Voluntary in d, Op. 5, #6
by John Stanley [playing time 4:26]  [Download the MP3]

John Stanley (1712-1786)

At age two, young John Stanley fell and bonked his head on a stone hearth, as a result of which he became nearly blind. Despite this handicap, he went on to pursue a highly successful career as an exceptionally skilled organist, violinist, and composer. His voluntaries are among the defining examples of the genre, and exerted great influence on the writing of his contemporaries. His extended works, such as the oratorio Jephtha, were regarded with nearly the same esteem as that reserved for one of his contemporaries, the great G. F. Handel.

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Unlike the massive German organs of the time, eighteenth century English pipe organs were modest affairs with one or perhaps two keyboards, and with no pedals. This stunted development seems to have stemmed from the severe religious attitudes of the day, which, apparently choosing to ignore the inspiring words of Psalm 150, held music as the work of the devil. Stanley's voluntaries are therefore written on two staves rather than three, and are accessible to a performer with one or two keyboards.

The Voluntary in d was, like its counterparts, composed for the church, as a piece to be offered, or "volunteered," at interludes in the service. It employs a common formula of two sections, the first a stately adagio, the second a sparkling allegro that is practically a graduate thesis in sequence (the repetition of a motive at successive pitch intervals). Stanley skillfully interleaves a number of motives in rising and falling sequences, a few of which are apparent in the score excerpt below (listen for it at 2:37).

Now, about my unorthodox realization.

Imagine yourself not in an English cathedral, but in Tom Turpin's smoky Rosebud Cafe in St. Louis in 1901. John Stanley takes the stage, looking rather out of place in his ruffles and powdered wig. Nearly blind, he has to feel his way to an old organ in the corner. He selects soft stops, and begins playing his Voluntary. The patrons listen quizzically during the opening Adagio; certainly it's not what they're used to. But then Stanley launches into the brilliant Allegro, and the ragtime band on the stage with him strikes up a syncopated countermelody for winds and trumpet, underpinned by a striding harpsichord continuo and an upright bass and trombone keeping a palpable beat. And all around the saloon, smiles break out and feet are tapping. As the echoes of the swirling final sequences die away, two ragtime veterans at a table in the corner nod to one another: Now that fella's a true perfesser of music. Dresses a little strange, but a real perfesser.

As indeed John Stanley was: one of the finest of his time. Given the instruments Stanley was using, as well as the intended purpose of the music, this is virtuosic writing with a steadily driving pulse that fits a modern rendition quite well. Who knows what Stanley would have thought of this MP3, but I hope the old guy won't be spinning too rapidly in his grave at my thoroughly modernized version of this beautiful voluntary. Maybe he's even chuckling a bit, and if so, well, that's the point.

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