leaderboard1 -

Recovering the early organ works of John Stanley

February 1, 2003



John Stanley (17121-1786), as organist of All Hallows, Bread Street, London (1723-1726), of St. Andrew's, Holborn, London (1726-1786), and of the Temple Church, London (1734-1786), was primarily a church organist. It sometimes helps to state the obvious, since Stanley was many things besides. He was, for example, Master of the King's Music after Boyce's death in 1779, a fine teacher, a successful concert organist, the composer of a number of popular oratorios and concerti, Handel's literary executor, the youngest person ever to obtain a Bachelor of Music degree at Oxford University. Etcetera, etcetera. And, of course, he managed all of this in spite of being blind. Stanley published his organ works in three volumes, each comprising ten voluntaries. These were Opus 5 (1748), Opus 6 (1752) and Opus 7 (1754).2 Besides these, as we shall see, it is possible to recover a number of additional voluntaries, some of which date from considerably earlier than 1748.

As a musician whose primary responsibilities were liturgical, John Stanley was required to accompany the service music every Sunday, and also to improvise voluntaries at various points in the service. A voluntary, incidentally--in its classical meaning--was a piece produced extemporaneously by the will, the voluntas, as opposed to a composition, a piece written down on paper. As Nicholas Temperley has shown,3 before the nineteenth century in the Church of England there were two principal forms of voluntary. These were a First Voluntary--generally an introduction and a movement or two for solo stops such as the trumpet or cornet--placed between the psalms and the first lesson at Morning and Evening Prayer, and a Second Voluntary--generally an introduction and fugue--at the end of the service. Some churches had an additional voluntary before the service, but this seems to have been of less importance and far from universal.

So far as organ music is concerned, therefore, John Stanley's primary responsibility for sixty-three years was to improvise a voluntary before the first lesson, comprising an introduction and an additional movement or two for the solo stops, together with an introduction and fugue at the end of the service. Stanley had doubtless spent many hours during the week practicing on the harpsichord at home, and had a good idea at least of what he intended to improvise on Sunday, but there was still a sense in which these pieces were extemporaneous. According to Burney, Stanley's improvisations were so fine that on Sundays none other than Handel himself, who attended St. George's, Hanover Square, would sometimes leave church early and rush over to the Temple Church to hear Stanley's final voluntary.

Most voluntaries were never written down as compositions, and most of them are thus lost to posterity. There is nothing unusual about this. In nineteenth century France, Gabriel Fauré was a church organist for over sixty years. His contemporaries thought him a better player than Franck, Saint-Saëns or Guilmant. Yet he never wrote down a single improvisation; he did not produce a single composition for organ. Indeed, George Bizet thought it rather surprising when he discovered that his friend César Franck had published compositions for the organ. Improvisations were spontaneous, vibrant, exciting. Compositions were stereotypical, dull and wooden.

Stanley as composer

Perhaps, therefore, the question we should be asking is why organists should have written down their improvisations as compositions at all. In answering this question it is important to note that very few voluntaries for organ were published in England before Stanley's Opera Quinta of 1748. The obvious reason for this is that in early eighteenth-century England, organ music had a very limited market. Most of the comparatively small number of organists there were had positions in important churches and were competent musicians well capable of improvising their own voluntaries. They had no need to use the compositions of others. There was therefore a minimal market for published compositions for the organ and it would consequently have been almost impossible for Stanley to have found a publisher before 1748. Nevertheless, some organists did write down some of what they considered their finer improvisations in manuscript form.

Manuscript compositions were used for two main purposes. First, they were often used for recital purposes, as for example when organists like Stanley played at the dedication of a new instrument. (The reason for this is not entirely clear in view of the fact that improvised voluntaries were considered more interesting than compositions. Nevertheless, this seems to have been what was done.) Secondly, manuscript compositions were widely used as exercises for instructing apprentices or students who were learning the organ, or for "beginning organists" to play in church. For example, Stanley remained organist of St. Andrew's, Holborn after taking the more important post as organist of the Temple Church in 1734. He would therefore have needed to use assistants and apprentices to cover the services at St. Andrew's on most Sundays. In some cases these substitutes would have been insufficiently experienced to be capable of improvising their own voluntaries competently, so they would have played from manuscripts of their master's compositions or those of other "eminent masters."

