Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Even those listeners with little more than a nodding acquaintance of Stanford's music may have reflected that the works they know often seem to have a doppelgänger elsewhere in his vast output. In a few cases, both of the paired works are well-known; "Songs of the Sea", op.91 (1904) and "Songs of the Fleet", op.117 (1910) are an obvious case. Most organists will know the two sets of "Six Short Preludes and Postludes", opp.101 and 105 (1907 and 1908); many choirmasters will have noticed that "The Blue Bird" is from one set of eight partsongs to words by Mary Coleridge, while "When Mary thro' the Garden Went" is from another (opp.119 and 127; 1910 and 1911).

Does this just mean that, when Stanford knew he was onto a good thing, he didn't mind repeating it? A quick skim through his catalogue of works might suggest that this was indeed the case. We find the highly successful "Revenge", op.24 (1886) joined by another swashbuckling sea-ballad, "The Battle of the Baltic", op.41 (1891); following the international success of the third Symphony (the "Irish", op.28, 1887) he produced another barely a year later (the 4th, op.31); his earlier partsong production saw three sets of "Six Elizabethan Pastorals", opp.49, 53 and 67 (1892, 1893 and 1897), although the one piece among them to achieve popularity, "Corydon, Arise", was from the first set. In later years he returned to the scene of his best-known Irish song-cycle, "An Irish Idyll in Six Miniatures", op.77 (c.1901; words by Moira O'Neill), and produced a further set of O'Neill settings, "Six Songs from The Glens of Antrim", op.174 (1920); other late works include a pair of unaccompanied Mass settings, opp.169 and 176 (c.1919 and c.1920) and two sets of 24 Preludes for piano, opp.163 and 179 (1918 and 1920). And here is the rub; while some of these "couples" mark a later return to a successful subject, a fair number came out contemporaneously. Thus the first two string quartets were completed within a month of each other (August and September 1891) and bear consecutive opus numbers, 44 and 45, paralleled at the end of his career by the last two, nos.7 and 8, opp.166 and 167 (c.1919). In between he composed his two string quintets, opp.85 and 86 (1903), while other late couples include the "Two Sonatas for Violin with Piano Accompaniment", op.165 (c.1918) and the two Fantasies for clarinet and string quartet (without op. nos; 1921 and 1922. There is also a Fantasy for horn and string quartet dated 1922). His racy Irish ballad-opera "Shamus O'Brien", op.61 (1895) was barely out of his pen than he was at work on an English comic opera, "Christopher Patch, or the Barber of Bath", op.69 (1897), while the hard-hitting satyrical opera "The Critic" was followed almost immediately by a warm-hearted fairy-tale opera, "The Travelling Companion" (opp.144 and 146; 1915 and 1916).

These last couples lead to the real point of this study; Stanford did not swell an already large output to twice its natural size by writing everything twice over, as some might be suspecting. Rather, certain contradictions in his own character frequently lead him to conceive two musical "opposites" concurrently. While his later returns to a previous subject often reveal an almost pernickety insistence on "doing it differently this time". A full investigation of Stanford's many "couples" would require much space and would run against the problem of the current unavailability of many of the pieces. So the following examination of just a few "couples" is intended to open a debate rather than close it.

The first String Quartet is about as classical in layout as a quartet can be. Take the first movement; the first subject has three elements; a falling fourth in long notes, a more melodic continuation and then a rhythmic pendant. Three ideas ripe for development, as the bridge passage immediately shows. The second subject is longer-breathed and also features a falling fourth. It is accompanied by a rhythmic figure which comes out on its own to round off the section before a quiet codetta leads to the double bar. A strong development section discusses all the main ideas in turn, climaxing on the falling fourth and an extended tranquil lead-back to the recapitulation which is very much varied, particularly in the first bridge passage. A fairly full coda begins quietly but concludes brilliantly.

If this sounds a little forbidding, a "textbook" movement rather than real music, it should be said that it wears its mastery lightly. The material is attractive and the aural effect is remarkably spontaneous. Furthermore, there are some unusual features to be noted. Although there is no exposition repeat, the beginning of the development brings a varied version of the theme in the tonic, tricking the listener for a moment into thinking that an exposition repeat may be in the offing. Then, with the recapitulation under way, there are so many variations and extensions as to suggest that this is in reality a further development. And, since the coda begins with a final statement of the first subject, the movement has almost the appearance of a rondo.

Not quite such a textbook example of sonata form after all, then. The obvious model is Brahms's Fourth Symphony, but Stanford perhaps goes even further in the direction of using apparent sonata form for a purpose other than that for which it was designed.

The problem which faced any late-romantic composer who wrote in sonata form was that sonata form itself was born from a musical language which could make a drama out of the progress from tonic to dominant. But late-romantic music tends by its nature to move freely from key to key, so the arrival on the dominant often seems more like a homecoming than an adventure. In the case of the Stanford movement, which is in G, his first bridge passage takes him through B flat and E flat; the second subject does begin in D, but avoids a clear dominant-tonic cadence until the end of the paragraph, which has in the meantime travelled as far afield as E flat minor. So Stanford joined the ranks of such composers as Bruckner and (later) Mahler and Sibelius who had to face the fact that, though it might be possible, using their natural musical language, to write a movement which looked like sonata form on paper, the actual effect would be the opposite of what sonata form was intended to do. Remember the controversy which has rumbled down the years over the assertion by Cecil Gray that the exposition of the first movement of Sibelius's Second Symphony was at the end of the movement, not the beginning. Here Stanford obtains tonal stability by combining sonata form with rondo form, but at this point a little voice at his elbow maybe started to suggest that there could be another way of writing a string quartet.

The first movement of the second string quartet, in A minor, steals in with a fugue-like subject, pianissimo, in tempo "molto moderato". But it is a fugue destined to get nowhere, for the second entry remains in the tonic and thereafter it peters out, the theme being developed more harmonically before it cadences back in A minor. Then a quicker tempo begins, the music dances away with a lyrical theme in F major, and this, unprepared by any bridge passage, is the second subject. In common with the first movement of the first quartet, there is no exposition repeat, but the development takes as its starting point the "fugue" theme, back in the original tempo and, most importantly, back in A minor. Again, the fugal aspect is not pursued for very long but instead of petering out the theme is developed motivically, the tempo quickens and a passionate expansion of the second subject takes place, subsiding to a varied recapitulation of the "fugue" theme and a restatement of the second subject in D, not in A. Thus this recapitulation, too, seems like a further development rather than a homecoming. A major is finally reserved for a last appearance of the "fugue" theme, followed by a very beautiful coda based, first on wholly new material and then the "fugue" theme joined by a snatch of the figure which had accompanied the second subject - the first hint that the two themes may not be wholly incompatible. So we have a movement which may look like sonata form but what it is actually about is the reconciliation of two utterly contrasted ideas and the gradual transformation of a wan little motive into something beautiful. As romantic a concept as the first quartet was classical.

Nor does the classical/romantic duality between the two works finish here, for the first quartet's remaining movements are thematically independent while the second is a cyclic work. The "fugue" theme reappears during the scherzo, forms the basis of the slow movement and is remembered in tranquillity just before the final coda of the last movement.

What can we deduce from all this? Stanford's ideals, fuelled by his admiration for Brahms, led him to a theoretical preference for "absolute" forms; forms where the abstract structure is its own justification. But he was by nature a racconteur (Irishmen so often are) and his inner self was attracted towards "symbolic" forms; that is, forms where themes bearing some extra-musical label are manipulated to illustrate some sort of a programme, such as a "darkness to light" progression. This duality was so deep in him that the creation of a work in the one form was likely impel the immediate creation of a work in the other. In the present case it is noticeable that the "romantic" work seems to have freed his imagination. The first quartet is extremely attractive but the second has themes of a sharper, more memorable profile and should be played by every string quartet specialising in late-Nineteenth Century works.

When returning to a successful idea Stanford always took care to "do it differently this time". Sometimes it is clear that he felt he had more to say. It is not only in their layout that "Songs of the Fleet" differ from "Songs of the Sea" (the deeply moving "Farewell" at the conclusion whereas the earlier set ended with the rollicking "Old Superb"). They have a mystic, other-wordly feeling not present in the first cycle.

"The Revenge" and "The Battle of the Baltic" offer an interesting contrast. "The Revenge" is essentially romantic, constructed on operatic, dramatic lines. There are leitmotives for the Revenge itself, for Sir Richard Grenville and for the Spaniards, and these come and go as required. The battle and the storm have their own material. In other words, the poem dictates the form. The classical Stanford may not have been quite happy with this, for "The Battle of the Baltic" is almost monothematic, deriving much of its material from a snatch of "Hearts of Oak". Most choirs in Stanford's day continued to prefer the earlier work (Campbell's poetry, less flamboyant than Tennyson's, was another factor). In an age where Tennyson's "Revenge" is no longer loved, the tauter construction of the later piece might have more appeal, though the most inspired section does seem to be the only one (beginning from "Then Denmark blest our chief") which is not derived from "Hearts of Oak".

So different may not mean better. In the two sets of Preludes and Postludes for organ, Stanford's Irish/English duality rears its head; the second set offers three pieces on themes of Gibbons to counteract the two on ancient Irish themes in the first set. But most organists find that, while the first set is uniformly attractive, the second is disappointingly arid, excepting only the splendid, and decidedly Celtic, D minor Postlude. The second set of Mary Coleridge partsongs offer some interesting textural experiments but several of them seem rather fussily overwritten compared with the first set, all of which hit the mark effortlessly.

In conclusion, it had better be said that not all of Stanford's works have a twin. He was a compulsive writer and completely unsystematic. His classical/romantic, or his Irish/English dualities came out unconsciously, not as the result of deliberate self-investigation. Nevertheless, the hunting down and examination of these "couples" in his work can help us to get a better perspective on his output and pave the way to a fuller understanding of a still-underrated composer.

Christopher Howell 1997.



Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.