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‘Holes Held Together By String’

Stanford, Parry and the Rise of British Chamber Music in Victoria’s Age

by Lewis Foreman


When the centenary of the Royal Musical Association was celebrated in April 1974 by a concert at the Royal College of Music, in which substantial chamber works by Stanford, Parry and Mackenzie were heard, there was something of a stir at the quality of the music that had been disinterred. A concert subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio Three, it was for many the beginning of a revaluation of Victorian chamber music, an art which had previously been largely regarded as non-existent by all except the knowledgeable few. It is a revaluation that even now has not developed to cover the span of the potential repertoire, but has rather been founded on the enthusiasm of individual commentators and performers, particularly those investigating Sterndale Bennett, Parry, to some extent Stanford, and those who came after. By surveying the period I hope I can suggest lines of investigation to performing groups wanting something new to explore.

In fact in the last few years investigation of this repertoire has indeed swung to performers who, anxious to find interesting new repertoire for CD seem to have become very receptive to works that only a few years ago would have been condemned, usually unheard, as boring or old hat. Recent recordings of extended chamber works by Stanford and his pupils Coleridge Taylor and William Hurlstone have underlined how much fine music still awaits investigation. The recent appearance of an enjoyable example of a typical score, hitherto little known, is Stanford’s Piano Quartet No 1 of 1879, highlights the issue. (ASV CDDCA 1056) We will come to it later as we explore the music of the nineteenth century in chronological sequence.

Our view of chamber music, and of chamber music by British composers in particular, has been largely focussed by that enthusiastic amateur Walter Wilson Cobbett, whose monumental Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music encapsulated a lifetime’s interest and participation in the medium. It is worth remembering that although his book appeared in 1929, Cobbett was born in 1847, and so he was writing from first-hand knowledge of much of the period, as far as British music is concerned, and he was largely espousing what to him was contemporary music. And Cobbett was a great champion of the then new. Thomas F Dunhill, in his Cyclopedia article on ‘British Chamber Music’ was presumably expressing Cobbett’s views when he wrote: ‘The musical production of this country is vastly greater than it was thirty or even twenty years ago, and there is infinitely more variety of thought and style in the work which is now being produced than can be observed in any previous period of our musical history.’ (I, 197)

My principal purpose here is to survey the second half of the nineteenth century, and furthermore only in respect to works for three instruments or more. If one takes the solo and duet sonata into our remit the story would widen enormously. However, first I think I should briefly paint the earlier background of the first half of the 19th century, to give the story a context.

It is said that the first string quartet by a British composer was Samuel Wesley’s Quartet in Eb, written in his mid-forties, so probably dating from around 1810. It provides us a starting point: a British composer demonstrating himself part of the European tradition of his day and capable, if only briefly, to take its place in a music party perhaps organised by his friend Vincent Novello. Fortunately it is twice recorded on CD so we are able to experience it for ourselves. (Redcliffe RR 013; Hyperion CDA 66780).

We need to find a reference point to illuminate the repertoire in the first two or three decades of the century, and, given that my principal interest is the period after 1850, I think we can conveniently find it in the programmes of the Philharmonic, later Royal Philharmonic, Society. The Philharmonic was founded in 1813 and the early programmes are largely of what we now think of as chamber music, together with vocal numbers. They provide us with a useful conspectus of then favourite works and current styles. Over the years increasing numbers of orchestral and choral works appeared at the Philharmonic until by the early 1840s concerts had evolved into a format that we would recognise today. I have been through the early programmes of the Philharmonic and I have to report that very few British works appear, but those that do are a useful pointer to prevailing styles. Thus between 1813 and 1822 just seven extended British chamber works were played. In the concert of the 2nd season, in 1814, J B Cramer’s Piano Quintet was the sole native composition. By this date Cramer, the London public’s ‘glorious John’, and one of England’s most notable keyboard players, was 43 and as well as a leading pianist was a music publisher, teacher and composer, with an enormously wide circle of musical acquaintances and contacts. One presumes he was asked to write a piece as one of the founders of the Philharmonic Society. In the fifth concert in 1816, Cipriani Potter’s Sestet for piano, flute & strings, Op 11, was featured with the 23-year old composer making his debut at the keyboard and with the celebrated bass player Dragonetti playing the double bass part.

The cast of characters then active becomes even less familiar to us today, for over the next four seasons new works by George Eugene Griffin and the cellist Robert Lindley were heard. In 1817 it was Griffin’s Piano Quartet; in 1818 Lindley’s string Trio; and in 1819 Lindley’s Trio for violin with two cellos. Later in the 1819 season Griffin’s String Quartet is one of the first concert appearances in the nineteenth century of a string quartet by a contemporary British composer.

At the end of the first decade, Miles Birkett Foster in his history of the Philharmonic gives us one of his characteristic tables - showing the nationality of the composers represented in the concerts - they were from Austria, the British Empire, France, German Empire, Hungary and Bohemia, Italy, Portugal, Spain - and the music was analysed with the number of composers from each territory, symphonies, overtures, concertos, chamber music, miscellaneous, vocal total of compositions. From this we are told that 964 woks were performed of which 560 were short vocal numbers. Of the total number of 99 chamber works performed only 11 were categorised as being by British Empire composers.