Some of the manuscript collections produced for this purpose have survived. One important collection of this kind is the so-called "Southgate Manuscript," a collection of sixty-four voluntaries in the library of the Royal College of Organists in London. This seems to have been compiled around the year 1750, possibly under the aegis of Dr. Maurice Greene, in order to instruct choristers of the Chapel Royal who were learning the organ. This manuscript, as we shall see, contains several of the early organ works of John Stanley. Furthermore, some publications of the later eighteenth-century, such as A Collection of Voluntaries for Organ or Harpsichord, Composed by Dr. Green, Mr. Travers, & Several other Eminent Masters,4 and a collection of voluntaries "by Eminent Masters" which Edward Kendall of Falmouth published in around 1790, seem to have had their genesis as manuscript collections of a similar kind.

Recycling--eighteenth-century style

Once John Stanley had written down one of his voluntaries as a composition, he was sometimes wont to use the material for other purposes. Op. 6, No. 7, for example, is an Introduction and Fugue in G major such as Stanley would normally have improvised at the end of a service. This voluntary is also found, however, as the first two movements of the overture to Stanley's oratorio Jephtha written circa 1751-57.5 Its rather orchestral form makes it highly suited to the purpose, and indeed in this instance it is possible the oratorio version came first. Another movement from a voluntary, recycled by Stanley in a different context, is the first movement of Op. 5, No. 10, the introduction from an Introduction and Fugue in A minor. This is found transposed into B minor as the second movement of Stanley's Concerto No. 2 for Organ and Orchestra, one of Stanley's Six Concertos for Harpsichord or Organ, published in 1775.6 Similarly, Op. 7, No. 10, an Introduction and Fugue in F major, is also found as the first two movements of the overture to Stanley's cantata Pan and Syrinx, of circa 1730.

Once it is realized that John Stanley frequently recycled his material in other forms, it becomes possible by studying the forms of his music to find other pieces that probably had their genesis in a similar way. For example, the first movement of Concerto I in D major7 has very much the appearance of the introductory movement of a Second Voluntary, while the penultimate movement of Concerto 2 in B minor8 appears to be a fugue from such a voluntary, perhaps originally paired, like the fugue in Op. 5, No. 10, with the Adagio from the same concerto. The first two movements of Concerto 3 in D major,9 an Adagio and the famous "Bell Allegro," similarly form an Introduction and Fugue that was probably originally composed as a voluntary for the organ.

In the case of Stanley's earlier works for organ, the inability to find a market for the organ voluntaries per se may have led Stanley deliberately to rewrite some of the pieces in other forms in order to make them publishable. For example, Stanley's Opus 1 of 1740 consisted of Eight Solos for a German Flute or Harpsichord. The fourth of these, an Allegro in D major, is also found as the second movement of a Cornet Voluntary, No. 36 in the Southgate Manuscript.10 In this instance it seems likely that Stanley felt that there was more of a demand for music that could be played by simple chamber ensembles than for organ voluntaries, and accordingly recycled some of his organ voluntaries as solos for the German flute. This kind of music would have been in demand among the gentry as something that small chamber ensembles could play at intimate soirées in the music rooms of country houses.

Another early Stanley voluntary that found its way into the Southgate Manuscript is an Introduction and Fugue, Southgate Voluntary No. 57.11 This is found in two other forms. It formed the Overture to Stanley's cantata The Power of Music, which he submitted as his exercise to obtain the Bachelor of Music degree at Oxford University in 1729. Stanley also later revised it again as the overture to his oratorio, The Fall of Egypt, 1774.12

Recovering Stanley's lost voluntaries

A third organ voluntary found in the Southgate Manuscript is a variant version of one of Stanley's published voluntaries, Op. 7, No. 8. In the published form it is a four-movement voluntary in A minor, comprising Andante Staccato - Allegro - Adagio - Fugue. In Southgate Manuscript Voluntary No. 4, the fugue from Op. 7, No. 8, is found paired with a Largo introductory movement.13 In this form it is a classic example of a Second Voluntary, and there seems little doubt that this was its original form. It is instructive to examine the form of Op. 7, No. 8, and to attempt to determine how Stanley treated it during the editorial process. When this is done it becomes apparent that Op. 7, No. 8 includes movements that were apparently originally part of at least three separate organ voluntaries from an earlier date. The first movement (Example 1) is a short Andante Staccato for Full Organ, that appears originally to have been the introduction to a Second Voluntary or Introduction and Fugue in A minor. This leads rather awkwardly and suddenly into an Allegro, apparently also for full organ, though ill-suited to it (Example 2). As I have argued elsewhere,14 this looks much more likely to have had its fons et origo as the second movement of a First Voluntary in A minor for cornet or for a solo reed such as the vox humana, bassoon or cremona. The fugue that follows (Example 3) quite obviously belongs originally to a Second Voluntary, and indeed this is the form in which it is found in Southgate Voluntary No. 4. What, therefore, Stanley seems to have done is to take movements from at least three separate voluntaries and knit them together, apparently rather hurriedly judging by the degree of awkwardness of the transitions, into a four-movement voluntary--essentially a concerto--for some public concert such as the dedication of a new organ.

