John Stanley was born in London on 17th January, 1712 and was baptised at the church of St. Swithin, London Stone two weeks later on 1st February. He was one of six children born to his father, also John Stanley (an Officer at Swithin’s Lane Post Office) and his wife Elizabeth (nee Davy) who had married on 17th June, 1707.
When two years old the future composer had a domestic accident which left him almost blind – he could apparently still distinguish colours and possibly some shapes.
At the age of seven he began studying music with the organist John Reading but the teacher/student partnership was not fruitful. However, under the guidance of Maurice Greene – composer and organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral – he studied “with great diligence, and a success that was astonishing” (Burney). In fact, so outstandingly well did the young Stanley advance that at the age of nine he played the organ (probably as an occasional deputy) at All Hallows, Bread Street.
The organist at All Hallows at that time was the composer and harpsichordist William Babell, a former pupil of Handel. Babell died on 23rd September 1723 and exactly one month later the Flying-Post of October 24-6 reported that “by a considerable Majority” of the 66 electors present the eleven year old Stanley was appointed organist to the church at a salary of £20 per annum. The St. James’s Evening Post reporting the event stated that Stanley “is become the Surprize of the Town for his ingenious Performance on the Harpsichord and Organ; and, in the opinion of good Judges, bids fair to equal, if not exceed the Merit of his celebrated Predecessor.”
At the age of fourteen “in preference to a great number of candidates” (Burney) he was chosen as organist at St. Andrew’s, Holborn and at the age of seventeen became the youngest person ever to obtain the BMus degree at Oxford University.
The antiquary and diarist Thomas Hearne (1678-1735), writing in his Remarks and Collections about Stanley’s visit to Oxford in 1725, said that Stanley should be, “look’d upon as the best Organist in Europe, it may be, in the World”.
In 1734 he was appointed organist to the Society of the Inner Temple – a position he held until his death. It was at the ancient Temple Church that his brilliant playing upon the organ and harpsichord attracted the attention of many fine musicians including Handel who regularly visited the church to hear him. Stanley was also an outstanding violinist and led the subscription concerts at the Swan Tavern in Cornhill and at the Castle Tavern in Paternoster Row.
John Alcock (1715-1806) was apprenticed to Stanley who thus became responsible for Alcock’s education and musicianship. Alcock was Stanley’s first amanuensis. They became good friends and Stanley was made godfather to Alcock’s grandson who was named as John Stanley Alcock.
In 1738 Stanley married Sarah Arlond (daughter of Captain Edward Arlond of the East India Company) who brought him a dowry of £7,000. They married in secret at the Fleet Prison. This was quite a common practice for those wishing to wed away from family and public eye. The services were performed by priests who were serving prison sentences. It is not known for certain why they married in secret.
This is how the marriage was announced in The Weekly Miscellany dated 28 July 1738:
Stanley is incorrectly referred to as doctor and Sarah Arlond’s name is incorrectly stated as Arnold.
They lived at first in Walbrook. Sarah’s sister Ann, who lived with them, became the blind composer’s amanuensis. Ann’s role in Stanley’s life and his achievements is often overlooked. She was Stanley’s ‘eyes’ to other composers’ works and she wrote down every note of Stanley’s own compositions.
Stanley’s Six Concertos in Seven Parts were first published in 1742. They must have proved successful as they were reissued several times by the publisher John Walsh.
The same year saw the publication of Stanley’s first set of Cantatas. They must have been popular with the public as two further sets followed in 1747 and 1751 rspectively.
The Stanleys moved house in 1751 to Hatton Garden, opposite the home of the musical historian John Hawkins. Stanley and Hawkins became good friends and Hawkins later supplied many of the texts for Stanley’s solo cantatas.
Stanley had a remarkable memory which helped him direct many of Handel’s oratorios and to enjoy music-playing and card-playing with many of his friends. If he had to accompany a new oratorio he would ask his sister-in-law to play it through just once – enough to commit it to memory.
He found time to teach, to play the organ at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and was often first choice to play at charity events and at the launch of any newly built church organs.
Stanley composed his oratorio Jephtha, to a libretto by Dr John Free, which unfortunately was almost certainly never performed.
After Handel’s death in 1760, Stanley began a partnership with the composer John Christopher Smith in order to continue with performances of oratorios at Covent Garden. This successful partnership was to last for some 14 years. For the first season Stanley composed ‘Zimri’ which was first performed at Covent Garden on Wednesday 12th March 1760. To hear an amateur production of this oratorio click here.
Stanley usually played the continuo part during performances and a concerto during the intervals.
Also in 1760 he composed an ode, first performed at the Drury Lane Theatre, in memory of the late King George II and as homage to George III.
On the occasion of the King’s wedding in 1761 he composed the dramatic pastoral oratorio Arcadia.
In March 1770 Stanley was elected a governor of the Foundling Hospital. He took his responsibilities very seriously and attended many of the quarterly meetings, especially those affecting the Chapel and anything to do with the children’s musical education. He gave advice on such things as the employment of music teachers at the hospital and also helped to organise some of their annual fund-raising concerts of Handel’s Messiah. He conducted the performances himself from 1775 until 1777.
Stanley’s Oratorio The Fall of Egypt was given its first performance in March 1774. The London Chronicle of 22-24 March 1774 gave the following account:
“Last night the new Oratorio, called The Fall of Egypt, written by the late Dr. Hawkesworth, and composed by Mr. Stanley, was performed for the first time at Drury-lane Theatre, and received with great applause. The Airs were composed with great taste and sweetness, and the Choruses were esteemed inferior to none, in point of sublimity, but Handel’s.”
Stanley’s Six Concertos for Organ were published – number 4 being described by the English writer on music Charles Cudworth as “probably the finest of all English organ concertos”.
In 1779 he succeeded William Boyce as Master of the King’s Band of musicians. In this capacity he composed many New Year and Birthday odes to the King but unfortunately this music has not survived.
Stanley’s last work was probably an ode written for the King’s birthday (4th June 1786). Stanley never heard its performance; he died at his home in Hatton Garden on 19th May, 1786 aged 74.
Like the great Johann Sebastian Bach, Stanley was better known in his lifetime as a performer rather than a composer. But he achieved an almost Handel-like status by the time he died. There was general agreement that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey in the company of Purcell and Handel, but in his will he requested that he should be buried beside his wife at St. Andrew’s Church, Holborn.
Stanley was certainly thought of as a national treasure, almost in the same category as Handel.
It is rather sad to say that Stanley’s surviving relatives appeared to take little pleasure from his musical property – his musical instruments and manuscripts were auctioned at Christie’s in London on 24th June 1786.
Stanley’s surviving compositions are:
Op. 1 Eight Solos for Flute and Continuo. 1740.
Op. 2 Six Concertos for strings (or organ & strings or flute & continuo). 1742/1745.
Op. 3 Six Cantatas. 1742
Op. 4 Six Solos for Flute and Continuo. 1745
Op. 5 Ten Voluntaries for Organ. 1748
Op. 6 Ten Voluntaries for Organ. 1752
Op. 7 Ten Voluntaries for Organ. 1754
Op. 8 Six Cantatas. 1748
Op. 9 Three Cantatas and Three Songs. 1751
Op. 10 Six Concertos for Organ or Harpsichord. 1775
The following is the text of an article published in The European Magazine & London Review in 1784 when Stanley was still alive – aged 71.
“Some Account of John Stanley Esq.
To the honour of the present times, England is no longer to be pointed as barren of masters in the polite arts. Music, which formerly derived little advantage from natives of this island, now can boast of several Professors, who rival the Italian and German masters both in performance and in composition. The English school, we trust, will continue to do honour to the science of music: and it will afford us great pleasure to record occasionally the lives of such of the professors of the art, as, from their abilities and virtues, deserve to be transmitted to posterity.
Of these, the gentleman we have selected for this month is not the least distinguished. Mr. Stanley was born on the 17th of January O.S. 1713. At about the age of two years, he had the misfortune to fall on a marble hearth, with a china basin in his hand, by which accident he was deprived of his sight. At the age of seven years he began to learn music, and soon arrived at considerable excellence in playing on the harpsichord – his master was Mr. Reading, organist of St. John’s, Hackney, and a pupil of the celebrated Dr. Blow. When he first began to learn, it was without any prospect of deriving more advantage from the science than merely amusement; but being observed to take great delight in the art and making a considerable progress in it, his father was advised to apply to Dr. Green, the organist of St. Paul’s, for further instruction, under whom he studied with great diligence and success.