Later, during the Philharmonic’s second decade even fewer British works are heard, and the programmes were gradually changing as works for larger forces came to predominate. Thus at the end of the second decade (1823-32) we have a much smaller number of composers having been represented - 227 - of which 25 are from the British Empire but only 3 British works are categorised as chamber music.

J B Cramer is now the only British composer represented by chamber music, and one of very few British composers included at all. In 1832 Cramer’s Piano Quintet - his first quintet - was programmed with Dragonetti again taking the double bass part and Robert Lindley as cellist. The following year Cramer’s Second Piano Quintet, a Philharmonic Society commission, is given and is repeated in the following season. Modern performances of the Cramer quintets would be of considerable interest - the Quintet Op 69 was published by Probst of Leipzig, possibly in 1826 and there is a copy in the Bodleian Library Oxford. The autograph manuscript of the Quintet in Bb of 1832 is in the Royal Philharmonic Society collection currently the subject of an appeal for the British Library to purchase it (Loan 4/RPS MS 1021).

However, in 1832 the return of John Field from Moscow was celebrated by him performing his then unknown Fourth Piano Concerto. Patrick Piggott tell us that on this occasion Field substituted the ‘Pastorale in A major’ from his Deuxieme Divertissement for Piano and string quartet first published in 1811. While the concerto seems to have been regarded as old fashioned by the 1830s audience, according to contemporary criticism they were not averse to that, and the ‘Pastorale’ was described as ‘exceedingly delicious, and excited a unanimous encore’. Incidentally, while not in the current CD catalogue it was recorded by Lamar Crowson and the Allegri String Quartet for The History of Music in Sound (Volume VIII, HLP 21) and in its limpid simplicity and fluid piano writing it usefully provides us a reference point in the world of the London Piano School.

Geoffrey Bush in his survey of British chamber music in the nineteenth century reminds us that ‘in the first part of the [nineteenth] century, chamber-music making was principally a domestic affair. In higher society it was dominated by the piano, played almost invariably by ladies . . . the string quartet party, popular in the later eighteenth century, was maintained here and there in the nineteenth, especially in circles led by professional musicians . . . or in middle-class families . . . at Leeds in the 1830s there were [quote]"at least a dozen of our first and most influential families at which weekly quartet meetings were held". The atmosphere at such gatherings was serious and intense, the players dedicated; but it is not surprising that the chief fare was the music of the Viennese classics.’

Nicholas Temperley, in his doctoral thesis, investigated the instrumental music of the first half of the century, and cited the Society for British Musicians, an organisation largely founded on Royal Academy of Music circles, which between 1834 and 1850 saw the performance of some 77 works. Possibly for our purposes those which would most reward performance are the Mozartian String Quartet in C minor by Henry Bishop of 1816, and the more Beethovenian Cipriani Potter’s three Grand Trios Op 12, the first a particularly useful repertoire piece as it is optionally for clarinet, bassoon and piano.

We start our survey proper, and Victorian chamber music, with Cipriani Potter’s pupil William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875). Bennett was the pre-eminent British composer of his generation, but was only really on fire creatively in his early years before the demands of administration and performance seem to have exhausted him. Bennett was a celebrated child prodigy, and in the 1830s he came to fame performing his own Piano Concertos, the first making a sensation when the composer was sixteen. He was invited to Windsor to perform it before William IV, and was befriended by the young Mendelssohn, seven years his senior, and hailed a considerable talent by both Mendelssohn and Schumann. In our history of chamber music, Sterndale Bennett’s Sextet in F# minor, dating from 1935, is surely the link between the new and the old, a work usefully recorded on CD by Marco Poco (8.223304). Later in the 1840s Sterndale Bennett sponsored his Classical Chamber Concerts in London, but this Sextet could well be equated another piano concerto, coming between the third and fourth concertos proper.

Sterndale Bennett’s so-called Chamber Trio, Op 26, dating from 1839 and written at the age of 23, came at the climax of that brief creative period to which he never really returned. This is one of the very few chamber works by a British composer to remain in the repertoire throughout the nineteenth century, and a BBC broadcast a few years ago, and more recently a sparkling performance at the Royal College of Music, underlined its achievement. Claire Nelson, in her excellent note for that occasion, characterised the music as being very much of the English School of his day, deriving from Clementi and Cramer, but as I wrote in News at the time ‘in the hall the flavour of Mendelssohn was over-powering’. A delightful and tuneful work, it would surely find a ready audience if it were played more frequently. Now, it is possible to take a very superficial approach to British chamber music of the nineteenth century, evoking it all in terms of other composers. Thus it is first ‘Mozartian’, later it becomes ‘Mendelssohnian’, then ‘Schumanesque’, later ‘Brahmsian’. Certainly composers wrote in the lingua franca of their day and Sterndale Bennett in 1839 was no exception. What is not open to argument is the fluency and quality of what he produced.

