John Stanley’s Songs and Cantatas

Three Songs for a Voice and Instruments, Op.9 (London, 1751)

Song: I feel new passions rise, Op.9

Song: Love has possessed my heart, Op.9

Song: Immortal goddess, heav’nly fair, Op.9


Cantata for a Voice and Instruments Op.9 no.3 (1751)

Recitative: Long had fair Delia slighted Damon’s love

Aria: Love begone no more

Recitative: The unpitying Nymph had listened to his song

Aria: Call back thy vow much injured Swain

Recitative: The blushing Maid had scarce her love confest

Aria: To vulgar Mortals I resign


Cantata for a Voice and Instruments Op.8 no.3 (1748)

Air: Cease, cease Eugenio thus to gaze

Recitative: Thus as in Love’s soft silken bands

Air: The dull unanimated Wretch


Played by
The Kirckman Ensemble
Jenny Haxell, soprano
Roger Slade, flute
David Galbraith, Harpsichord

Recorded by Three Circles Recording Studio on 30th October 2016

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –  – – – – – – – – – –  – – – – – – – – – –  – – –

John Stanley’s Songs and Cantatas

In his address to the Royal Musical Association on 8th May 1951, the composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) said that the eighteenth century cantata contained the nuclei of perfection; being suitable for both lyrical expression and drama and that it encompassed the seeds of opera and oratorio.  He found it hard to understand why, as a musical form, it never achieved greater importance.

Indeed, sadly the cantata never really developed or evolved and its decline was decidedly swift.   However, in the early to mid-eighteenth century, it remained a very popular art form and the fact that Stanley composed three separate sets underlines how well they must have been received by the audiences of their day.

His three sets of published cantatas are:

  • Six Cantatas for a Voice and Instruments, Op.3 (London, 1742)
  • Six Cantatas for a Voice and Instruments, Op.8 (London, 1748)
  • Three Cantatas and Three Songs for a Voice and Instruments, Op.9 (London, 1751)

The texts were mostly supplied by Stanley’s neighbour and friend, the music historian John Hawkins (1719-1796).  The exception being The God Vertumnus Op.3 No.6 which has words by Hawkins’ friend, Foster Webbe.  In common with most English cantatas and songs at the time, the vocal part was intended for either soprano or tenor.

According to Hawkins’ biographer, the cantatas were, ‘frequently performed at Vauxhall, Ranelagh, and other public places’.  So Stanley joined the list of musical giants who have composed for Vauxhall Gardens.  A list which was eventually to include Handel, Mozart, Haydn, William Boyce and Thomas Arne.  The cantatas would have been performed at Vauxhall between orchestral pieces and concertos.  It was said at the time that visitors often walked in the gardens whilst the orchestra played, but stopped to listen more attentively to the vocal items.  This may have been because a full orchestra would have been easily heard at a distance, whereas one would have needed to have been much closer to a singer, with perhaps just two or three supporting instruments, in order to hear the music and words clearly.
The fact that they were written for the pleasure gardens probably accounts for the somewhat unusual choice of instruments, such as a string quartet, flutes, oboes and even horns.  Stanley may well have been tempted to compose for such a diverse and interesting range of instruments as he knew that the relevant instrumentalists would be readily available from the ever-present garden orchestra.  Unfortunately, this requirement for such a variety of instruments in some of the cantatas, may partly account for their present-day infrequent performance.

In the eighteenth century entry to opera houses and some concert rooms was quite expensive and so many people found high quality music hard to come by.  But part of Jonathan Tyler’s vision as the owner of Vauxhall Gardens was to bring challenging and worthy music to his patrons for a comparatively modest entry fee.  Amongst others, he introduced music by Handel, Boyce, Arne and Stanley and so to many in the audience this would have been their first ever hearing of serious music.

At first Tyler would only allow instrumental music in the garden but he later allowed vocal music.  The latter became particularly popular with visitors.  He employed some of the best singers of the day including Thomas Arne’s wife Cecilia Young (1711-1789), the famous tenor Thomas Lowe (1719-1783) and the great bass Henry Theodore Reinhold (1690-1751).  This change of direction towards more vocal music could in part be attributed to Thomas Arne’s influence after becoming Tyler’s director of music in 1745.  Popular songs became a regular feature of evenings at Vauxhall.  They were mostly of a pastoral nature, with words usually telling stories of shepherds falling in love with shepherdesses in never-never lands of beautiful countryside.  This escapism was undoubtedly part of their charm.  Patriotic songs reflecting wars and battles of the day were also very popular.  But gradually the vocal music at Vauxhall became more sophisticated, with the introduction of part-songs and cantatas.  Thus a door opened for Stanley to compose for what was, to some extent, a new type of audience and in what was, for him, a new musical format.

They formed part of what was one of the greatest achievements of Jonathan Tyler at Vauxhall Gardens; he brought, on a regular basis, high quality music to a remarkably wide ranging audience which included everyone from servants to the King.  To those with an open mind and a good musical ear it must have been an experience that would have been remembered for a lifetime and it helped to shape music in England in the years and centuries to come.

Writing about Stanley’s Cantatas in Music and Letters in 1972, Tony Frost said,

“One looks in vain for examples of harmonic daring, of modulations to unexpected keys, or of unusual formal design, but everywhere one finds a gift for melodic expression which is Stanley’s greatest asset.”

“It is to be hoped that before long some enterprising publishing house will think fit to publish at least a selection of Stanley’s Op. 3, 8 and 9.”

Alas, although many years have passed since these words were written, there are still no modern editions and, until now, no recordings.  I think it is therefore reasonably accurate to state that Stanley’s cantatas have been essentially ignored for over two hundred and fifty years.