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This year Promenade audiences heard for the first time, 92 years after a planned performance that fell through, the Second Piano Concerto by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924). Additionally, a CD is being issued entitled Land of Sunset Glories and played by the present writer, offering a sequence of the composer’s solo piano music, most of it not previously recorded. details This seems a good occasion to examine Stanford’s relationship to the piano more fully than programme or booklet notes allow.

1. Training in Dublin

Musically-aware Dubliners in the early 1860s might have already predicted a musical career for Stanford. We may wonder, however, whether they would have foreseen a pianist or a composer. While not yet ten he presented a tasteful if hardly virtuosic programme of Beethoven, Handel, Mendelssohn, Moscheles, Mozart and Bach [1] . A longer and more demanding programme about two years later [2] drew the comment:

… Master Charles V. Stanford …is doubtless destined for a great position in the musical world … a listener alone of whatever experience, not knowing of the youth, or seeing the performer would suppose an artist at the instrument who had passed through years of mature study, neatness and precision, elastic touch, expression and finish seem to have been bestowed by nature in this case, for Master Stanford plays with his head as well as with his hands” [3] .


On this occasion Stanford not only played solo music by Beethoven, Heller, Hummel, Bach, Dussek and Weber but also accompanied a couple of songs and joined in a performance of the Haydn G major Trio. Moreover, one of the songs was a composition of his own. From the previous year, in fact, it had become quite a feature of Dublin musical life to find a piece by the young Stanford slipped into even quite important programmes [4] . So our musically-aware Dubliner may well have backed the composer against the pianist even then.

Nevertheless, Stanford continued to appear regularly as a pianist in his role as conductor and general animator of the Cambridge University Music Society for twenty years beginning from the end of 1872. He rarely played as soloist [5] but was dedicated to chamber music and seems to have coped easily enough with the frequently demanding piano parts of the new German school. Contemporaneously, he was organist at Trinity College, Cambridge. After 1892 he still occasionally accompanied his songs in public [6] .

Stanford’s first piano lessons were with his mother but the most lasting influence on his approach to the piano was his godmother, Elizabeth Meeke, a Moscheles pupil whom he recalled as “an admirable amateur pianist”. Stanford’s quite detailed account of her method has considerable bearing on the way in which he subsequently wrote for the piano, and how we should play his piano music, and is worth quoting at length:

She always held that a beautiful touch was a gift, which can be developed by careful training but cannot be manufactured by machinery; and that the safest way of fostering it was one widely different from that in vogue at the present day. She believed in making the player sit a sufficient height to keep the upper line of the forearm absolutely straight to the first joint of the fingers, the end of the fingers falling like little hammers upon the keys. To get command of the instrument, the player therefore had to sit up to his work. Nowadays they sit below it. This in my experience, leads to banging and forcing the tone, and I confess that I seldom now hear the velvety quality which used to distinguish her playing and that of others of her time who carried out the same plan. It may be that the fault lies at the door of the modern pianoforte; and that, like the race between guns and armour, the finger force has had to give way to fist force, in order to make an impression on the latest types of battleship grand. Noise versus sonority. As the superficial imitators of Wagner’s instrumentation so often attain a plethora of the former [undoubtedly a dig at Richard Strauss], so do the quasi-disciples of Liszt and of Rubinstein. It is the age of the hit instead of the pressure. If it is old-fashioned to prefer the pressure, I am happy to be still in the ranks of the out-of-date. I shall always prefer beauty of tone to strength of muscle [7] .

Stanford develops this point with his recollections of Liszt who, with Anton Rubinstein, he found the supreme purveyor of tonal beauty. This passage may still be pondered by present-day interpreters of Liszt, as well as of Stanford himself.

When Liszt raised his arms above his head, he did so, to be frank, simply to make a theatrical display which would catch the eyes of the audience. He was quite capable of showing off, with his tongue in his cheek. … A careful observer of his playing would have noticed that no matter how high was the upward lift of his arms, the downward fall was always in time to allow of his hands being in the same position to strike the keys as if the brachial flourish had not been made at all. To hit the key from a height would be to risk wrong notes and damage to the instrument. It was magnificent but it was humbug. Liszt knew it; he always played for musicians with an immovable body and a quiet repressed dignity, reserving his acrobatic performances for audiences whom he in his heart despised [8] .


The virtues of Meeke’s teaching were revealed when Stanford played for Sigismund Thalberg in 1862:

The one trick which he warned me against, one which I had picked up during my old teacher’s absence from Dublin when I had been placed in other hands, was that of raising my wrist above the flat level of my hand as I struck a note. “If you go on doing that you will thump,” said T. I felt a little inclined to giggle inwardly, for the teacher who had encouraged this very failing was standing beside me, and I knew quite well that she did thump mightily [9] .


The “other hands” could possibly have been those of Henrietta Flynn, another Moscheles pupil with whom Stanford studied briefly [10] . He recalls only that she was

a curious, clever and somewhat eccentrically clothed lady … She gave lessons in all weathers with very short sleeves and a muff in which she kept a powder puff for frequent use. … Miss Flynn had a most unholy affection for the works of Dussek, and, however good his music may be for the developing technique, I got so sick of them that I put them in a back drawer as fast as I learned them [11] .

The Stanford family spent the summer of 1862 in London, where the budding musician had a few lessons from Ernst Pauer, whose arrangements and editions still crop up in second-hand shops. Pauer had been a pupil of Mozart’s second son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang, and Stanford simply recalls that the lessons were “principally in Mozart” [12] .

Stanford’s final teacher in Dublin was a third Moscheles pupil, Michael Quarry. Possibly Quarry judged that Stanford’s technique was by now as good as needs be, for it seems they just got on and played:

He opened my eyes to Schumann, whose music I had never seen; to the choral works of Bach, and to Brahms. We spent hours over four-hand arrangements of the Serenades, the Sextets, and the Hungarian Dances; and he taught me the Handel Variations, and even the D minor Concerto. It was a new world which opened to my eyes, when I first read the score of the St. Matthew Passion, which till then had never penetrated to Ireland [13] .

There is no evidence that Stanford sought any further piano lessons. According to his friend and admittedly partial first biographer Plunket Greene, these early lessons remained with him:

Stanford’s touch was the most delicious thing imaginable, impossible to define. It had a sweetness which gave one a lump in one’s throat; a beauty which pervaded every note of the whole and a sparkle which made one chuckle. It never varied in this respect and seemed inviolate in crabbed passages, fifth-rate pianofortes, or moods of irritation. He never practiced in later life, and yet it was just as beautiful till the day of his death. His playing was just as unself-conscious as himself, his hands just following the colours of his joyous humorous imagination. He always said that it was to Quarry that he owed whatever he was as a pianist [14] . 

This last statement does not seem quite consistent with Stanford’s own memories. On the other hand, it has the ring of inside knowledge. So, too, does the following account of the infectious interplay between Stanford and his friend Raoul de Versan under Quarry’s aegis:

[Quarry] gave the boys the run of his rooms and when work was done he let them “rag” to their hearts’ content. They played anything that came into their heads, and improvised and larked and let their spirits run wild. Music to them became an exuberant expression of fun and happiness. They appeared at tableaux vivants in grotesque masks and made up duets on the popular tunes of the day as they came into their heads, and the more thoroughly they played the fool the fresher they came back to harness [15] .


2. Stanford and improvisation

This account of Stanford the improviser is worth following up. The relationship between composers and improvisers is worth a treatise in itself. Some of the greatest composers – Mozart and Beethoven in particular – impressed their contemporaries in the latter role almost as much in the former. More privately, quite a few would ease themselves into compositional vein by doodling on the piano. Famously, Elgar was sufficiently intrigued by this process in himself to set a few improvisations down on disc. Stanford himself brooked no intrusions into his private life. One imagines him going straight to his desk and penning the music almost as fast as it came into his head, without preliminaries, but this is only surmise. Just one piece among his piano works, the Ballade in G minor, op.170, convincingly suggests that it may have been improvised first and then written down with minimal tidying up. Stanford usually manages to give his pieces an air of spontaneity but here the somewhat cadenza-like progress of the music and sectional construction sound as if made up on the spur of the moment. Whereas the intimate musings of the other Ballade, in F op.148/2, if far from predictable in their twists and turns, seem more obviously subject to formal control.

But in fact, Stanford had quite definite ideas about improvising. In his treatise, Musical Composition, the chapter entitled “Danger Signals” included “The danger of improvising without method”:

This is a fascinating amusement, which can have dire results. It is the sworn foe of power of construction, and the ally of slipshod workmanship. It aids and abets that most undesirable method of composing, writing at the pianoforte. …

Nine-tenths of the ideas, no matter how beautiful they may be, which a composer may invent in improvisation, are forgotten as soon as they are played. They are a waste of substance, valuable products of the brain, which throws them away as fast as it creates them. To improvise with method has a certain value of its own. It needs a sense of balance, in order to keep the movement clear in design, and a long and accurate memory to insure the exact repetitions of the themes. But it is only a rare genius who can fulfil these conditions without a long previous experience of writing at the table, using his eyes as his ears [16] . 

From Plunket Greene we learn, however, that Stanford could sometimes be persuaded to go to the piano, impromptu, for the amusement of his friends.

Nothing that Stanford ever composed showed that “playboy” side of his character like the set of “Limericks” which on rare occasions he was persuaded to play and sing himself. So far as we know he never wrote them down – the MSS. have never been found [17] . … He was always made to sing them himself, and then only when the surroundings were thoroughly congenial. It was a side of him quite unfamiliar to most people, but one which showed him at his very best. If only some of those nervous pupils could have seen him at the pianoforte, his mind dictating the imagery and his fingers reproducing it like magic! It was imagination made vocal … [18] .

Improvisation is, of course, particularly associated with Stanford’s “other” instrument, the organ. No account of him actually doing so seems to have come down to us, though we do know that he liked to extemporise transcriptions of orchestral works.

3. Modern pianos, modern pianists

A little more remains to be said. As Stanford himself admits, the piano itself was considerably revolutionised during his lifetime. As I well remember from an 1870s Broadwood grand to which I had access in my schooldays and which was virtually a fortepiano, piano construction in Great Britain lingered behind the times. Stanford would already have found more solidly sonorous instruments when he went to study in Leipzig and Berlin. The Steinways of the early years of the 20th century established the modern piano as we know it, call them “battleship grands” if he would. And performers in their turn adapted their techniques to the bigger instrument. This again, Stanford admitted. Since his autobiography and his other writings concentrate on his earlier, pre-1900, years, we really have no certainty as to his feelings about any specific pianists of the modern school. Nevertheless, four internationally renowned pianists in particular, whom recordings show to have mastered the “battleship grand” without resorting to “fist power”, crossed his path and left their traces on his music [19] .

The first of these was Percy Grainger, whom Stanford promptly nicknamed “Polar Bear” and who played the Concert Variations upon an English Theme op.71 for piano and orchestra under Stanford’s baton in 1904. In 1905 Grainger made virtuoso transcriptions of Stanford’s recent Irish Dances op.89 [20] and performed two of them at the Wigmore Hall. The two appeared together in Grieg’s Piano Concerto in 1905 and again in 1907 when the Norwegian composer’s untimely death prevented his planned performance at the Leeds Festival [21] . Also in 1904, Stanford composed his Three Rhapsodies op.92 on subjects from Dante for Grainger.

Grainger was noted, among much else, for a rewriting of the Grieg Concerto which, while not changing the notes, divided them differently between the hands to make use, wherever possible, of a particular technical speciality of his: brilliant martellato octaves with alternating hands. His Irish Dances transcriptions also make merry with this effect. At the very least, Stanford must have been intrigued by it. Not surprisingly he inserted several examples in the “Dante Rhapsodies” but thereafter it remained a part of his pianistic armoury [22] . Of the pieces included in Land of Sunset Glories, the late Waltz in D minor op.178/2 opens with a striking example [23] .

One would not, a priori, have expected Stanford to have much time for Rachmaninov, but he conducted the Second Concerto with an RCM student in 1908 [24] and again with Rachmaninov himself at the 1910 Leeds Festival. As commentators have pointed out down the years, the impression made on Stanford by Rachmaninov’s opening device – without the introductory chords, though – is reported almost too faithfully in his own Second Concerto, also in C minor, op.126 (1911). Thereafter, it must be said, the piano writing reveals little or nothing that was not already present in the earlier Concert Variations (1898) and Stanford seems chiefly concerned to translate the Russian’s louring tone into a Celtic brew of his own.

Stanford had hoped to have his new Concerto premiered by Moritz Rosenthal, whom he had admired since his first appearance in London in 1895. Possibly arguing that flattery gets you everywhere, in 1912 he dedicated his Six Characteristic Pieces op.132 to Rosenthal. In reality there was no need to grease Rosenthal’s palm since he was more than ready to perform the Concerto, though in the event he never did so [25] . This work got off to an unlucky start, in fact, and eventually had its première in 1915 by Harold Bauer in Norfolk, Connecticut (USA).

The first British performance in December 1916 introduces the fourth pianist on our list, Benno Moiseiwitsch, who played it in Bournemouth under Stanford’s direction. A further performance took place in Oxford in 1918 before it finally reached London in 1919, where Moiseiwitsch gave it at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert under Geoffrey Toye. This spurt of activity over a work now several years old seems to have driven Stanford to write a third Concerto, of which he only completed a short score, maybe with the idea of arousing Moiseiwitsch’s interest.

Though less of a name today, Stanford’s former composition pupil Harold Samuel should perhaps be added to this list. He was noted for his Bach and was appropriately the dedicatee of Stanford’s second set of Twenty-Four Preludes op.179 (1920), some of which he performed in public.

4. Stanford’s treatment of the piano

Thus far the historical side. When we approach the music itself, it may be helpful to remember that Stanford was the child of earlier, lighter pianos. Nevertheless, most of his piano music was written well into the age of the modern piano, to which he made concessions, but not consistently. So if we find the writing of the Ballade in F op.148/2 (1917) [26] strangely spare for what is at heart a highly romantic piece, if we think the episodes in the Roundel op.132/4 (1912) or the more intimate meditations of the Caprice in D minor op.136/2 (1913) court blandness in their cool a capella writing, then we should remember Stanford’s recollections of Meeke’s teaching and Greene’s description of his tone. The beauty of this music is to be found, not in Brahmsian fullness, but in limpid, singing tone production, in the inner voices as well as the melody line – even Stanford’s simplest textures tend to be contrapuntally conceived. Given this, the textures prove rich enough for the music they have to support. Another side of the same coin is found in the outer sections of the Scherzo Marziale op.148/3 (1917) where the breezy Celtic heroics are expressed in textures rarely thicker than are to be found in a middle-period Beethoven scherzo, and exposed to a similar temptation to force them on a modern piano.

On other occasions, Stanford quite deliberately set his sights on the “battleship grand”. This is most obvious in the “Dante Rhapsodies” but for much of the time the 5 Caprices op.136 (1913) are more obviously massive in their sonorities than the preceding op.132 or the succeeding op.148. Yet within these pieces – as also in the Concertos – there are also more delicate passages harking back to the pianos of Stanford’s youth, creating a difficult stylistic and technical balancing act for the performer.

We may ask at this point, how much pedal is to be used? This is particularly relevant when we remember that Stanford was as much an organist as a pianist, and therefore would not have been tendentially the type of pianist who relied on a sea of pedal to cover his sins or, indeed, as a cheap and easy way of warming up his tone. When he writes a single pedal mark in the outer sections of the Scherzo Marziale, or none at all in the Toccata op.132/6, we may surely take him very nearly at his word. For what it is worth, the pencilled markings on my second-hand copy of the latter show that a player much closer to Stanford’s own times was very sparing in his pedalling.

On the other hand, the harp-like interjections to the chorale-theme at the centre of the Nocturne op.148/1 (1917) and many episodes in the Caprice in D minor op.136/2 (1913) and the Ballade op.170 (1919) show that he was well aware of the magic of a non-harmony note caught in the midst of an arpeggio by the pedal, mainly but not exclusively in more delicate passages [27] . On the other hand, several arpeggio-shaped passages which look on paper as if they are to be pedalled actually sound horrible if so treated [28] . Having admitted the pedal to our feast, then of course much of the music inhabits the same grey area as the earlier romantics, Chopin and Schumann in particular, obliging the performer to find his own – and his piano’s – golden mean between atmospheric warmth and clarity. The opening of the Nocturne, for example, would be unthinkably dry without pedal, yet one would wish the triplets and roulades to sound as clean and untrammelled as they would if played on the clarinet.

The last Prelude – “Addio” – of op.179 has a final cadence that looks as if it needs a third “sostenuto” pedal to resolve cleanly without losing the bass. The F major prelude from this set also has low Fs held as a pedal note throughout, seemingly suggesting an awareness of the sostenuto pedal. On the other hand, the song-cycle “An Irish Idyll” op.77 (1900 or 1901) concludes with a similarly problematic cadence. Given that Stanford is unlikely to have seen a sostenuto pedal back then, he probably just expected careful half-pedalling in similar cases.

The fact that Stanford was an organist is occasionally evident in other ways. The opening theme of the Toccata op.132/6 (1912) would actually fit better on the feet – albeit with niftier heel-and-toe-work than I could manage myself – than it does under the hands. This could prove that organists are naturally inclined to conceive foot-shaped melodies. But as there are no other obvious examples in Stanford’s work, we may wonder if the piece was first conceived for organ.

More fundamental is Stanford’s habitual use of wide leaps, particularly in the left hand, alternating between full chords in the middle register and low octaves. He was already doing this by 1898 – see Variation 11 of the Concert Variations [29]  – but a pretty fiendish example, involving both hands, occurs at the beginning of the Caprice in C minor, op.136/1 (1913). This passage could actually be transcribed for the organ – alternating manuals and pedals – in such a way as to make it quite convenient to play, though it would lose most of its insouciant verve in the process. The overcoming of difficulties as an essential part of communicating bravura was evidently something that Stanford understood. Quite exceptionally in all the piano repertoire known to me, Stanford’s leaps go in the same direction, gaining a point in the difficulty scale even against the notorious coda to Schumann’s Fantasie [30] , where the hands are approximate mirror-images of each other, something the body accepts as more natural. We may be thankful indeed that Stanford did not employ Schumann’s dotted rhythms, or our discomfiture would be complete.

So in at least one direction, Stanford explored an aspect of piano technique, one as effective as it is treacherous, that was not especially investigated elsewhere to the best of my knowledge. For the rest, his personal mediation between the much-loved pianos of his youth and the “battleship grand” produced writing that leans towards Brahmsian fullness much less than one would expect, even when his harmonies and melodies incline in that direction.

Nor, for that matter, does he make more than the occasional nod towards Chopin, whose music he certainly appreciated [31] and to whose mazurkas he was introduced at an early age by Meeke [32] . The Nocturne is the obvious place to look [33] , and the layout of the accompanying chords at the beginning does look a little like Chopin. The cut of the melody itself and the A flat that casts its shadow over the second bar do not resemble Chopin at all, however. Moreover, the device of leaving the first beat unaccompanied finds no parallel in any Chopin nocturne, while it has many in Stanford’s song accompaniments.

Given the Irish connection, one would expect Stanford to have been appreciative of Field, the inventor of the nocturne. The default evidence is that he had no regard for him at all. He concludes chapter 15 of A History of Music with a consideration of the “signs of life” shown by British music in the period immediately preceding his own. Sterndale Bennett, S.S. Wesley, Walmisley and Pearsall earn some praise. The popularity of Balfe and Wallace and the industry of G.A. Macfarren are acknowledged. And that is all [34] .   

5. An overview of the repertoire

A small group of compositions from Stanford’s teens issued without date by M. Gunn of Dublin included a Romance for piano entitled Une fleur de mai [35] . Stanford thought enough of it to have it reissued by Edwin Ashdown around 1888 without any suggestion that it was not new. Going back still further, a Musical Times tribute to Stanford in 1898 printed a march he had written for the pantomime “Puss-in-Boots” at the age of eight.

His student years at Cambridge and their accompanying visits to Germany to study with Reinecke and Kiel produced several piano works: 2 Novelettes (1874), Charivari in Dresden (5 Phantasie-stücke) (for duet, 1875), a Suite (1875), a Toccata (1875) and 6 Waltzes (in both solo and duet versions, 1876). Of these, the Suite and the Toccata were published c.1876 as opp. 2 and 3 respectively [36] . This group of works was preceded by his first attempt at a piano concerto (1873).

Though Land of Sunset Glories consists largely of music written between 1912 and 1920, the penultimate item is the linked pair of central movements from the Suite. I hope that the listener who has followed Stanford’s muse thus far will recognize in the Sarabande of some forty years earlier that same epic-Celtic tone of the Ballades, the Nocturne, the second Caprice and “Addio”. The progress to the climax is less sure in this youthful piece, yet the bald octaves that break out are unmistakably Stanford.

Another feature already present which he was to use frequently in later years is the device of a repeated melody note with changing harmonies under it. Employed to impressive effect here, it is prominent in the Nocturne and Ballade in F from op.148.

Even more prophetic in a way is the Gigue which prances in with a change to the major. The use of a short, convivial motive to create a rollicking finale mirrors perfectly that side of Stanford famous from the much-reproduced “Spy” cartoon where, over the caption “He found music in Ireland”, the composer is standing with his hands in his pockets and his legs slightly apart, looking mischievously pleased with himself. This cheeky verve never left him. At times Stanford’s readiness to provide a finale in this vein to a serious piece of chamber music can seem a weakness, entertaining but not deeply stirring. Yet in the finale of the Second Piano Concerto we do not feel a drop in the inspiration as the pianist launches his cocky theme, and such single pieces as the “Scherzo Marziale” op.148/3 and the “Toccata” op.132/6 belong to the same spirit-raising category as some his popular nautical songs. Interestingly ambivalent is the first Caprice op.136/1 where the grim striving of the beginning is treated with a touch of blarney and before long he is twinkling away like a leprechaun.

And yet this Gigue is prophetic in another way, for in its breezy-folksy manner – “Dame, get up and bake your pies” that isn’t – it seems a blueprint for much Grainger and even Holst’s piano Toccata on the “Newburn Lads” and “Chrissemas Day in the Morning”.

From the mid-1870s to 1912 Stanford wrote only sporadically for piano. Ostensibly, he was busy with big festival commissions – oratorios, cantatas and so on – and simply did not have the time for lesser pieces. Certainly, the few piano works written during this period were the fruit of specific occasions or attempts to interest specific pianists. The Sonata was part of a planned project of ten sonatas by leading contemporary composers [37] , a collaboration with Fanny Davies over the Bach triple concerto (1895) [38] may have some connection with his dedication to her of the second book of his Six Concert Pieces op.42 (1894), while Stanford’s more domestic side resulted in Ten Dances, Old and New, for Young Players op.58 (1894), dedicated to his children Geraldine and Guy. The productive relationships with Leonard Borwick and Percy Grainger have already been described, the latter inspiring Stanford’s fourth solo piano work during this period and his most ambitious – the “Dante Rhapsodies” op.92 (1904).

In the event, the Sonata remained unpublished and Fanny Davies never played her pieces. The Dances were published. Moreover, the five “old” dances were promptly orchestrated – Stanford conducted recordings of two of them in 1916 – and the “Morris Dance” found further use in the opera “Much Ado About Nothing” op.76a (1900). The Rhapsodies, of course, were published and performed and “Francesca”, in particular, has attracted considerable attention down the years.

Given Stanford’s eminence by this time, there is no apparent reason why his Sonata should not have been taken up by another publisher after the Carte project failed, but this did not happen and the manuscript is lost. Fuller Maitland, who gave the third and last performance in 1885 [39] ,  remembered the work as “spontaneous” [40] . There is still less reason why the Six Concert Pieces should not have been published at a time when piano works by Parry, Mackenzie, Cowen and many lesser figures were regularly issued. Yet the surviving manuscript of Book Two contains directions to the engravers, so a planned publication evidently fell through. Much later, in 1917, no.6, a Mazurka, was recycled virtually unchanged as no.5 of “Night Thoughts” op.148, without any hint that it was not new [41] .

Yet the idea that Stanford was just too busy to write smaller works does not tally with the fact that a stream of songs, equally suitable for concert and home use, streamed from his pen throughout this period. The issue of the modern piano, combined with the fact that his own efforts as a pianist were directed towards chamber music and accompanying, maybe held him back. His pianistic instincts served him well when writing for piano with other instruments or with voices. So perhaps he really did lack the time to work out a personal style for solo piano music. Notably, the surviving op.42 pieces show no advance, purely as piano writing, on the group from the 1870s. Whereas the “Dante Rhapsodies”, inspired by Grainger’s playing, represent a spirited, at times thunderous, attempt to provide suitable material for the “battleship grand”.

In spite of their dedication to Moritz Rosenthal, the Six Characteristic Pieces op.132 (1912) are less taxing than the Rhapsodies. They came at a time when the various festival commissions were petering out in favour of younger composers and Stanford had to fight an increasingly losing battle to gain a hearing for his larger works. At this point there were clear attractions provided by the ready market for piano music that was challenging enough to be included in recitals if so wished, but not beyond the reach of the capable domestic pianist. From here to the end of his life he wrote regularly for the instrument, working out over the 5 Caprices op.136 (1913), the 6 Night Thoughts op.148 (1917), the 6 Scènes de Ballet op.150 (1917), the two sets of 24 Preludes opp.163 (1918) and 179 (1920), the Ballade in G minor op.170 (pub. 1919), the 3 Waltzes op.178 (pub. 1923), the unpublished 3 Nocturnes op.184 (1921) and several single, unnumbered pieces, the personal mediation between the loved pianos of his youth and the “battleship grand” described above. Less artistically stimulating but a source of much-needed money nonetheless in the post-war period was the expanding market for educational music. He did not allot opus numbers to these pieces but nonetheless the two sets of 6 Sketches, Primary and Elementary , the 6 Song Tunes (pub.1920), A Toy Story – 6 Pieces (pub.1920), the 3 Fancies (pub.1924), a group of Irish folksong arrangements (pub.1922 or later) and the two unpublished Sonatinas (1922) contain at least some numbers that could still be profitably used. Slightly less elementary than the rest, the Fancies offer interesting parallels with the Fantasies he was writing at that time for clarinet with string quartet and horn with string quartet. True to his proverbial industry, in spite of his late start as a regular composer for the instrument, if Stanford’s piano music were ever recorded in its entirety it would require more CDs than the intégrales of Schumann or Brahms.

Land of Sunset Glories is a line from “Ireland”, the first song in the “Cushendall” cycle op.118 (1910). It is not intended to be merely a fanciful title for the new CD. These last years of Stanford’s life were ones of increasing emotional pain and isolation. The war years offered the grim spectacle of Germany, the country which had once offered him such warm hospitality, the cradle of the western musical tradition in the form in which he most revered it, and the country where he had met his wife, engaged in futile military belligerence on a massive scale. Yet if he had once found something of a spiritual home in Germany, the adored land of his origin, Ireland, offered no solace. The Anglo-Irish Dublin community he depicted so lovingly in the opening chapters of “Pages from an Unwritten Diary” was doomed even in his youth if he had but known it and was now slipping hopelessly from view as Home Rule became a reality. Whatever we may think of his anti-Home Rule stance, the effect was that his work became increasingly Irish in its colouring, Celtic-epic in tone even when not ostensibly Irish in its subject matter. The Ireland he depicted was nevertheless a far-off dream, ever more unreal. Unawares, he thus entered the mainstream of Celtic-Anglo-Irish art, which always has been concerned with the evocation of a romantic-mythical-legendary Ireland that never existed. This goes for Yeats as much as for Stanford. Indeed, we may go further and say that what we recognize as a Celtic tone in art is essentially an appeal to an unreality that nevertheless stirs our unconscious imaginations.

It is in his avowedly Celtic pieces, then, that Stanford carved out a small but individual niche for himself in the piano repertoire: on this CD, the Nocturne, with its A flat memorably darkening the second bar, the intimate Ballade in F, the often passionate Ballade in G minor and the second Caprice, a complete misnomer, for it is a deeply felt Caoine similar to that in the Clarinet Sonata and no less moving. Less immediately striking, the Roundel, a tribute to Schumann, belongs with certain choral works such as Justorum animae and Heraclitus as a Stanford piece whose quiet beauty grows with time.

Space permitting, one of these pieces can well be paired with one of the high-spirited ones. And the two sets of Preludes will always arouse curiosity. In later years Stanford became fascinated by the formulae of light dance music, and in this he was more at one with his times than he realized. The Tempo di valse op.163/10 lacks the harmonic acerbities of a Stravinsky take on the waltz, yet it hones in on the formulae no less acutely. The opening paragraph gives us, in the space of a few bars, the accompaniment on just beats 1 and 2, just beats 2 and 3, and on all three beats. The central part takes issue with a slow waltz pattern spread –hemiola-like – across a fast one, as does the less ironic Waltz op.178/2. Towards the end melody disappears in favour of formula and, after a pause, the piece is paid off with three bars of oomp-pah-pah plus a closing melodic turn, as though to say “and that’s all there is to it”. The “Basso ostinato”, op.179/14 is based on a four-note descending scale in the bass. Beginning like a serenade, it develops through Elgarian wistfulness to an unexpectedly powerful climax, relapsing into an enigmatic coda.

In “Addio” op.179/24 the mask is off. A good many Stanford pieces from this period bear dedications to friends, friends’ children and pupils who perished in the war. There is no specific reference here, yet it surely depicts a military funeral, beginning with the three-note motive derived from the word Addio, followed by tender memories and prayers alternating with sobbing and the approaching funeral march which rises to a stark climax. A soft brass chorale suggests the lowering of the coffin into the grave, followed by a final prayer and then, breaking the gentler mood, the firing of a military salvo, after which the music fades uneasily into sunset glory.

Christopher Howell





 Piano Music by Charles Villiers Stanford


This CD will be issued by Sheva, a company based in Piedmont, Italy (info: destefaniermanno@libero.it), during September 2008. Orders can by taken by MusicWeb-International from 1st September 2008. The programme is:

1. Nocturne in G minor op.148/1 (1917)

2. Tempo di Valse op.163/10 (1918)

3. Basso Ostinato op.179/14 (1920)

4. Caprice in C minor op.136/1 (1913)

5. Roundel op.132/4 (1912)

6. Ballade in G minor op.170 (1919)

7. Waltz in D minor op.178/2 (pub.1923)

8. Ballade in F major op.148/2 (1917)

9. Scherzo Marziale op.148/3 (1917)

10. Caprice in D minor op.136/2 (1913)

11. Toccata in C minor op.132/6 (1912)

12. Sarabande op.2/2 (1875)

13. Gigue op.2/3 (1875)

14. “Addio” op.179/24 (1920)

Christopher Howell – piano


The overall title of the collections to which the opus numbers refer are:

Suite op.2 (1875)

Six Characteristic Pieces op.132 (1912)

Five Caprices op.136 (1913)

Night Thoughts op.148 (1917)

Twenty-four Preludes in all the keys op.163 (1918)

Ballade in G minor op.170 (1919)

Three Waltzes op.178 (pub.1923)

Twenty-four Preludes in all the keys, second series op.179 (1920)


To the best of my knowledge, only the items from opp.132, 163 and 179 have been recorded previously.

[1] Herbert Street 13 May 1862, see Jeremy Dibble: Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician, OUP 2002, p. 32.

[2] Herbert Street  6 June 1864, see Dibble, p. 33, Paul Rodmell: Charles Villiers Stanford, Ashgate 2002, pp. 29-30.

[3] Orchestra, 11 June 1864, p. 590. Quoted more extensively in Dibble and Rodmell, see note 2.

[4] On 16 November 1863, for example, a now-lost song, “Once more my love”, appeared in a programme where Thalberg played Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto. See Dibble, pp. 32 onwards and Rodmell, pp. 27 onwards for a fuller examination of Stanford’s early public career.

[5] His only known appearance as a concerto soloist was in his own early Concerto in B flat (CUMS 3 June 1874) – see Rodmell p.167.

[6] At least until late 1915 – see Rodmell p.433 – though his technique may have been past its best by then – see Harry Plunket Greene: Charles Villiers Stanford, Edward Arnold 1935, p.213.

[7] Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: Pages from an Unwritten Diary, Edward Arnold 1914, pp. 58-9.

[8] Ibid., p.59.

[9] Ibid., p.60.

[10] It is difficult to extract a strict chronology from Stanford’s narrative. Dibble gives plausible reasons why the “other hands” may have belonged to Fanny Arthur – Dibble, p.25 note 21.

[11] Stanford: Pages, pp.74-5.  Since Stanford’s 1864 recital contained a work by the hated Dussek, this could be a clue as to the period of his study with Miss Flynn, in which case the “other hands” of the Thalberg episode would not have been hers.

[12] Stanford: Pages, pp.71-2.

[13] Stanford: Pages, pp.75-6.

[14] Greene, p.33.

[15] Ibid., p.34. De Versan was still alive when Plunket Greene was writing and provided a brief memoir for the book (p.39). So he may well be the source for this account of the Quarry lessons, too.

[16] Charles Villiers Stanford: Musical Composition, Macmillan 1911, pp.179-180.

[17] As we now know, Stanford actually wrote these pieces down twice around 1916 as Nonsense Rhymes by Karel Drofnatski but failed to interest a publisher (see Dibble p.430). They later emerged from the Stainer and Bell archives and were published in 1960. This, of course, raises the question whether the written form or the “improvised” one came first.

[18] Greene, p.245.

[19] Notable pianists who performed Stanford’s works before 1900 were Marie Krebs (Courante from op.2, Toccata, op.3), Agnes Zimmermann (the lost Sonata op.20) and especially Leonard Borwick (the lost Ballade in G minor op.42/2, Piano Concerto no.1 op.58, Concert Variations op.71). The 6 Concert Pieces op.42, or at any rate nos.4-6 which survive, were written for Fanny Davies, but there is no record of her having performed them.

[20] Stanford himself also made a piano version of these, which remains unpublished.

[21] Dibble, pp.303, 354 and 374.

[22] The organist in Stanford could have been intrigued by the parallel between this technique and the typical organists’ pedal technique.

[23] Another striking example, however, is to be found on the last page of the Concert Variations, and in several other parts of the finale, too. Since this was published in 1898, well before Grainger’s performance of it, we may wonder at this point who got the idea from whom. On the other hand, Variation 6 ends with a passage that might have been profitably rewritten to use this technique.

[24] Dibble, p.425.

[25] Dibble, p.422 but esp. his booklet notes to the Peter Jacobs recording of op.132 (Priory PRCD 449).

[26] I concentrate my analysis on the pieces included in Land of Sunset Glories on the assumption that most readers will not have easy access to Stanford piano music other than this and Peter Jacobs’ recordings of opp.92, 132, 163 and 179.

[27] In truth, of these three pieces only the Nocturne actually has pedal markings in the score. An attempt to play the Caprice without pedalling the upward-sweeping arpeggios should be convincing proof that pedalling is needed. More objectively, in this piece, at bb.14-15 and 18-19 the melodic line is held over while the right hand moves down to play the arpeggio, which is impossible without pedal. Very interestingly, at b.26, where the arpeggio is divided between the hands, Stanford writes rests for the idle hand, which he does not do for any of the other similarly divided arpeggios in the piece. In fact, the dissonance enclosed within this particular arpeggio is harsher than with the others, so Stanford evidently baulked at having it pedalled right through. So we have a simple rule:  when arpeggios are divided between the hands without alternate rests for the idle hand, pedalling is implicit. Op. 170 is worth studying all through from this point of view, though bb.125-6 are a special case, resolvable on the modern piano by “vibrato pedalling”; but did Stanford know this?   

[28] The technically minded with scores to hand are referred to the Nocturne op.148/1 bb.26-28 (note that Stanford does mark pedal from b.29) and the Ballade op.148/2 bb.25-27, particularly b.27 where pedalling would produce a semi-dodecaphonic chord containing B natural, F, G, A flat and B flat, proof positive that the figure is to be heard melodically. 

[29] Since Stanford did not habitually write solo piano music in the 1880s and 1890s it is difficult to know just when this technique struck his fancy. The Toccata op.42/5 (1894) has some wide left-hand leaps, but as yet without the octaves.

[30] Wide leaps and the Schumann Fantasie tend to be a natural association of ideas in most pianist’s minds.

[31] He may be said to have invented as new a technique for the pianoforte, as Domenico Scarlatti did for its predecessor a century before. A lovely lyric tenderness, with brilliance, vigour, rhythmic impulse, and a sort of aristocratic irony and chivalry are the main characteristics of his style”. Charles Villiers Stanford, Cecil Forsyth: A History of Music, Macmillan 1916, p.298.

[32] Pages pp.57-58.

[33] Stanford’s Mazurkas opp.148/5 and 150/5 are pure light music without any reference to Chopin.

[34] A History of Music pp.301-2. Nor are any references to Field known to me in Stanford’s other writings.

[35] Dibble, p.34 note 54, reasonably presumes that this is the unnamed piano piece which George Osborne thought “very pretty” in a letter dated 1866. 

[36] To be more exact, the opus nos. were added later when Stanford provided a list of his compositions for the first edition of Grove. He also provided the title “Suite” at this time: the published copies are simply called “Courante, Sarabande, Gigue et Gavotte pour piano”.

[37] Announced in the Musical Times of January 1883 by Henry Carte of Rudall, Carte & Co, the project sank without trace. Fascinatingly, the composers included Dvořák, who never wrote a piano sonata, and Grieg, whose second sonata this would have been since the early (1866) Sonata he did write could hardly have been intended (see Dibble p.137 and note 11).  Could Carte have been something of a fantasist, announcing an ambitious scheme without consulting the composers concerned, and Stanford thought to call his bluff by actually writing a sonata?  

[38] See Dibble p.260. Here the chronology is uncertain and I am only inferring a connection between the two events. The surviving MS of Book Two bears an inscription to Fanny Davies and is dated 6 May 1894. Book One is lost but we do know that no.2 was a Ballade in G minor which Leonard Borwick played as early as 1891 (see Dibble, p.260), so it looks as if Stanford expanded an original set of three in honour of Fanny Davies.

[39] See Dibble, p.138.

[40] J.A. Fuller Maitland: The Music of Stanford and Parry, Cambridge 1930, p.24.

[41] Dibble – p.481 – has queried whether the supposedly late Ballade in G minor op.170 (pub.1919) may be a recycling of the Ballade in the same key from op.42. In view of the reuse of the Mazurka, it is clear that Stanford would not have been averse to such a practice. This raises the interesting possibility that Book One of op.42 may actually have disappeared by design, all three pieces having been used elsewhere. However, the piano writing of op.170 seems much more oriented towards the modern piano and the coda has a valedictory quality one would be reluctant to accept was not written at the end of his life. More objectively, the passage with the rising trill on the last page also suggests an echo of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, which had not yet been written in 1891. Still, we cannot rule out the possibility of an earlier piece having been substantially revised with a new coda added. Another interesting piece of  “recycling”, by the way, is the use of the slow movement of the First String Quintet op.85 (1903) as the Canzona op.116/2 for organ, published in 1910 with no suggestion that it was not a new original organ piece.


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