Cruficy!’
The oratorio took us from there, ‘The Mystery of the Divine Humiliation,’ to ‘The Majesty of the Divine Humiliation,’ both of which showed us the powerful Christological reality of what went on at Golgotha, to ‘God So Loved the World.’ John 3:16-17 were sung beautifully with a very full dynamic range from the very quiet to the loud, graced by lovely harmony. It was beautiful and regal, working from small to big. A far cry from banners at football games, but more fitting for the glorious truth of the Gospel.
Another powerful moment came during the Recitative immediately following the hymn ‘Holy Jesu, by Thy Passion.’ The tenor sang, ‘Jesus said,’ and then the men of the chorus, sans organ, sang out, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ The tenor and baritone proceeded from this moment to sing a duet about the wondrous fact of Christ seeking the forgiveness of his killers.
The solo thief who mocked Christ was given short, choppy rhythm, whereas Christ’s, ‘Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise,’ was sung by the entire choir in flowing (legato) loveliness. The music, again, suited the words.
‘There was darkness,’ was preceded by a deep, minor organ prelude.
Once again, we had the men alone for the minor, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
Finally, after Christ ‘gave up the ghost,’ we sang ‘All for Jesus — all for Jesus’, a hymn I know, though I don’t recall having sung this verse before:
All for Jesus — at thine altar
Thou wilt give us sweet content;
There, dear Lord, we shall receive thee
In the solemn Sacrament.
This Victorian choral masterpiece was certainly the highlight of my day! I hope it is a precursor to a wondrous week, filled with the good blessings given by the Crucified.