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Charles Villiers Stanford. By Paul Rodmell. pp. xx + 495. (Ashgate. Aldershot, 2002, £57.50. ISBN 1-85928-198-2.)

Charles Villiers Stanford. Man and Musician. By Jeremy Dibble. pp. xvi + 535. (Oxford University Press, 2002. £65. ISBN 0-19-816383-5.)

Apart from Stanford, The Cambridge Jubilee and Tchaikovsky by Gerald Norris (1980) in which Stanford plays a pivotal role, it has been 67 years since the first and last biography of the Irish composer/conductor/pedagogue was published. Then, rather like waiting for a bus, a pair arrives together in time for the 150th anniversary of his birth, and if you can afford to buy both, then do, for each with its various differences complements the other. That earlier biography was written by Parry’s son-in-law, the singer Harry Plunket Greene in 1935, and like these two new books, relied heavily for biographical information on Stanford’s own autobiography (Pages from an Unwritten Diary, 1914), and his other books Studies and Memories (1908) and Interludes, Records and Recollections (1922). As a result there remain huge gaps of detail in Stanford’s private life which are extremely hard to fill, such as his own omission in the autobiography of any mention whatsoever of his wife Jennie or even their marriage. Only a fraction of Stanford’s personal letters has survived; Rodmell estimates that the 800 autograph letters he traced represents just the tip of an enormous iceberg, and that at ten a week, 28,000 is a conservative estimate of the number of letters Stanford wrote between adulthood commencing in 1870 and his death in 1924. Stanford’s own children Guy and Geraldine both died childless in the 1950s, and as Stanford himself was an only child, there are no close family members to whom letters (including those to him) may have been bequeathed, and regrettably, as the title of his autobiography suggests, he kept no diary.

Stanford’s father pinned his hopes on his son entering the legal profession, and it was only while en route to take the scholarship examination at Trinity Hall that the son announced rather nervously to his father that music, rather than the law, was his chosen career. Fortunately for the young Charles, John Stanford himself had been thwarted by familial opposition to his own musical ambitions years before, and so he calmly accepted his son’s plan, providing that he first obtained a university degree before starting any musical study. In the end it worked out even better for the young student, for though he failed the scholarship entry, he was given one of the first organ scholarships in the university offered by Queens’ College, coupled to a classical scholarship, and eventually succeeded in obtaining a degree (albeit a bare pass at third class level). More importantly he soon found his way into Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS), his timely arrival coinciding with an urgent need to regenerate its activities, currently languishing in the hands of an ailing leadership. Stanford immediately set to and attempted to change the Society’s constitution by overturning a rule which debarred women members, thus producing an exclusively male chorus of a highly spurious standard. The motion was rejected, and so Stanford forced the issue by founding the Amateur Vocal Guild with which he gave two highly successful concerts in 1872. It was not long before CUMS submitted to a merger, especially as the Professor of Music, Sterndale Bennett, gave Stanford his unequivocal support. From April 1873 Stanford was appointed conductor of the Society, whereupon he proceeded to raise performance standards to heights which gained a reputation far beyond the University to reach London and even continental Europe, which, as it happened, he visited for the first time that summer.

The purpose of this trip was primarily to attend the Schumann Festival at Bonn, where he not only imbibed the music with enthusiasm but also made the acquaintance of Brahms, Hiller, Clara Schumann, Rudorff, Stockhausen and Joachim. Back in Cambridge he left Queens’ for Trinity in 1874 as college organist, a move which enabled him to begin his career as a composer as well as conductor and performer, because generous terms allowed him to take six months abroad including the entire summer vacation. Leipzig was his destination, a city famed for its musical heritage from Bach to (barely thirty years before) Mendelssohn, and which now boasted a famed series of concerts at the Gewandhaus, a flourishing opera at the Neues Stadttheater, a famous Conservatoire, and many music publishers of whom Peters and Breitkopf & Härtel were currently the most famous (by the end of the century there were more than sixty in the city). At the time, indeed from 1860 to 1895, the Gewandhaus orchestra was in the hands of Carl Reinecke, who loathed the music of Liszt and Wagner and denounced that of Brahms. Stanford took composition lessons from Reinecke, but described him as ‘the most desiccated of all the dry musicians I have known’.

