STANLEY was born in Leicester, England, in 1910. He started taking piano lessons around the age of six , studying with Victor Thomas from the age of 15. Under Thomas, he made rapid progress and was moved on to the organ at the age of 17, while also taking singing lessons and conducting the Humberstone and Victoria Choral Societies. However, Stanley's first work was with his father's building firm, but by the age of 18 he was convinced that his career should be in music. By the time he was 20, he had obtained his A.R.C.M., A.R.C.O. and F.R.C.O. diplomas.
At the age of 21 he was appointed assistant organist at Leicester Cathedral under Dr. George Gray. Soon afterwards, Stanley took on the post of chorus master of the Leicester Philharmonic Society under its conductor, Sir Henry Wood.
Two years later he was appointed organist of Gainsborough Parish Church. He taught at Gainsborough Grammar and High Schools, and ran the Breckin Choir in Doncaster. He also travelled to Leicester each week for rehearsals of the Leicester Philharmonic1 (which he continued when Sir Malcolm Sargent took over from Wood) and to teach some private pupils. He married Frances in 1934.
His next appointment, at the age of 29 was as organist of Holy Trinity Church, Leamington Spa. War service took a large period of Stanley's time here. However, he still found time to start up the Royal Leamington Spa Bach Choir (November 1939) and the Warwickshire Symphony Orchestra (1940). Following the end of the war, his first organ recital was broadcast from Hamburg. Tutored by Dr George Oldroyd at London and Sir Edward Bairstow (by now at Durham), Stanley obtained his B.Mus. degree. It was also at Leamington that his son Martyn and daughter Gillian were born.
He was appointed organist of Chelmsford Cathedral in 1949. During the next few years he was also Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint at Trinity College London, conductor of the Chelmsford Singers and founder-conductor of the Essex Symphony Orchestra. One of his best-known anthems, "Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is", was written for the enthronement of the 4th Bishop of Chelmsford2. At the end of his time here, he was awarded an honorary Fellowship of Trinity College.
When, in 1953, he was appointed organist and Master of Music at Peterborough Cathedral, his predecessor admitted that the choir was in an awful state. There followed a period of intense choir training, remoulding the singing to obtain the sounds he wanted. This resulted in frequent broadcasts: his first commercial recording with the choir (Argo, 1961) was of Tudor church music by Batten and Dering. After about thirteen years in the post, perhaps the ultimate accolade came from the Poet Laureate John Betjeman.
In his introduction to Peterborough Cathedral in the series "British cathedrals and their music" he said "You will now hear the choir of Peterborough Cathedral sing ... and I think you will agree that they are a matchless choir".
Psalms were sung to chants from Peterborough Cathedral's own chant book - a collection started in the days of Haydn Keeton (1879). This collection was updated: where no existing good chant was available to match and enhance the words, Stanley composed his own (32 in all). These, together with other pieces, often remained unpublished as he preferred to keep them "special" to Peterborough.
Alongside this, he was kept very busy teaching (singing, organ and piano), directing the Peterborough Philharmonic Choir3 and Orchestra, the Aeolian Singers (a small group he formed for broadcasts and local performances) and adjudicating at music festivals throughout the UK. He was a Special Commissioner with the Royal School of Church Music, sitting on the Council of, and examining for, the Royal College of Organists. In addition, he travelled to Canada, adjudicating at festivals right across the country, to Hong Kong (also adjudicating) and to the United States (teaching at a choir training camp).
Possibly partly resulting from his work in Canada, he was offered a post as professor of music at a Canadian university, but preferred to continue his work at Peterborough. He was also tempted by a vacancy at Canterbury Cathedral and was short-listed for this but withdrew - partly because of the unsuitability of the accommodation offered but also because he disliked the noise caused by the constant stream of visitors looking round - particularly during services! He was invited to apply for the post at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, and the chapter was apparently equally divided in choosing between the final two candidates, with the casting vote going to the other finalist because he had a doctorate (which, at that time, Stanley didn't).
A series of highly successful continental tours resulted in Peterborough becoming the first Anglican choir to sing High Mass at Notre Dame in Paris, and culminated in an invitation to sing at the Flanders Festival at Tongeren.
In 1971 Stanley's work was recognised when the Archbishop of Canterbury presented him with an honorary (Lambeth) Doctorate of Music for "long and eminent services to church music".
