If you think of British music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then the name most likely to spring to mind is Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934). Not for the first time in history, other significant composers of the generation regrettably became overshadowed. One such was Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924), though his music is now happily enjoying something of a revival. Naxos has been making a welcome contribution to that renaissance. Stanford’s symphonies, chamber music and works for chorus and orchestra are now all represented in the catalogue, and this month has seen the latest addition with a recording of three more pieces for chorus and orchestra, described later in this blog.
Stanford’s success as a founding professor of composition at London’s Royal College of Music is reflected in an impressive roster of student names that came under his influence. They include Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Frank Bridge, Arthur Bliss and Herbert Howells, nurtured by Stanford into a richly sown artistic field that, ironically, contributed to his own relative obscurity after the turn of the twentieth century.
Stanford was born 164 years ago today, 30th September 1852, into a respectable and musical family in Dublin. His talent for music was recognised early and, after an education at Cambridge University and lessons from Carl Reinecke in Leipzig, he was soon making an impact on Britain’s musical scene with works such as the impressive First Symphony (8.570356). It’s easy to understand how the gorgeous Andante tranquillo movement helped it to win second prize at a competition for British symphonies in 1876. Stanford’s seven symphonies constitute a central aspect of his lifetime’s achievement as a composer, and one of the most popular of these has been the Third Symphony (8.570355) subtitled ‘Irish’. Stanford acknowledges his Celtic heritage in the work, with a significant part for harp in the opening of the third movement.
Stanford’s church choral music secured an enduring legacy for him, with Anthems and Services such as the Te deum laudamus (8.555794) still very much in use in churches today. His large-scale works for choir and orchestra, however, have been unduly neglected. Recorded for the first time by the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland in 2004, the Requiem (8.555201-02) was composed in memory of the painter Lord Leighton, who died in 1896. The artist’s stature is reflected in a work that rivals the great Requiems of Berlioz and Verdi in terms of scale, something which can be heard in the funereal gravity of the final Agnus Dei et Lux aeterna.
The latest addition to Stanford’s discography in the Naxos catalogue is released this month and features three more rarely heard works for choral forces and orchestra (8.573512). The Resurrection was his first major choral work, written during that period of study with Carl Reinecke in Leipzig and anticipating Mahler’s use of Klopstock’s eponymous poem in his ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. The dramatic, at times almost operatic and Wagnerian Stabat Mater is a cantata with two purely orchestral movements suggestive of a large-scale symphony, while Song to the Soul contains some of Stanford’s most exhilarating utterances, though it was never performed in his lifetime.
Chamber music also forms a significant part of Stanford’s output. These works include light and entertaining pieces such as the Irish Fantasies (8.572452), the third of which is a cleverly constructed Jig. Stanford’s ambitions, however, went much further than this: dating from 1918 his Third Piano Trio, “Per aspera ad astra” (8.570416), reflects some of the pain of colleagues who lost their lives during World War I. This is music more from the era of Brahms than of the year that saw the creation of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale or Bartók’s Second String Quartet, a stylistic mismatch that accounts for Stanford’s music being seen as old-fashioned. Listened to without prejudice in our times these are works that, as biographer John Porte pointed out, can be enjoyed as “sonorously scored, classical in outlook, and [containing] many passages of an expressive and somewhat poetical freshness.”
Although we’ve focused on 30th September as Stanford’s date of birth, we’ll end by briefly acknowledging Virgil Thomson, who died on this date in 1989 at the grand old age of 92. Thomson’s Cello Concerto (8.559344) recalls his Missouri roots in its keenly expressive second movement, Variations on a Southern Hymn. But he is perhaps best remembered for his film music, and in particular for his musical illustration of the 1936 documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains (8.559291). Did you ever hear a more accurate portrait of lumbering Cattle than his?