St Paul’s chorister to Croydon organist: Stokes’ life in music

Novel picture: Charles Stokes,  here to the piano player’s left, as captured in Edward Petre Novello’s painting at the National Portrait Gallery

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: In the early 1800s,  the then Parish Church’s organ required players of the highest musical calibre. DAVID MORGAN’s researches have uncovered the life story of another outstanding figure of that age

When John Avery built one of his great organs in Croydon Parish Church in 1794, it was decided that a professional organist must be appointed to ensure that the music heard in the church was as majestic and heavenly as possible.

John Bartleman, the first of these new organists, was a very busy man. Continuing to sing with both the Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal choirs, together with performing in many London concerts, he often needed someone to stand in for him at Croydon.

One of his deputies, Charles Smith, eventually took over the full-time role when Bartleman stood down because of his poor health. Evidence from various sources has revealed a new name who came to play the Avery organ: Charles Stokes.

James Bartleman: Croydon Parish Church’s first professional organist

An entry in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, written in the 1880s, lists Stokes as being “an assistant organist for several years to John Calcott at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden and to James Bartleman at Croydon.”

It would have been in the very first years of the 19th Century, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, that Stokes would have played here.

Thanks to a painting in the National Portrait Gallery, we know what Stokes looked like, albeit in the latter years of his life. Painted by Edward Petre Novello about 1830, the title of the piece is “The Novello Family”. Seated around the piano in the Novello home are all the family, as well as a few close friends.

Sitting, looking over the piano player’s left shoulder is a balding, ruddy-cheeked man. He is wearing a smart black coat, a high white collar and a waistcoat. This is Charles Stokes, a very close friend and associate of Vincent Novello, the pianist.

Both of them were leading lights on the London musical scene. Novello’s family name is well-known as they went on to found a hugely successful music publishing business, now part of the Wise Music Group.

Charles Stokes was born in 1784 and when aged six was admitted as a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral. His father had died when Stokes was an infant and it was his godfather, Samuel Webbe, a musician of some renown, who was influential in getting him a place in the cathedral choir. Stokes remained at St Paul’s for six years, probably until his voice broke.

Croydon’s Avery organ: said to be the best of its kind

He must have shown much musical promise as he continued his musical education after that, having piano lessons successively with Charles Wesley Jnr, Samuel Webbe and Samuel Sebastian Wesley.

On leaving the choir, Stokes was apprenticed to Thomas Carter, a composer of songs, many of them being performed at Vauxhall Gardens, which was the most popular amusement gardens of Regency period London.

The relationship between Carter and Stokes was an uneasy one, and after the young apprentice received a particularly harsh beating, he ran away, never to return.

This brutal episode appears not to have had a detrimental effect on Stokes’s musical development and career.

A little over 10 years later, in 1811, he was playing the piano in a concert in the Hanover Square Rooms, the principal music venue in London at the time. In fact, he was playing Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s new composition “Trio for three pianofortes”, accompanied by the composer and Vincent Novello. A note in a letter written by Wesley hoped that they could “make a few guineas from the concert”.

Musicians need more income than just a few guineas for performing here and there, though. The majority of income earned by Stokes would have come through his teaching of the piano. Vincent Novello himself described Stokes as a “most able teacher” and JB Cranmer, one of the leading pianists of the day, held pupils who had begun their musical journey with Stokes “in high regard”.

It was Stokes’ long friendship with both Wesley and Novello that helped his musical career to flourish. They both appreciated his playing ability, as well as his composing skills and with them he could network successfully. He was encouraged by the two of them to play a significant role in the musical life of the capital. Stokes’ anthem, “I will lay me down in peace” was published by Novello, along with 10 short organ pieces.

It is in Novello’s papers and letters that further information comes to light about our Croydon organist. Novello reveals how saddened he was by Stokes’ death in 1839 and how he treasured a hand-written score of Wesley’s Gregorian Mass that was presented to him by Stokes’ widow.

The Hanover Rooms, where Stokes performed, was the foremost London concert venue of the time

Novello was taken aback by the fact that Stokes had left very little financial provision for his family. Perhaps the musical world was as difficult to succeed in then as it is today. Nine months after Stokes’  death, Novello and a few friends performed a benefit concert in the Hanover Rooms to raise money for the widow and children.

Only one of Stokes’ children’s names has come to light: Arthur. Novello’s papers reveal that Arthur was one of his pupils receiving organ lessons. In 1840, Novello wrote a reference for Arthur to secure a position playing the organ. The correspondence does not say if Arthur got the job.

This was not the only time that Novello had written a reference for the Stokes family. In 1832 he has supplied a reference for Charles who had applied for the post of organist at the chapels of Trinity and St John’s colleges, Cambridge. The reference states Stokes to be a reliable family man with an even temper “of quiet and gentlemanly pursuits, with a tendency to studies of a classical nature; of irreproachable moral character, an excellent Theoretical Musician, and a most admirable performer both on the organ and pianoforte”.

Despite the glowing reference, Stokes was not appointed. Rather than choose a man in his 50s, the colleges chose a young dynamic organist going up to Cambridge to study: Thomas Walmisley, the current Croydon organist! Stokes’ days as an organist of note were at an end.

Stoke’s composition, as published by Novello

The Musical Times published an obituary for Stokes and included a story about him playing the organ at Croydon Parish Church. It described the day when Stokes was deputising for Bartleman and he was in position on the organist’s bench playing a voluntary. Sensing a movement close to him, Stokes saw a pair of shoes beneath the curtain which shielded him from the congregation. As soon as he saw the small size of shoe, Stokes realised that they could only belong to one person: John Bartleman.

The grand master had slipped into church to check on how well his deputy was playing! The obit reveals that Stokes was in awe of Bartleman’s “critical power”.

His obituary described Stokes as an “excellent musician”. His compositions were thoughtful and full of feeling but they were described by Groves as containing “antiquated musicianship.”

The Novello family painting encapsulates much of Stokes’ life and career. In many ways he had reached the top of the musical tree, but too often there was one higher in the pecking order than him. In the painting he is part of the group but he not playing the piano; he is watching the maestro.

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