Back at Cambridge, the post of Professor became vacant when Bennett died. Although only 23, Stanford decided to apply but withdrew when he heard that George Macfarren was in the running and subsequently appointed. Reform was in the air. At the time, and unlike other subjects, music students were not obliged to reside within the university and were expected to obtain private instruction, while the Professor (also free to reside where he chose) was little more than an external examiner. Stanford had his own vision (embracing practical study as well as theory and composition), although it was tempered by the time he was in a position (from his own appointment in 1887) to put it into practice. Meanwhile he spread his and CUMS’ reputation further afield in May 1875 with the British premiere of Part III of Schumann’s Faust as well as his own orchestral anthem The Resurrection in a concert which caught the attention of the musical fraternity (Parry had by now made his first reference to Stanford in his diary, 29 January 1875, quoting Robert Benson’s description of him as ‘a tip-top man’). In the autumn he completed his first symphony, and submitted it for a competition promoted by the Alexandra Palace to find the best new symphony by a native composer. From the 46 entries it won second prize (£5), the first having gone to Macfarren’s son-in-law Francis Davenport, but had to wait until 8 March 1879 for its first performance at the Crystal Palace. Dibble notes signs of Schumann in the work, in particular that composer’s Rhenish symphony, while Rodmell prefers a foretaste of the later sixth symphony by Dvorak (published 1882), at the same time mentioning press reviews which wrote of the similarity of the first subject in the first movement to ‘The Campbells are coming’. Max Bruch’s ballad for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra Schön Ellen Op.23 (1866) ends with that very song, and could well have been heard by Stanford in Leipzig, for Bruch was one of the few living composers favoured by Reinecke and whose music was therefore given performances.

The years 1876 and 1877 were significant for Stanford, who, in 1876, brought Joachim to Cambridge for chamber music in March, conducted Brahms’ German Requiem with CUMS in May, attended Wagner’s first Ring cycle at Bayreuth in the summer, and then went to Berlin to study with Friedrich Kiel. In May 1877 he conducted a CUMS concert in which he gave the first British performance of Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody as well as his own God is our hope, a Psalm in five-movement cantata form, with, according to Dibble, the hallmarks of a Mus. Bac. exercise, yet imbued with colourful orchestration, harmonic language and inventive structures. Despite a breakdown during the performance, it was the first of his works to receive significant coverage in the national media, ‘he has the right stuff in him’ said the Musical Times, though Henry Labouchère in the Truth advised the composer to ‘let his wings grow longer before he tries such flights’. There were at least three other important encounters by Stanford at this time. The first was with Tennyson with whom, through the Poet Laureate’s sons Lionel and Hallam, he began a long friendship and fruitful collaboration, starting with the incidental music to the play Queen Mary, the second was with Hans Richter, who took a leading role conducting the Wagner Festival at London’s Royal Albert Hall in May 1877 (on p.92, footnote 11 Dibble omits the sixth concert which took place on 18 May), and the third was with Jennie Wetton, to whom, after the conclusion of a year’s enforced separation by Stanford’s father, he was married in April 1878.

The 1880s continued to beckon a promising future for Stanford. His opera The Veiled Prophet was given its first performance in February 1881 at Hanover under Ernst Frank Although plans for Carl Rosa to stage it in London, or Richter in Vienna came to nothing, he was far from discouraged and entered into attractive contracts with publisher John Boosey for two further works, Savonarola and The Canterbury Pilgrims. The Birmingham Triennial Festival offered him his first commission for the 1882 Festival (for which he wrote an orchestral Serenade) and for four further Festivals until 1897 (his Requiem). Rodmell points out Elgar’s leapfrog over Stanford and Parry to fill the gap in public and critical acclaim caused by the death of Sullivan in 1900, when Birmingham commissioned his Dream of Gerontius for that year’s event followed by The Apostles and The Kingdom in 1903 and 1906 respectively. But Stanford’s big falling out with Richter in 1908 (over a trivial misunderstanding of the time of an appointment with Stanford’s pupil James Friskin) hardly ‘cemented the exclusion’ beyond the following Festival in 1909, for it was Henry Wood, not Richter, who conducted in 1912, and which also happened to be the last Festival. Fortunately for Stanford, however, as one door closed another opened, for he was appointed conductor of the Leeds Philharmonic Society in 1897 until 1909, and of the Leeds Festival between 1901 and 1910, providing a useful outlet for performances of his own works.

Stanford was appointed to the new Royal College of Music when it opened in 1883, and made the cardinal error of accepting payment by the hour, which over the years averaged 15s/75p per hour for composition, ensemble and opera tuition and a guinea/£1.05p for conducting orchestral rehearsals. Little wonder this was a decision he came sorely to regret as the years passed. Rodmell covers the issue in detail, quoting in full his letter (27 October 1901) to Parry, who succeeded Grove as Director from 1894, by which time his composition class had shrunk to three hours a week, while as far as conducting the orchestra was concerned, ‘if Richter were engaged to conduct a College concert his fee would be fifty guineas. I get three.’ He requested the post of Orchestra and Opera Conductor to be salaried, he pointed out that he took no private pupils, and that the older and more experienced he was becoming, the less he was being rewarded. The Executive’s response was to tinker here and there in an effort to mollify him, producing an increase of some £60 per year, but Stanford was predictably livid and sulked in his usual manner. He did play a hugely dominant role in College life, controlling the orchestra, directing its opera department, but most significantly in his post as Professor of Composition. Taking these three activities in turn, programmes throughout his 38 years at the head of the orchestra reflect his preferences for the German repertoire (especially Brahms and Beethoven), but Tchaikovsky, Glazounov (whom he admired personally), Berlioz, Franck, Saint Saëns, and Dvorak were also prominent. The absence of works by Schubert, Haydn, Borodin and Mussorgsky was generally typical of professional concerts at the time, but that of Elgar and Richard Strauss was the result of his personal antipathy towards their music. When it came to British composers, there was a clear political bias favouring former RCM students, ignoring those who had studied at the Royal Academy of Music, but he could never be accused of promoting either his own or Parry’s music. Ravel and Debussy were rarely played, while Mahler or Stravinsky were totally absent. In opera his choices were more wide-ranging but for the lack of works by Puccini and Richard Strauss. A reason might be due to the inability of immature student voices to cope with their music, yet Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer and Beethoven’s Fidelio were staged. Rodmell lists the operas (generally one each year) Stanford conducted between 1885-1914, and again, as with the orchestral repertoire, it favours the German repertoire including rarities such as Schumann’s Genoveva, and Goetz’s Taming of the Shrew and Francesca da Rimini, but exceptions were Verdi’s Falstaff (whose premiere he had witnessed at La Scala, Milan in 1893) and Gluck’s Orfeo and Alcestis, and two of his own operas, Much Ado about Nothing and Shamus O’Brien.

It is as a teacher that Stanford’s reputation has endured. The list of 47 pupils (a few of them at Cambridge rather than the RCM) compiled by Rodmell makes impressive reading; they include Vaughan Williams, Holst, Hurlstone, Dunhill, Coleridge Taylor, Ireland, Howells, Rebecca Clarke, Boughton, Somervell, Rootham, Dyson, Bridge, Toye, Bainton, Bliss, Gurney, Benjamin, Jacob and Moeran. Given his irascible temperament, Stanford could be blunt (‘Damned ugly me bhoy’), and brutal (‘All rot me bhoy’), yet Howells was favoured and described as his ‘son in music’, while Rebecca Clarke was respected for standing up to him. Stanford’s questioning of the RCM’s role within the nation’s long-term policy on music has a distinctly relevant resonance to the situation today, when he said that ‘foreign nations provide a career before they educate for it, and do not risk turning out shoals of artists the majority of whom find, when they have completed their pupillage, that they have no outlet for their talents’. He no doubt had the German system in mind with plenty of opera houses to take on singers and orchestral players, a situation which, until twenty years ago and the unification of Germany, still prevailed. Stanford confined his work as a teacher of composition to criticising works by his students once they were written, and making suggestions as to form, length and orchestration, dicta which he laid out in his treatise Musical Composition as economy of material, purity of style, rigid self-criticism, accuracy of instruction to the performer (dynamics, bowing, tonal variation and degrees of articulation), variations of texture, freedom through counterpoint, and a grasp of instrumental characteristics, both solo and in ensemble. Modal counterpoint was at the heart of the discipline required of his students. ‘Palestrina for tuppence’ he would call the bus fare required for the journey from Prince Consort Road to Westminster Cathedral to hear choral services after they were introduced in 1902. For him ugly music was bad music and he would have no truck with 20th century developments. While the music of that other long-lived melodist Bruch (he died as late as 1920) remained rooted about the mid 1860s, Stanford’s melodic style progressed by not much more than a decade or two. Dibble points to his effortless facility of an ‘impeccable sense of balance and presentation’ and his fundamental belief in absolute music. His lyrical response as a melodist (the Intermezzo in the fourth symphony), his imaginative instrumentation (the entry of the organ in the finale of the fifth), his interest in his homeland’s folk music which inspired the orchestral Rhapsodies, his supreme craftsmanship as a writer of liturgical anthems still have the power to surprise, and to dismiss his music as ‘Brahms and water’ is simplistically irrelevant. Both Rodmell and Dibble write positively of Stanford’s music, the former in more detail with 100 music examples to Dibble’s 26, but the tireless Dibble has been at the epicentre of the recordings produced by Hyperion in recent years, after the symphonies and rhapsodies recorded by Vernon Handley and published by Chandos during the 1990s. Generally any revival in the music of non-mainstream composers comes as the result of a biography (such as Clive Brown’s of Spohr in 1984 or my own of Bruch four year later). This was not so with Stanford, whose revival preceded these biographies, so it would have been useful for both authors to assess his music in the light of what has been recorded and made available for the reader to make a judgement. As it is, Dibble describes the Elegiac Ode (Op.21, 1884 and unrecorded to date) as ‘Stanford’s most imaginative choral works and merits revival’ and the forerunner of works by Delius, Holst and Vaughan Williams in the early twentieth century. Rodmell lists a discography and it includes a remarkably large number of Stanford’s output of two hundred published works in all genres, the notable exception being any of his operas.

Rodmell, but not Dibble, covers Stanford’s acrimonious correspondence with Edmund Garrett over the issue of Home Rule in 1887, and with Arthur Mann in 1890 about the relationship between CUMS and Mann’s Festival Choir. The similarity of this name to that of August Manns of Crystal Palace concerts fame, is made more confusing by Rodmell, who erroneously makes both into one ‘Augustus Mann’. On the other hand Dibble’s summary of the importance of Stanford’s Anglo-Irish Protestant background to the Irishness in his music is cogently described, despite Shaw’s view that he was ‘too thorough an Irishman to be an ideal Bach conductor’. While Bax considered Stanford’s Anglo-Irish background disqualified him from access to the purely Irishness of Ireland, Harry White’s view (The Keeper’s Recital, Dublin 1998) that ‘Stanford harvested Irish music strictly as a means of defining his response to a prevailing European aesthetic’ has a more valid ring of truth about it. As Dibble points out, Shaw, despite ‘his aversion to Stanford’s use of modality, of his unabashed prejudice of academia and of religious choral works in general, retained a sneaking admiration for his countryman’s imagination’, though it’s hard to find in his review of the oratorio Eden at Birmingham in 1891, ‘as insufferable a composition as any Festival committee could desire’. At best Stanford is damned with faint praise when Shaw wrote, ‘in it you see the Irish professor trifling in a world of ideas, in marked contrast to the English professor conscientiously wrestling in a vacuum’. There were, he wrote, ‘traces of a talent for composition’. Shaw was just as merciless on the subject of Stanford’s conducting, such as his first attempt at Bach’s B minor Mass on 12 May 1888 soon after his appointment to the Bach Choir, which he conducted from 1885 to 1902. For reasons of his own Stanford indicated to the audience that they should stand during the Sanctus, an act dismissed by Shaw as ‘an imitation of the Hallelujah custom. He is really guilty of a sort of forgery. Probably however, people will not be so easily persuaded to stand up when they come to know how long the Sanctus is’. Somehow Shaw could never shake off his suspicion that musical power in England was concentrated in the hands of Stanford, Parry and Mackenzie.

Dibble and Rodmell have their stylish quirks, even adopting phrases of the period such as ‘book’ for libretto (Rodmell p.208) or ‘assisted by’ for soloists (Dibble p.266), while the quaintly accurate ‘opera had thriven in Leipzig’ (Dibble p.61) or the one spotted typo ‘heeling the rift’ (Rodmell p.64) provide a certain charm. Both authors explore the Stanford-Brahms relationship. Responsible for programming the first performance in Britain of Brahms’ new first symphony on 8 March 1877 at a CUMS concert when Joachim conducted it in the second half, we learn that Stanford, despite his unbridled admiration for the music, did not warm to the personality twenty years later when he met Brahms in Berlin in December 1895. ‘A big brain I know, and a small heart, I think’ he wrote to Joachim on 14 January 1896. While Rodmell goes into more detail than Dibble on the subject of Stanford’s resistance to the admission of women to degrees at Cambridge, Dibble covers Stanford’s view on music copyright and publishing leading to the Copyright Act passed in 1906, and his questioning pamphlet Ethics of Music-Publishing in England published in the following year, in which he criticised publishers for only bringing out ‘music that would pay’.

