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The Crucifixion: A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer


This Sunday at 5:00 p.m.: The Crucifixion

On February 24, 1887, the day following Ash Wednesday of that year, John Stainer (1840-1901), then the organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, premiered his sacred work The Crucifixion: A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer at St. Marylebone Parish Church in London. This performance marked the beginning of what would become a turn-of-the-century tradition of Anglican Passion works that follow the traditional format of prior Passions, most notably Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passion works and Charles Wood’s St. Mark Passion, which was sung at St. Philip’s on Palm Sunday in 2023.

The text of Stainer’s Passion contains extracts from the King James Bible and poetic material written by W.J. Sparrow-Simpson (1859-1952), a Church of England vicar, writer, and authority on the life and doctrines of Augustine of Hippo. In composing The Crucifixion, Stainer’s intention was to provide a cantata written on a scale that would put it within the scope of most parish choirs, relying heavily on solo work and harmony in no more than four parts.

Over the past century, some have criticized Stainer’s work as “pedestrian” and “sentimentally Victorian,” but despite Stainer’s dramatic use of Victorian dominant suspensions, this Passiontide work has endured through the generations. The unaccompanied “God So Loved the World” continues to be performed as an anthem in its own right. Particularly significant in the overall scheme of the work are the five hymns designed for congregational participation, two of which have lived on in the life of Anglican hymnody: “Cross of Jesus” and “All for Jesus,” both penned by Sparrow-Simpson.

Let us not forget that Stainer’s aim was one in modesty: to provide a Passiontide meditation which ordinary choirs could perform and to which congregations could immediately relate. At the time there was no such piece, and in this respect he was undoubtedly successful.

On Sunday, we will mark the centenary of The Crucifixion’s Charleston premiere, which was held at St. Philip’s in 1924. According to the 1948 quarter-centennial program, The Crucifixion was “an annual service at St. Philip’s on Good Friday and instituted in 1924 by Cotesworth P. Means, with the assistance of Ms. Louise Bargmann, John D. Matthew, and Ms. Dorothy M. Bollwinkle.” While we don’t know exactly when the annual Holy Week Crucifixion institution ceased to exist, we know it continued beyond 1948 and that it was sung with relative frequency in the generations following, including in the latter part of the 20th century during Mr. George Mims’s tenure as St. Philip’s Director of Music. We also know that other houses of worship in Charleston regularly performed The Crucifixion due to the influence and success of its annual production at St. Philip’s.

In 2003, Barry Rose (b. 1934)––who, like Stainer, served at St. Paul’s, London (1974–1984)–– respectfully and tastefully completed orchestration for The Crucifixion, adding a much greater refinement of expression and color. This orchestration also changes the character of the work: since it requires more than a choir and an organ, one might irreverently say it has “come up in the world” and has left the realm of average parish church production. I believe it is fitting to celebrate one hundred years with such a setting.

I would like to thank Mrs. Derrill M. Hagood, Mr. Ben Hagood, Jr., Mr. Alfred Pinckney, and Mrs. Tricia Moore for their help in researching the significance of this centenary production. Their love for music and dedication to the preservation of the spiritual history of Charleston are unmatched.