In Geoffrey Bush’s phrase, Sterndale Bennett’s pre-eminence as a composer is ‘emphasised by the flatness of the surrounding countryside’. This brings us to the one composer with a significant body of work who remains an enigma. Sir George Alexander Macfarren. Born the same year as Wagner, 1813, he became Professor of Music at Cambridge in 1875 and principal of the Royal Academy of Music, though at the end of his life he became blind. No composer of major reputation has ever suffered so complete an eclipse as Macfarren, in his day referred to as ‘the English Beethoven’, and although two of his symphonies have recently been recorded, his music, and certainly his extensive chamber music has not been heard in public since the nineteenth century. It seems probable that some of his music has not come down to us, yet his Second String Quartet was published by Kistner in 1846, his Piano Quintet by Schott in 1856, and a Trio for piano, flute and cello was published by Rudall Carte in later years. Cobbett was uncharacteristically dismissive, writing in 1929: ‘truth compels me to state that his works . . . are already obsolete. Though I have not heard any of them myself, I understand from competent critics that they display good musicianship, but very little charm.’ I think we have to note that in MacFarren’s six quartets, his Piano Quintet in G minor of 1843 and a Romanza and Allegro for piano trio, we have a body of work by a figure distinguished in his day, and that as far as we can trace it, urgently requires assessment in performance.

We were looking at the showing of British chamber music in the programmes of leading concert series of the day. John Ella founded the Musical Union in 1845 where he soon asserted ‘that there exists no society in France, Belgium, Italy, or Germany where Chamber Instrumental Music is better understood and appreciated’. Looking through the programmes of the first five seasons one is again struck by the absence of British composers, and only in the fifth concert of the second season, for 2 June 1846, do we find with the Mozart Quintet in G minor the Piano Trio No 3 by Osborne (and also Onslow’s quintet in A minor who is claimed as British). Osborne was the Irish-born pianist George Alexander Osborne. Onslow, among substantial chamber music also wrote a Quintet for piano, wind and double bass and a Septet (recorded on Jecklin JD 554-2), and became enormously popular for his piano pieces. Onslow is almost the only composer of his day whose has been extensively recorded on CD, making a strong case for performance.

Various performing organisation began to emerge to give concerts of chamber music; these included Joseph Dando’s string quartet concerts and the Society of British Musicians who included a Piano Trio and Piano Quartet by Charles Stephens (1821-92) and Edward Loder’s string quartets, which now appear to be lost. Loder, of course, the composer of the opera Raymond & Agnes which was revived at Cambridge in the mid-1960s. However, if we want to listen to representative examples of British chamber music of this period we have to turn to a Sterndale Bennett pupil - F Edward Bache, who unfortunately died young. We are probably more familiar with his brother Walter Bache who was a great champion in England of the music of Liszt. Edward Bache’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op 25, dates from the mid-1850s and was published posthumously by Kistner in Leipzig with a dedication to the celebrated pianist Arabella Goddard. Like the Sterndale Bennett Trio this has enjoyed a BBC revival and proved to be a little gem, well worth the attention of groups looking to expand their repertoire of this period; very much young man’s music, it underlines what was lost when Bache died soon after its composition.

Among Sterndale Bennett pupils who wrote chamber music we should also note a woman composer, Alice Mary Meadows White formerly Alice Mary Smith, with no less than four piano quartets and three string quartets. I have not heard them, but here we need to exercise some caution for Nigel Burton, in the Women’s Grove, warns us of her ‘pallid and anachronistic harmonic idiom’. Yet the slow movement of her Clarinet Sonata (also orchestrated as Concerto) played by a competitor during the BMS’s Wind competition was a most enjoyable discovery, and speaking personally, performances would be a worthwhile practical step.

There is one other figure from the 1860s we need to mention, just in passing. This is Frederick Gore Ousley, the Reverend Sir Frederick Arthur Gore Ouseley, Bart., successor to Sir Henry Bishop as Professor of Music in the University of Oxford, Warden of St Michael’s College, Tenbury, and much more besides. His two Mozartian string quartets date from 1868 and were viewed as antiquarian even in their day, but would perhaps be worth investigating now.

We need to try to approach this repertoire with Victorian ears, not with reference to the works that followed thirty and forty years later. A case in point is the Mackenzie Piano Quartet in Eb, written in 1874 and published by Kahnt of Leipzig almost immediately, when the composer was 27. In his autobiography A Musician’s Narrative Mackenzie tells how von Bülow had picked up a copy of the newly published score in Leipzig, and enthusiastically programmed it at Munich and Hanover. Stephen Banfield, in an article written before the RMA revival in 1974, remarked that Mackenzie’s early works came as a welcome breath of fresh air in Britain in the 1870s Perhaps we hear it at its best in the rhythmic finale.

Mackenzie brings us to Parry and Stanford. There is no doubt of the impact of Stanford and Parry in the late 1870s and early 80s, but they were viewed differently. Stanford’s chamber music, as exemplified by his first substantial score, the first Piano Quartet, is as we have already noted, a striking and energetic 27 year-old writing in the lingua franca of the day. Parry on the other hand, at least on the evidence of his chamber music, appeared as a much more avant garde figure, and upset a few commentators. Lets look at Stanford first.

From an intellectual middle-class protestant Dublin family, Charles Villiers Stanford was musical from an early age. His father, a distinguished lawyer, played the cello and sang, and Stanford grew up in a cultured circle at the high-point of the Victorian age; before he was ten he had heard the celebrated soprano Titiens singing his childhood setting of Mary Queen of Scots’ prayer ‘O Domine Jesu’.

After Cambridge, where he became a choral scholar at Queen’s College, and was appointed organist of Trinity at the age of 21, he went to Germany for 1874-76 to study music, at first with Reinecke in Leipzig, later with Kiel in Berlin. Personally acquainted with Brahms, Stanford wrote and spoke German fluently. It is worth hearing Kiel’s then new First Piano Quintet in A major, Op 75, once recorded on Marco Polo (8.223171), with which Stanford must have surely been familiar when he was in Berlin. (There are also three piano trios recorded by the Genberg Trio on Schwann (367382) and the Fifth Piano Trio on Tacet TACET 91.) This is the idiom which we tend to refer to as ‘Brahmsian’.

My title for this article comes from Stanford’s Musical Composition, a ‘short treatise for students’ first published in 1911 and dedicated ‘In grateful memory of the masters who taught me’. Stanford writes: ‘In chamber music it is still less possible to rely on colour as superior to design. It bears the same relation to orchestral treatment that water-colours do to oils. The texture and the mediums are thinner, the flaws of workmanship are all the more obvious.’ Later Stanford writes: ‘The main principle to grasp in string-quartet writing is the importance of providing plenty of rests. A quartet might almost answer to the Irishman’s description of a net, as a ‘lot of holes held together by string’.

Apart from early sonatas for cello and for violin, the [First] Piano Quartet was Stanford’s first chamber work, and by a curious coincidence it shares the same opus number and year of composition as Faure’s First Piano Quartet, perhaps providing us with a useful measure against which to judge it and what follows. Stanford’s failing in his later chamber music has been said to be his excessive reverence for classical models, perhaps most notable in his middle period string quartets, yet in these early examples there is a youthful freshness and confidence, a relishing of the medium, in which the composer is seeming to say ‘look at me - this is how it is done’. To understand the impact of this music on Stanford’s German friends, one has to remember that despite the works we have already discussed, for all practical purposes there was practically no distinctively British chamber music repertoire until Stanford and Parry both started to write such works. This at once celebrated their personal development, but it also signalled the wider development of an art-form which, within thirty or forty years, would see established a significant repertoire of British chamber music.

I think we need to say a little more about Stanford’s First Piano Quartet, which self-evidently blew like a gale in the stuffy world of British chamber music in the 1870s. Dated ‘April 1879’ on the printed score, it was quickly published in Berlin by Bote & Bock. The music is dedicated to Ernst Frank, five years older than Stanford and a close friend of Brahms, with ‘freundschaftlichst gewidmet’. From Cambridge, Stanford wrote to Frank, then Kapelmeister at the Frankfurt Stadt-Theater, seeking to submit his first opera The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, and when they met in the late summer of 1878 Stanford recalled ‘invaluable help in the reconstruction of some of the scenes’. Later Frank succeeded von Bülow as Director of Court Music in Hamburg, where he staged the opera in 1881. Stanford’s musical ‘thank you’ probably dates from Frank’s first words of assistance. ‘He was ever-ready to encourage and, if he believed in his man, to act’ remarked Stanford later.

There is surely no more piquant paradox than the received impression of Parry in the nineteen sixties as a notable reactionary, and his actual youthful radicalism. Parry’s early music, particularly his chamber music, was soon forgotten, and even in the 1890s as Grove’s successor as Director at the RCM he must have appeared to the younger generation as a very establishment figure. As Bax wrote in his autobiography ‘I should not be surprised to learn that he was even in the position to present livings to vicars . . . such conservatism as Parry’s does not propagate works of searching imagination’. Yet, thanks to the work of Jeremy Dibble, if we look at Parry in the late 1870s, a period in which his chamber music predominates, we find a progressive whose search for a viable personal style was fully abreast of the leading composers of the day. Thanks to his teacher Edward Dannreuther Parry was exposed to a catholic repertoire guided by a radical musician, one of the leading concert pianists of the day, whose semi-private concerts at Orme Square in Bayswater were a notable musical centre in their day.

How wonderful to be able to write in one’s diary, as Parry did in May 1877, ‘there was a goodly company of artistic folk to meet Wagner who was in great fettle and talked to an open-mouthed group in brilliant fashion’, and then when Wagner was rehearsing his own music Parry wrote ‘sat with George Eliot and Madame Wagner’. Yet Parry worked hard to solve formal and textural problems he set himself, this was real artistic pioneering, grappling with an ideas which only slowly satisfied Parry. One has the impression that when we compare Stanford’s early chamber works at about the same date that they had flowed easily and fluently.

Parry had earlier submitted his work to George Macfarren who in the mid-1870s had a considerable reputation as a composer-teacher. I can only refer you to Dibble account of this time in his book on Parry (122-3) but in essence Macfarren could not reconcile himself to Parry’s ‘unwarrantable progressions and un-authenticated treatment of form’.

Parry wrote three piano trios. His first, the Trio in E minor of 1878 saw him growing in confidence in writing a substantial work. Parry’s Piano Trio in E minor was begun during the 1877 Wagner festival, with which, as we have seen, Parry was closely involved. Subsequently revised, it was first performed at one of Dannreuter’s private concerts at Orme Square in January 1878, and after two further performances it was published by Breitkopf und Härtel in 1879. The opening of the slow movement must have signalled to its early admirers a bold new voice. However, here Parry - who after all had once wanted to study with Brahms - was certainly turning to Brahms for a model. By the time of the second and third trios in 1884 and 1889/90 he had become an established figure, and the Second Trio - in B minor - was briefly, almost popular, published and indeed reprinted.

We do not have to take these on trust for we have the Deakin Piano Trio’s fine recordings on Meridian, but we should also remember the String Quintet (with two violas) of 1884 which is yet to be revived, though it was once published by Novello. But of all Parry’s chamber works it is the Piano Quartet, the work heard at that RMA concert in 1974, that so excited interest, and is surely Parry’s early masterpiece. Again this is a case in point when it is difficult for us today to appreciate how modern this must have sounded when it was first performed. When it was given at a Monday Popular Concert in December 1883 it had a thin audience, critics clearly seeing an avant garde work frightening them away. The Musical Times excused Parry by writing ‘No fault can attach to him for adhesion to the modern school of writing if, as there is no reason to doubt, his principles are sincere. The composer from whom most of his inspiration in the present instance is undoubtedly Brahms, but in some respects he has gone beyond his model . . . Mr Parry merges subjects and details together with irritating persistence . . . [and] is not afraid to obey the dictates of his own inner consciousness . . .’. The Parry Piano Quartet was one of the first, if not the first, contemporary British chamber work to be published by Novello when it appeared in 1884.

I am surprised that no one has yet attempted a study of the role and reputation of the music education establishment in Germany for British composers and musicians in the nineteenth century, and the associated phenomenon of the British expatriate musical communities in Germany during the same time, indeed up to the First World War. It was certainly the ambition of almost all significant figures in British music during the first eight or nine decades of the nineteenth century to study in Germany. Elgar wanted to go to Leipzig, Parry wanted to study with Brahms. Neither realised their ambition. Delius only arrived at Leipzig after he had developed as a man and musician in the United States, while the young Percy Grainger and his contemporaries now known as the Frankfurt Gang all enrolled at Frankfurt-am-Main at the turn of the century.

I would like briefly to touch on an interesting window on this educational hegemony, in the case of the young Ethel Smyth at Leipzig, which has a direct relevance to our study of chamber music. Ethel Smyth vividly records her love of a Germany then vanishing, and her not always flattering impressions of German musical education, in her book Impressions that Remained, which is required reading. ‘At the time I signed on as a pupil of the Conservatorium’, wrote Smyth ‘that institution was merely trading on its Mendelssohnian reputation, though of course we in England did not know that. . . . The lessons with Reinecke were rather a farce; he was one of those composers who turn out music by the yaerd without effort or inspiration . . . At first I was astonished at the lack of musical enthusiasm among my fellow students; gradually I came to realise these girls and boys had come there merely to qualify for teachers’ certificates, and certainly whatever flame may have been in their bosom to start with was bound to burn low in the atmosphere of superficiality and indifference our masters distilled. The glorious part was the rest of musical life, the concerts and the Opera.’ (pp 164-5)

From her arrival in Leipzig in the summer of 1877, Ethel Smyth produced a stream of music. She was very much in the Brahms circle and when Sir George Grove was writing the programme notes for the first British performance of Brahms Violin Concerto on 22 February 1879 he wrote: ‘the writer begs to express his thanks to Miss Ethel Smyth, of Leipsic, for the above analysis and quotations, which in the inevitable difficulty of obtaining the MS score he would otherwise have been unable to give’. Smyth also made a piano transcription of the first movement of Brahms Second Symphony in the late 1870s presumably before it was published.

What sort of music did Smyth write as a result of this immersion in German musical culture? Possibly the best example of her early chamber music is the String Quintet of 1883, to which she gave the Opus number 1, so presumably she was proud of it. It was so well regarded at the time that it was published by Peters in 1884, and its revival at last year’s Lichfield Festival revealed a delightful and sunny score. We have already mentioned Alice Mary Smith among women composers, and two more names can be added here, Dora Bright with her Piano Quartet in D dating from 1893, and Rosalind Ellicott with a String Quartet and 2 Piano Trios, the second of which in D minor, a big piece, has just been recorded by the Summerheyes Trio for Meridian.

