By Ciara Griffiths
We previously encountered a blind musician in Turlough O’Carolan. His instrument was the harp, though he was also commended for his voice. We now come a little closer to Buckinghamshire, where in London in 1712, John Stanley was born. Another blind musician of exceptional talent, his instrument was the organ.
An accident involving a china basin aged two left him completely blind. Though deprived of his sight, an opportunity still presented itself. We saw in Turlough O’Carolan’s story that music was a respectable profession for the blind, and the most common of these instruments – for those who could afford it – was the organ. Fortunately, Stanley’s father had good connections. When John turned seven, his father arranged for him to be tutored under organist John Reading.
The organ is a sophisticated instrument, with up to five keyboards, an additional pedal keyboard, and stops to open and close pipes to produce differing sounds which allows for great range and experimentation for composers. It is unique in that the opening and closing of pipes, which produce varying pitches, can replicate different orchestral sounds (Stanley took advantage of this in one of his famous pieces). There are even pieces written specifically for the pedals. The shorter the pipe, the higher the pitch; the longer the pipe, the lower the pitch and greater the volume. It requires a great memory, which Stanley had. A challenging instrument to say the least (though truly a great sound), but to play whilst blind must have demanded patience and determination. Stanley’s tutors taught him well, for he was a chapel organist by the age of fourteen, ‘in preference to a great number of candidates’.
He then entered Oxford to study music and at seventeen, Stanley remains the youngest recipient of a bachelor’s degree in music. Well-tutored and with a degree behind him, he secured the position of organist of the Middle Temple in London. This was a prestigious post for a young and talented musician like Stanley – and he was only twenty-one. By twenty-three, he was married. Though financially comfortable with his position, his wife brought him a handsome dowry.
He was a man of many talents: not only was he a violinist, but he was skilled in billiards, whist, could ride well, and enjoyed social occasions as much as the sighted people around him. Indeed, he was quite the social character. His memory, too, was impeccable. It is said that a single hearing was enough for him to memorise a piece. A man of good connections, he was never short of admirers or demand, and he eventually did take up teaching.
By 1760, the renowned Handel had gone blind and needed assistance producing and directing his pieces. Stanley was suggested and though he and Handel were friends, Handel refused his help. Nevertheless, after Handel’s death, Stanley did go on to direct many musical concerts, including Handel’s Messiah in honour of his friend, and collaborated with fellow musicians.
During this time, the highest musical honour one could receive was Master of the King’s Band of Musicians. This post still exists today. This would involve directing the court orchestra and quite like the poet laureate, the postholder would be expected to commission music upon request. In 1779, this tremendous honour was given to sixty-three-year-old Stanley. He enjoyed the post until his death in 1786 aged seventy-three. In his lifetime, he had composed thirty organ voluntaries (organ solos), twelve concertos, fourteen flute solos, nine cantatas (a short vocal composition) and four oratorios (typically a religious narrative with music). Including the fourteen missing pieces that were commissioned during his royal post, in total Stanley composed eighty-three pieces. Given that information surrounding Stanley’s life is patchy, there may be many more compositions yet to be discovered.
It is very important to recognise that while music was considered a respectable profession for the blind, it was available to those who could afford it. While destitute disabled people were recorded taking to busking in the streets, few had the professional opportunities that Stanley did. Stanley was of good family and they certainly had the means to afford sending their son to Oxford. You can read my Nicholas Saunderson blog to see how expensive university fees were in the eighteenth century, especially when you compare the pricing to today’s money (there was no Student Finance). While it is comforting to know that blind people could prosper throughout history as musicians, social standing is a very important factor to consider.
Stanley was a contemporary of Thomas Arne (the composer of Rule, Britannia!), William Boyce and William Felton. Though successful composers in their own rights, they – Stanley included – are often overshadowed by a contemporary you may have heard of: George Frideric Handel. As he got older, Stanley would have been a contemporary of other composers such as William Herschel and ‘the English Mozart’ Thomas Linley the Younger (Linley the Elder was also a successful composer). In general, English music in the eighteenth century is often overlooked. Again, these names are overshadowed by more renowned European composers like Mozart and Haydn.
Despite his blindness, Stanley appears to have lived a prosperous, busy life. When he died aged 73, the famous eighteenth-century writer Frances Burney praised him as, ‘a truly worthy man’. A worthy tribute, indeed.
Boyd, G. (1974). The Organist’s Repertory: John Stanley’s Voluntaries. The Musical Times, Vol. 115, No. 1577 pp 598-601.
Finzi, G. (1953) John Stanley: 1713-1786. Tempo no. 27 pp 21-27. Cambridge University Press
To learn how a pipe organ works and what Stanley was working with: