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Winners of the First International Composers' Competition.


The Prayer of Saint Francis interrupted by Birds

The Sun's Blinking Eye

Piano Concerto
Budapest SO and Hungarian Radio and TV Chorus/Tamas Vasary.
HUNGAROTON BR 0156 CD available from: Kodaly Foundation, Budapest

To my knowledge this is the first music by Patric Standford that has been commercially recorded and very welcome it is too. The composer tells me that his Clarinet Quintet is to come in this New Year. It is sadly ironic too that it is a Hungarian label that has marked the composer's 60th birthday with this release. Standford won the 'Zoltan Kodaly First International Composers Competition' in 1997 and this is a recording of the concert of the three winning works presented here in reverse order, a particularly arresting idea. But what a sad situation that no British Company has yet recorded anything of Standford's astonishingly varied and brilliant output and how appalling that the BBC now ignores the composer's works.

To give a little background to this work let us look back briefly over Patric Standford's career to date and attempt to put this work in context.

In the 60s he was a pupil of Edmund Rubbra (in 1976 Standford dedicated his Meditation on the birth of Christ to 'Edmund Rubbra my teacher and friend….') at the Guildhall School of Music and later went on to teach there. In 1964 he was awarded the Mendelssohn travel scholarship studying with, amongst others, LutosÓ awski. The influence of both of these men can be found in The Prayer.

Standford is remarkably versatile. His catalogue includes outstanding works in the choral field for professionals and amateurs, light music, as well as six symphonies, concertos and the remarkable Christus Requiem. He has also arranged music for the London Palladium and for West End shows and has produced a Jazz album with the group Continuum. I cannot understand why the Christmas Carol Symphony (1978) is not better known. It is a masterful work of great charm and, like all of Patric's orchestral works, marvellously orchestrated. There was a time when his music was regularly heard on Radio 3, but after the mixed reception given to his 5th Symphony (1986) with its quotes from Mozart and Elgar so prominent, his music has been overlooked. Indeed this seems to have occurred soon after his move from London to Bretton Hall near Leeds to take up a position as Director of Music; obviously once in the north then easily forgotten.

It is true to say that quotation has played an important role in some of his works, but his music is also strikingly original. In fact there is nothing like it in British music, which probably explains why he is so rarely performed over here. It must be remembered that he has won 'the Premio Citta di Trieste' with his 1st Symphony, subtitled The Seasons. The Christus Requiem won the Yugoslavian Solidarity Award' in 1975. And his 3rd Symphony Towards Paradise won the 'City of Geneva Ernest Ansermet Prize' in 1985. There have been other international successes which there is not space for me to go into.

My own connection with his music will become apparent as I write but I have performed in several works including the Christus Requiem (1973) and some of the lighter works. I have heard most of his major works and have studied the scores now for some 20 years. I was a private pupil of his for a year and also studied orchestration with him whilst a student at the Guildhall.

So to this new work. What of its inspiration and soundworld?

Standford describes it as A Masque in five scenes for Chorus and Orchestra. The text by St Francis is in Italian. Standford set the text before in his Cantico della Creature for Voice and Strings in 1976, and, it seems to me, to be the culmination of much of his serious composition. In a sense also, Rubbra's mysticism lies somewhere at the back of this music and the vocal writing has certain similarities.

Scene 1 Old Assisi - Dawn. The opening burst of sunrise and its colours reminded me of the first chord of LutosÓ awski's Jeux Vénitiens (1961) thereafter we hear a thick texture (everything is clear however) almost claustrophobic with a sense of Italian heat. Strings pierce with rising 5ths, and there are strikingly audible temple blocks and other percussion which remind me of Standford's Symphony No 4 Taikyoku for two pianos and percussion (1976).

Scene 2 The Saint begins to pray. Here the chorus enters with a gradual intensification of their opening counterpoint. The orchestra make gestures with rising scales like prayers. I can only think that it was Rubbra who emphasised to the young Standford as to all of his pupils, the importance of clear orchestral textures as found here. Then, for me, a surprise. To explain this I need to go back over 25 years. In 1972 Standford was composing his huge masterpiece Christus Requiem. At that point, before its 1980 revision, lasting 2 hours. This was performed complete at St. Paul's Cathedral by students and professionals in March 1973. Part 2 of the work was the 'Requiem Aeternam' (begun as a student exercise in the late 60s.) Standford quotes this here at Fig.38. for 16 bars. A strident trumpet rising major 9th which cuts through the texture characterises these bars. Gerald Larner in an article on the Christus Requiem (Musical Times March 1973) said "… this theme graphically represents the idea of Resurrection". In The prayer the text translates "be praised my Lord for sister water who is invaluable, humble……"

Scene 3 The Saint's prayer is interrupted by hundreds of birds. To achieve the truly remarkable effect of teeming birds arriving to visit the saint, Standford uses a technique which LutosÓ awski first developed in the aforementioned Jeux Vénitiens a 'limited aleatoric technique', wherein musicians are given an enhanced degree of freedom within a fixed notational framework. The duration of each section is indicated by the conductor who indicates where the players are with downbeats marked in the score clearly as letters. Each musician performs his part freely within those downbeats. After studying with LutosÓ awski, Standford adopted this technique in two early works now published by Novello: Nocturne (1967) and Notte (1968) but for purely abstract, musical reasons. The great success of its use here is impressionist and descriptive yet still the textures are wonderfully clear.

Scene 4 St. Francis feels the joy of the Lord's greatness. Heralded by trumpets the chorus continues with the text. This section is just 33 bars leading into:-

Scene 5 The birds encircle St. Francis in prayer. After an orchestral glissando one of three which bring to mind Alban Berg (one of Standford's favourite composers) the choir enters with the text 'Laudato si, per sora nostra morte' (be praised for our sister the mortal, death.) The thick, claustrophobic 8-part chords which gently oscillate encompassing within them no more than a 12th are again to be found in the Christus Requiem in the final Amen which was, after the revision, to find its way into the closing pages of his 3rd Symphony Towards Paradise (1986). There are about 50 bars of quotation from these earlier works. Whereas the Requiem ends with orchestra and choir having reached an orgasmic climax reminiscent of Scriabin, in The Prayer Standford pulls off a brave coup of adding after this climax 8 bars of unaccompanied chorus culminating in unison As. It must be left to the listener to decide how successful this is.

Thus ends a truly astonishing and unique work. Its impact reduced even in this good quality recording by the fact that it must be experienced 'live'. I urge those with influence to have the courage to investigate this work further. The lack of performance in Britain is a national disgrace and needs to be remedied.


Gary Higginson

This disc has also been reviewed by Rob Barnett and David Wright 


Kodaly Foundation
CD BR 0156

price $15.00 incl. Postage

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Gary Higginson

Reviews from previous months

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