In 1977, Stanley made his final recording with the choir ("Music for Peterborough") and retired from the cathedral post to live in the nearby village of Wansford. There he formed a small choir to sing in the village church, St. Mary's, and settled down to a (somewhat!) less busy life teaching and composing, while doing gradually less adjudicating.
His 80th birthday (1990) was celebrated with a "Vann Evensong" at the cathedral: "Behold, how good and joyful" (introit), Responses (set IV), Evening Service in D, "Blessed be the God of love", plus "Pavane" as a voluntary. This was followed, in March, by the first performance of his in Mass in A, and the Golden Jubilee Concert of the Royal Leamington Spa Bach Choir, at which Stanley was guest of honour. In July he was elected President of the Essex Symphony Orchestra (a post which he still holds) and became Guest Conductor of the orchestra he had founded 40 years earlier. August saw the publication of the Chichester Evening Service and the first performance of the double choir setting of "O sacrum convivium" at Westminster Abbey.
At the beginning of August 1993, Stanley and Frances attended the cathedral to hear the Royal School of Church Music's Northern Cathedral Singers give the first performance of Stanley's "I love thee, Lord". This was to be the last music that Frances heard: sadly, she died that evening, after a life devoted to the love and support of her husband and family.
In April the following year (1994), the London Cantata Choir sang a "Vann Evensong" in York Minster (the Hereford Service and "O sacrum convivium"): Stanley and members of his family attended. He became president of the recently-formed Peterborough Children's Choir, now re-named Peterborough Young Singers. He started composing again and over the following years was kept busy composing pieces for commissions, and for various publications by Kevin Mayhew. His Ripon Evening Service received its first performance in 1996, while the following year the Missa Sancti Pauli was heard for the first time at St Paul's Cathedral Patronal Festival in London. This was attended by the Greater Chapter - and about 30 of Stanley's "fans" and friends from the Peterborough area and further afield.
The year 2000 saw several memorable events. In February, (during work on a commission for Lichfield Cathedral Choir) a special Evensong attended by the Bishop was held at the cathedral to mark his 90th birthday. The music included Vann Responses (set IV), the Peterborough Service, and the anthem "From heaven's height". Afterwards, the Old Choristers presented a certificate resulting from a donation they had organised to the Cathedral's Elizabeth Anne Hastings Music Endowment Fund "in recognition of and thanksgiving for the outstanding contribution made to music in this cathedral" by Stanley.
A tribute from the wider Peterborough community followed later the same month: a celebration concert was given at All Saints Church, followed by Evensong. The concert included both church music (anthems, chants, the London Cantata Mass, Magnificat in E) and pieces for solo voice, flute and organ. In another tribute in September, this time in York Minster, the London Cantata Choir sang Stanley's Missa Sancti Pauli at Sung Eucharist.
November saw the world premiere of Stanley 's Billingshurst Mass at a charity concert in Chichester Cathedral. This major work, commissioned and performed by the Billingshurst Choral Society, is scored for full orchestra, soprano and baritone soli, and chorus. A second performance took place "on home ground" as the finale to the 2001 Peterborough Festival.
Stanley was now making preparations for moving northwards to be near his son and family in Richmond, North Yorkshire. After months of frustration, the move finally came in early 2002 - it was a huge wrench for him to leave the area in which he had so many friends. The move also marked the end of Stanley's teaching, although he continued composing for a few more years. 2005 saw the issuing of a CD (Priory label) of Stanley's major organ works, recorded by Gary Sieling on the organs of Chelmsford Cathedral. During the same year, work was progressing on the setting up of the Stanley Vann Scholarship Trust, the brainchild of Stanley's American friends, Vern and Phyllis Yon. This was announced at the end of the year (see link on Home Page).
At the latest count, his compositions include 117 anthems, motets and carols, 13 Communion services, 17 settings of morning/evening Canticles, 77 organ pieces, 11 songs, seven hymn tunes, eight instrumental pieces, 32 Chants and, certainly not least, the Billingshurst Mass.
1. - a condition of the reference he obtained from Sir Henry for the Gainsborough post!
2. Some of his other earlier works were written under the pseudonyms John Kelvedon and Ian Morrell.
3. Stanley was asked to conduct two local choral societies, but couldn't spare the time for both. Instead, he agreed to merge the two into the Peterborough Philharmonic Choir.
© M.S.Vann, 2010
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