Determining to make music his profession, he obtained, at the early age of eleven years, the place of organist of All-hallows, Bread-street, in November 1723, and that of St. Andrew, Holborn, August 16, 1726. He was elected in May 1734 by the Benchers of the honourable Society of the Inner Temple, their organist. Both these latter posts he has ever since continued to hold.
On the death of Mr. Handel, in the year 1760, he, in conjunction with Mr. Smith, (to whom, with himself, Mr. Handel had bequeathed his music) undertook to superintend the performance of Oratorios first at Covent Garden , and since at Drury Lane. This he continued until within two years just passed. On the death of Dr. Boyce, in February 1779, he was appointed Master of his Majesty’s Band of Musicians; and in May, 1781, succeeded Mr. Weideman as Conductor of it.
In July 1738, Mr. Stanley was married to Miss Sarah Arlond, daughter of the late Edward Arlond, Esq. Captain in the honourable East Indian Company’s Service, but has no children.
Mr. Stanley was admitted Bachelor of Music, at the University of Oxford, on the 19th of July 1729.
It is the maxim of philosophy that the loss on one sense strengthens the others. The position was never more clearly demonstrated than in the person of Mr. Stanley, whose retentive memory is almost beyond the bounds of probability. He is never at a loss for anything that he has learnt in his profession, even in his juvenile years. The manner and propriety with which he has conducted the Oratorios for many years past has not only excited the admiration, but also the astonishment of all the admirers of that elevated species of musick; and it is worth recording, that at the performance of one of Handel’s Te Deums, for the benefit of a public charity, the organ was half a note too sharp for the other instruments that were to assist at the performance, on which occasion he transposed the whole of it with as much ease and address, as any other person could have done by the help of sight.
Any person’s voice being once heard by him, he never forgets; and if twenty people were seated at a table with him, he will address them all in regular order, without their situations being previously announced to him. In the younger part of his life, riding on horseback was amongst his favourite exercises; and but of late years it was no uncommon thing, when he lived in Salter’s Buildings on Epping Forest, and wished to give his friends an airing , to carry them the most pleasant road, and point out to them the most pleasing prospects. His hours of relaxation in the evenings are often passed at whist, where it is at once as curious as entertaining to see with how much readiness and judgement he plays the game; each card is marked at the corner with the point of a needle; but these signs are so delicately made, as hardly to be felt or seen by any person that is not apprised of it. With these slight marks Mr. Stanley is generally the first whose hand is arranged: and it is no uncommon thing for him to upbraid the party with being tedious in sorting their cards.
He distinguishes with great accuracy the size of a room merely by the sound, and supplies the deficient sense so amply by the acuteness of the others, that he seems to feel but few of those wants which might naturally be expected from one who is deprived of the advantage arising from sight.
As though singularity was fated to attend Mr. Stanley, it is remarkable that a few years ago, without any previous illness, and without any subsequent inconvenience, he lost all his hair from his body. This remarkable incident, we believe, was described in the Philosophical Transactions about the year that it happened.
The composer, Mr. Stanley, is always sweet and pleasant. If he does not posses the fire of Handel, he never disgusts with insipidity. He has carefully cultivated the style in which he was originally instructed, which, if it does not exhibit as much of what is called Taste as may be found among other authors, at least discovers more good sense.
It is almost unnecessary to enter into his merits as a performer, those being as universally known as acknowledged; and as we do not mean to write a panegyric of this gentleman’s talents, justice will authorise us in pronouncing him at once a prodigy and an ornament to his country.”
Stanley – Six Concertos for Strings Op. 2
Stanley – Six Concertos for Strings Op. 2
Stanley – Organ Voluntaries played by Richard Marlow
Stanley – Six Concertos for Organ & Strings Op. 10
(Unicorn) DKPCD 9107
Voluntaries for Organ played by J. Bate
No. 8 Op. 5
Nos. 6, 8 & 9 Op. 6
No. 7 Op. 7
(Capriccio) 10 256
Voluntaries for Organ played by T. Koopman
Nos. 2,5, & 8 Op. 5
Nos. 2,3,4,5,6 & 8 Op. 6
Nos. 2,6 & 9 Op. 7
(Libra) LRS 125 (Cassette only)
Voluntaries for Organ played by G. Gifford
Nos. 1 & 3 Op. 5
Nos. 1,6 & 10 Op. 6
Nos. 8 & 10 Op. 7
ORYX Baroque Music Club BMC1
Six Concertos for Strings/Organ/Harpsichord & strings, Op 2.
Available on-line at Baroque Music Club website