The next question to ask is whether Stanley created concertos by knitting together earlier organ voluntaries on other occasions. A study of the published voluntaries suggests that he did so to create at least one other published organ voluntary. Op. 6, No. 6, is a Trumpet Voluntary. As we have it, the voluntary comprises an Adagio for Diapasons, a Trumpet Andante, an Adagio on the Swell, and an Allegro Moderato for "Ecchos and Flute." The last of these movements (Example 4) is especially interesting. It is strongly influenced by Handel's Organ Concerto Op. 4, No. 1, of 1735, but is really rather poorly suited to "Ecchos and Flute." Once again, examining its form suggests that it was originally--like the Andante second movement of Op. 6, No. 6--a trumpet movement. Here again it seems likely that Stanley has combined movements from two separate voluntaries--in this case two Trumpet Voluntaries--in order to create an extended concerto for some special concert.


When we examine the surviving works of John Stanley it becomes apparent that a number of early organ voluntaries survive in other forms, both as earlier recensions of later published organ voluntaries, and also among Stanley's other works as concertos, the overtures of cantatas and oratorios, and suchlike. In some cases the earlier forms of Stanley's voluntaries seem to be more satisfactory than the later recensions, which have sometimes been rather awkwardly edited from earlier voluntaries. In the past this repertoire has remained unplayed, but once we are alerted to its existence there is ample opportunity for playing it. It is my hope that this music will be rescued from obscurity to enjoy a well deserved popularity in the future.



                  1.              His dates are often erroneously given as 1713-1786.

                  2.             The thirty volumes of Stanley's Op. 5-7 are available in facsimile form (ed. Dennis Vaughan, 3 vols., Oxford University Press, 1957), and as modern edition in the Hinrichsen Tallis to Wesley series (ed. Gordon Phillips). Individual voluntaries are also found in numerous modern anthologies.

                  3.              See, for example, Nicholas Temperley, "Organ Music in Parish Churches, 1660-1730," BIOS Journal, 5 (1981), pp. 33-45. For an extension of this argument, see also John L. Speller, "Organ Music and the Metrical Psalms in Eighteenth-Century Anglican Worship," The Tracker, 39:2 (1995), pp. 21-29.

                  4.              4 volumes. London: Longman, Lukey & Co., 1771.

                  5.              See H. Diack Johnstone's editorial note on p. 4 of An RCO Miscellany: 18th. Century Organ Voluntaries, ed. H. Diack Johnstone (Leigh-on-Sea: Basil Ramsey, 1980). The oratorio, based on a story in the Book of Judges, tells the tragic tale of a Jewish military commander who unwittingly promises to sacrifice his daughter in return for victory in battle.

                  6.              A modern edition of Concertos 1-3, edited by Greg Lewin, has recently been published by Hawthorns Music of Wheaton Aston, Stafford. The Adagio in B minor, transposed and transcribed from Op. 5 No. 10, is found on p. 10.

                  7.              P. 1 of the same edition.

                  8.              Pp. 16-18.

                  9.              Pp. 21-24.

                  10.           A modern edition of this movement can be found in An RCO Miscellany, pp. 25-26.

                  11.           Pp. 35-38 of the foregoing edition.

                  12.           See H. Diack Johnstone's editorial note on p. 4 of An RCO Miscellany.

                  13.           The introductory movement is found on pp. 7-8 of the foregoing edition.

John L. Speller, "Before the First Lesson: A study of some Eighteenth-Century Voluntaries in relation to the instruments on which they were played," BIOS Journal, 20 (1996). p. 77.


John L. Speller was born and educated in England. He obtained science and arts degrees at Bristol University, and has a doctorate from Trinity College, Oxford. He works as an organ builder with Quimby Pipe Organs, Inc., of Warrensburg, Missouri. He is the author of numerous articles on the history of the organ.

Related Content

May 16, 2024
Throughout the history of music, composers have not only influenced and enriched the cultural life in their communities, but they have also…
April 16, 2024
James Elwin McCray James Elwin McCray, music professor and administrator, choral conductor, and composer, died March 3 at his home in Fort Collins,…
February 20, 2024
Editor’s note: Part 1 of this series appeared in the February 2024 issue, pages 10–16. The repertoire of César Franck’s organ students What organ…