A slight mystery arises through a slip in Dibble (page 137) when he writes that Stanford went to Bayreuth in 1883 to hear Tristan, Parsifal and Die Meistersinger, the latter under Richter. In fact, after 1876 Richter did not return to Bayreuth until 1888, and in 1883 only Parsifal was given (under Levi). Dibble gives this as the reason Stanford did not conduct his second symphony (Elegiac) at Gloucester as part of the Three Choirs Festival. Charles Harford Lloyd was the conductor on 6 September 1883, ‘in the unavoidable absence of the composer’ according to the Musical Times. Where Dibble has Stanford at Bayreuth, Rodmell has him hard at work composing Act Two of The Canterbury Pilgrims between 13 August and 16 September, but in any event the twelve performances at Bayreuth that year took place on alternate days between 8 and 30 July, so the Festival was long over by the date under discussion.

Mention has been made of Stanford’s irascibility, but his spectacular falling out with Elgar and the stubborn, suspicious elements in their respective characters as well as their shared paranoia prevented any genuine, sincere reconciliation. The nature of their relationship lay somewhere between tragedy and farce. The quarrel seems to have arisen when Elgar was appointed to the newly created Chair of Music at Birmingham, and in his first lecture (15 March 1905) he named Parry as the sole English composer of any stature, going on to ridicule the unnamed Stanford, the composer of six orchestral Rhapsodies. ‘I think every Englishman since [Liszt] has called some work a Rhapsody’, he wrote. ‘Could anything be more inconceivably inept? To rhapsodise is one thing Englishmen cannot do’. Nothing sums up their quarrel more succinctly than the photographs reproduced in Rodmell and taken at Bournemouth in 1910 (when Stanford refused to shake Elgar’s hand) and at the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester in 1922 (when Herbert Brewer forced the two men to do so), with both protagonists seated at each end of a row of musical dignitaries.

Stanford was at the heart of the music profession for half a century as composer, conductor and performer. In 1893 he could invite Bruch, Saint Saëns, Tchaikovsky, and Boito to Cambridge to receive honorary doctorates. On other occasions Dvorak, Grieg and Joachim also came. He met and performed Brahms and Verdi. He conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, large choirs and national festivals. He heard his music from chamber music to opera performed here and abroad, while the roster of his composition pupils rivals no other teacher. Despite his conservatism in some areas (new music and the role of women in the profession), he was a notable reformer in the field of education and did his best (like Richter) to achieve an English National opera. Rodmell and Dibble have familiar images of him on the rear dust-jackets of their respective books, Rodmell chose William Orpen’s 1920 portrait (now at Trinity College, Cambridge) of Stanford seated in his full doctoral robes and with the hint of a wry smile playing around his jowled cheeks and small chin, while Dibble opts for Spy’s chuckling cartoon of him drawn for the April 1904 issue of Vanity Fair. There’s enough about both to leave one with a good feeling about the man despite the endless trouble he seems to have largely brought upon himself. These are highly readable biographies, between them covering all the details of Stanford’s work and as much as they can of his life. This was a man who played a far more important role in the English musical renaissance than he is usually given credit for.

Dibble includes a wonderful personal memory of Stanford during the 1880s when he was in his thirties, written in 1933 by Stanley Peine (S. P.) Waddington, one of his first composition students. At one and the same time it catches the stimulating yet intimidating atmosphere of the classroom. ‘The impression he made on me was one of brilliance. His personality had a sort of splendour, as if the hero of a fairy-tale, incredibly gifted, miraculously omniscient, had strolled unconcernedly into a world of ordinary mortals. Until I got used to it, his very appearance awed me; his tall, loose figure, his slow walk with its short steps, his fair head rising from the collar of his fur coat, his somewhat unshapely nose, which one had to admit as a small flaw in his majesty. His speech added to the wonder he created in me; his Irish brogue grafted on to a Cambridge idiom, his calm, assured and certain manner of utterance seemed to me, accustomed to the vigour of provincial dialectics, so masterly, so ideal! Those were indeed his great days. Gifted, confident, productive, already important in his sphere, gradually winning favour, he seemed to have the world at his feet. Evidently high in the counsels of the College, admired by the Director, esteemed by his pupils, he was a force such as this generation can hardly realise’.

Christopher Fifield

 



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