But this is to rush on. We now find ourselves in the early 1880s, and I think it would be useful to try to take a sounding of how the chamber music repertoire by British composers might have looked then. For this I have compiled what I hope might be a useful yardstick of the British chamber music of the mid-nineteenth century. This is taken from the ‘Catalogue of Works performed at the Monday Popular Concerts between 14 February 1859 and 4 April 1887’. Scanning this catalogue and ignoring duet and instrumental sonatas we come up with the following, only eight composers being featured in 1000 concerts over nearly 30 years.


performed at the Monday Popular Concerts

14 February 1859 - 4 April 1887

(Works listed in the period they were first performed)

From the decade 1859-69:

STERNDALE BENNETT:Piano Trio in A major 25/4/59; 2/3/1867; 14/3/70; 4/4/70; 15/2/75; 14/2/76

E J LODER: String Quartet No 6 in D major 25/4/59

MACFARREN: Piano Quintet in G minor 25/4/59

Piano Trio in E major 9/4/60


BALFE: Piano Trio in A major 17/3/77

STERNDALE BENNETT: Piano Sextet in F sharp minor, Op 8: 31/1/76; 21/1/82; 29/11/86.


F W DAVENPORT: Piano Trio in Bb Op 5: 31/1/81; 30/1/82

MACKENZIE: Piano Quartet in Eb 5/12/81; 29/11/84

PARRY: Piano Quartet in Ab 3/12/83

STANFORD: Piano Quintet Op 25 26/3/87

(Source: Catalogue of Works performed at the Monday Popular Concerts between 14 February 1859 and 4 April 1887. London: Monday Popular Concerts, 1887)

The repertoire is growing but only slowly, and in the nineteenth century earlier successes tended not to remain in currency. However, we should note how Sterndale Bennett is the most performed composer, but how the Chamber Trio faded after he died, though the Sextet was still heard in the 1880s. Some of the other names we have already touched on, but I should just sketch in Francis William Davenport born in 1847 who was MacFarren’s son in law and Professor of Harmony and Composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1879. His Symphony in D minor had won the Crystal Palace Symphony Competition in 1876 beating Stanford’s First Symphony into second place. Davenport produced a once widely used book on harmony and did not die until 1925, but I have never seen or heard his music, if it survives, and for us today he has remained just a name.

The other unknown work which would reward performance today is the Balfe Trio. When it was given at St James Hall, Balfe was already dead, but this one-off reflects Balfe’s fluency as the composer of many operas and works for the theatre, often written in great haste. With its winning lyricism this is a work, which although outside the great tradition of nineteenth chamber music, could well find a unique following if made available again.

Despite Balfe, this account of chamber music written during the nineteenth century by British composers has had a profoundly Germanic ring - did we really have to wait for the liberating influence of Debussy and Ravel before British composers moved on? And there is one now forgotten figure who I am fortunate to have heard, and so worth a brief word here. This was the Scottish composer Learmont Drysdale, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music from 1889, the year in which he wrote a short Piano Trio in one movement that is notable for its debt to French models, notably the early chamber music of Faure. The Drysdale Trio, of course, pre-dates the Faure Trio by nearly 35 years.

There is no doubt that the dominating figures in promoting the idea of chamber in the 1890s were Stanford and Parry, and as I have not summarised Stanford’s output we need to do so now. Stanford wrote his chamber music over a period of more than forty years, and at the end he was still writing almost in the idiom with which he set out, though latterly without the youthful impetus which characterises works such as the First Piano Quartet. Altogether he wrote eight string quartets, two string quintets, two piano quartets, a piano quintet and three piano trios. This is not too large a body of work for it all to be presented in performance in a series, but so far revival has been piecemeal, as individual groups or artists, looking for new repertoire have championed one work or another. Only very recently has there been any interest in the Piano Quintet which, with Stanford as the pianist, was often played in the 1890s.

Apart from revivals of the piano trios and piano quartets, we have not heard the earlier string quartets, nor the string quintets Generally as far as Stanford is concerned, in his chamber music early seems to be best. The first three string quartets were sufficiently popular in their day - the mid-1890s - to have been published in miniature score, and with their winning Schubertian lyricism would surely be worth exploring again. Of the others the jury is still out, and possibly they may well exemplify Geoffrey Bush’s criticism when he wrote: ‘unfortunately chamber music was for Stanford the Holy of Holies, into which nothing profane or vulgar must be allowed to enter’. The Seventh and Eight Quartets were broadcast in 1968 and 1974 but for me were disappointingly earth-bound, fully justifying Bush’s criticism. Yet, all I can say is that, as individual works are taken up by performing groups, one is generally enthusiastic at Stanford’s delightful invention and command of a familiar idiom. A Stanford chamber music cycle is obviously long overdue.

Ten years after his first Piano Quartet, by when Stanford, in his mid-thirties, was established as a significant name on the British musical scene, and long-established as a teacher at the Royal College of Music, he again paid tribute to a leading German musician, in this case Hans von Bülow, with his [First] Piano Trio. Stanford’s Irish Symphony had appeared in May 1887, and was an immediate success. Ensuing performances conducted by von Bülow, in Hamburg and Berlin, led to a commission for Stanford’s Fourth Symphony. In the year of his appointment as Professor of Music at Cambridge, in a country and an age which placed particular status on such matters, Professor Stanford’s acceptance in Germany saw English music itself honoured.

It was in this climate that the First Piano Trio quickly followed. Stanford’s three piano trios span his mature career, the Second following another ten years later, while the Third is an ‘in memoriam’ to friends lost in the First World War. The first Trio’s dedication to von Bülow reflects the warmth of Stanford’s gratitude to him. Stanford’s Trio was composed in Cambridge in the early summer of 1889. It came quickly, the movements dated: 27 May, 29 May, 3 and 17 June. When Stanford sent it to von Bülow offering the dedication, the reply came: ‘Good gracious! What wonderful progress your country is making owing to your genius’, adding that with Brahms’ Third Violin Sonata (of the year before) it was the best piece of music to have been inscribed to him. In this Trio we have another allusion to Brahms, when at the opening there seems to be a parallel between Stanford’s opening theme and Brahms’s A major Violin Sonata, very much a subject for comment when it was new.

Stanford’s four-movement Piano Quintet dates from March 1886, when its composer was 33, and in his lifetime it was one of his most popular chamber works, often with Stanford himself at the piano. The first performance was at one of Edward Dannreuther’s concerts, and it was soon taken up by other artists including Hallé at his chamber concerts. As I wrote in News on its revival at the RCM on 17 July last year, for us it had become one of the great unknowns of its period, not heard for many years, possibly since before the war. ‘This is chamber music on a big scale, running a little over 34 minutes. Expectations were surely tipped in the direction of a Brahmsian work, but while this is certainly music in the Germanic classical tradition of its time, expertly crafted and in perfect taste, the opening movement is much more redolent of Schumann, the spirit of Brahms not emerging until the finale. This a sunny contented first movement, and Stanford’s fluency and inventiveness in the medium was doubtless the reason for the violinist Joachim’s interest, following the composition closely and taking it up as soon as it was completed. The infexiously jigging Irish scherzo is pure Stanford, the players bringing an enviable fluency to its headlong busy-ness. But it is the soaring slow movement where Stanford writes in his most personal vein, the expressive opening almost Elgarian in its elegiac expansive line.’ It is good to know that the Liverpool group LIVE-A-Music have programmed it for the Three Choirs Fringe at Worcester this year, and hope to play it at Huntingdon Hall on 10 August.

There is one figure very active in the last two decades of the nineteenth century of whom we need briefly to take note, as by a long way he published a catalogue of chamber music significantly larger than any of his contemporaries. I refer to Algernon Ashton, just a name today, but active as a composer in his early years almost entirely in Germany and was able to publish a catalogue (with Hofbauer of Leipzig) of one hundred published opus numbers by the age of 36, in 1898, including Piano Trios, Piano Quartets and Quintets, and a large corpus of rather Schumanesque piano music.

Ashton grew up in Leipzig and studied music there and at Frankfurt-am-Main. It is fortunate that at least the chamber music was published, because all Ashton’s orchestral music, still in manuscript, symphonies and concerti, was destroyed in a fire. Yet Ashton was long a professor of piano at the RCM (from 1885). Although his was a backward-looking art, being content to write in very much a received idiom, possibly the reason for his success with German publishers and musical public. It would be fascinating to know what Stanford thought of him. Thus Ashton’s first essays for piano quintet, piano quartet and piano trio all pre-date Stanford’s similar works, but despite his position at the RCM and the scale of his published chamber music, he never integrated into the British musical world, and later did not change when music itself began to develop in the face of a new generation in the early years of the twentieth century. In the 1970s I knew a Mr Pettitt (cannot remember anything more about him) who had inherited all Ashton’s printed copies of his own music, and he gave me my copy of Hofbauer’s catalogue, and also loaned me several sets of parts for play-through sessions, including a very Schumanesque Piano Quintet. I wonder if any reader might remember him and would be able to locate where his collection of music is now.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the founding of the RCM in 1883 is the line from which the growth of British chamber music in the early years of the next century stemmed. Stanford sang the praises of the Viennese classical school, though he encouraged his students to keep ‘his ears open and brains alive to all that is going on round him. The invention of others will often strike sparks out of himself’. The example of Brahms must have been significant during the 1890s particularly when the celebrated clarinettist Mühlfeld visited London with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. It is said that the Clarinet Quintet, not his only student chamber work, by the young Samuel Coleridge Taylor was written as a response to Stanford’s challenge to write a work un-influenced by Brahms. In this case, if we wish to suggest a model possibly the wraith of Dvorak may occasionally be heard in characteristic twists of melody and rhythm, but in the closing bars of the finale for example we find the quite individual sound Coleridge Taylor had achieved. Coleridge Taylor’s student achievement has recently been brought to our attention by LIVE-A-Music with their public performance of the Fantasiestücke, Op 5 and the Piano Quintet in G minor, Op 1, respectively dating from 1895 and 1893, also issued on CD. Unperformed since 1893, the Piano Quintet is quite a find, signalling the brilliance of Stanford’s pupils in the nineties and well worth performance today. Hilary Burrage highlights that this is music influenced both by Schubert and Dvorak, but what is remarkable about it is the vitality of the invention and command of the medium demonstrated by Coleridge Taylor at the age of 20. It will be interesting to hear the Piano Trio, Op 6, part of the coupling for the Summerheyes Trio’s recording of the Ellicott Trio mentioned above. Small wonder Coleridge Taylor was Stanford’s favourite pupil at the time. His achievement underlines the importance of the chamber music by Stanford’s pupils, which in the early 1900s would include James Friskin, William Hurlstone and Frank Bridge.

Similarly, the early Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet by John Ireland dating from 1897. In its day it was felt that that Ireland had succumbed to the influence of Brahms, and this was possibly the reason why after early performances the composer withheld the work for the next 65 years. When it was revived at the Arts Council Drawing Room in St James Square in the early 1960s, it was received with great enthusiasm and clearly had all the freshness and memorable invention of a young composer on fire creatively. Ireland had in fact achieved a living score, and his technical command was surely appreciated by his teacher Stanford, despite his waspish remarks.

Perhaps the most exciting part of a practical study of British chamber music is to explore that rich period from the 1890s to, say, 1910. The jump from Coleridge Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet to On Wenlock Edge is only 14 years, yet a time which not only saw an unprecedented stylistic revolution, but the emergence of a remarkably large number of top line composers. In the middle of this, in retrospect, we tend to focus on the music of Vaughan Williams, and as the revival of RVW’s early Piano Quintet has reminded us, while not yet fully mature, Vaughan Williams’s early chamber works demonstrate this search for an idiom in a very real way, while being enjoyable in themselves. It is good to know that they will be recorded by the Nash Ensemble this summer.

I would just like to touch on one final name who made a big splash in 1900: Donald Francis Tovey, not a College student. Tovey, with his powerful pianism, encylopaedic knowledge of the repertoire and commanding intellect was impressive, though his talent was not the stuff of revolutions. In retrospect Tovey appears to us as an outsider, in thrall to classical models and prone to produce expertly constructed music of considerable length and density. But in the early chamber music, that great intellect is coupled with a youthful passion which can usefully be illustrated by the Piano Quartet, first heard in 1900, and interestingly in two movements, the second a set of variations.

From the maturing of the RCM’s first significant intake of student composers emerged Henry Walford Davies, though a pupil of Parry rather than Stanford. Hearing Solemn Melody playing from Westminster Abbey as the coffin of Her Majesty the Queen Mother arrived there the other day reminded one how popular was Sir Henry Walford Davies in his day. Once a very familiar figure in British music, a BBC personality of considerable reputation and wide public following, yet outside the church his music did not really maintain its currency into the later part of his life or since. I have only ever heard three of the choral works on which he built his reputation before the First World War, and certainly it has been difficult to make any kind of focus on his chamber music.

Henry Walford Davies was born in 1869 and his musical education was coloured by his teenage training in the choir of St George’s Chapel Windsor and his five years as pupil assistant to Walter Parratt. At the age of 21 a scholarship enabled him to study composition at the Royal College of Music principally with Parry but also with Stanford. After five years he joined the staff as teacher of counterpoint.

Walford Davies’s instrumental music is forgotten, and it is difficult to remember that his early chamber music, written in the 1890s, ever existed. Yet the manuscripts, in bound volumes, are now preserved at the Royal College of Music and includes String Quartets in D and C minor, Piano Quintets in Eb, D minor and C, orchestral works and many songs. Surely Parry was remembering his own early chamber music, by then beginning to be forgotten, when he encouraged Walford Davies. Now this is the sort of thing that one writes and reads in a music dictionary entry without much further thought. In the case of Walford Davies I think we need to look at them again and give them an airing, particularly when we remember that the two violin sonata from the same time were published by Novello. Among this music there is also a setting of Psalm 23 for tenor, string quartet and harp, and in particular, that wonderful scena Prospice, words by Browning, for baritone and string quartet, which perhaps gives us our doorway into Walford Davies’ early chamber music. This is recorded on CD and shows us a minor masterpiece - if you do not know it I urge you to explore while it is still available.

While, like Parry, Walford Davies was also in thrall to Brahms in his chamber music (he even went to Germany to meet him in 1896 and showed him his music) like his teacher he surely transcended him. Listen to the wide-spanning imagination and dramatic growth of his quartet prelude to Prospice, which signals a composer not only in command of his material but writing urgently from personal experience. Walford Davies had suffered a life-threatening illness in 1890, and he gives the opening words of Browning’s poem a unique resonance:

‘Fear death? - to feel the fog in my throat, the mist in my face . . .’

Between 1900 and 1914 came the influence of the Cobbett Competitions and the Patron’s fund, and there appeared a glorious library of chamber music as a new generation of composers found their personal voices and eclipsed their predecessors. The complete elimination of the chamber music by several generations of Victorian composers, almost overnight, was almost as remarkable as the rise of those who followed. Bax and his contemporaries thought them ghastly dullards, but now that we can see the span of 150 years after 1800 we can see a continuum which as styles came and went offers us considerable rewards when we explore it today. Let me encourage you to explore and I hope I have highlighted a few possibilities to appeal to all tastes and sympathies.









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