Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow
with CROSS OF JESUS
Origins. The text and tune were first published together in an oratorio, The Crucifixion, libretto by William J. Sparrow-Simpson (1859–1952) and music by John Stainer (1840–1901). Simpson’s father, William Sparrow Simpson (1828–1897), had served as a capable music administrator (“succentor”) with Stainer for several years (1876–1885) at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Through this acquaintance, Stainer came to work with the younger Simpson on an oratorio, St. Mary Magdalen, in 1883. They reteamed for what would become a much more famous and durable work, The Crucifixion, which premiered at St. Marylebone Parish Church, London, on 24 February 1887.
The hymn “Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow” is movement 5, a hymn intended to be sung by the choir and congregation together. Part of the popularity and longevity of the oratorio as a whole was its design to be performed by modest forces, without the need for a large orchestra, without complex choral polyphony, and requiring only two soloists, a tenor and bass.
The hymn is appropriately titled “The mystery of the divine humiliation,” as it focuses on the seeming incongruity of a God and King being crucified for sinful humans. Stanzas 7 through 9 draw a sharp contrast between Christ’s glory in heaven and his abasement on earth. The hymn is bookended by the return of the first stanza as a conclusion.
A review in The Musical Times, March 1887, p. 174, said of the oratorio’s text: “Speaking generally, the lines are characterised by extreme pietism and glowing sentiment, especially in the hymns.” The review quoted two stanzas of “Cross of Jesus” as an example of Simpson’s “fervid style.”
Musically, Jeremy Dibble, in his biography of Stainer, felt that this hymn was “arguably the finest” of the six hymns in the work, with “a robust melody full of passing modulation and effective sequence.”
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
29 November 2018
Jeremy Dibble, John Stainer: A Life in Music (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2007), p. 246.
“Reviews: The Crucifixion,” The Musical Times, vol. 28, no. 529 (March 1887), pp. 174-175: PDF
Carol A. Doran & Hugh D. McKellar, “Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow,” The Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3A (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), no. 160.
Nicholas Temperley, “Sir John Stainer,” Grove Music Online:
“Cross of Jesus, cross of sorrow,” Hymnary.org: