Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Most lovers of British music will need no reminding of the thrilling moment in "Fare Well", the last of Stanford's "Songs of the Fleet", op.117 (1910), where, at the words "For evermore their life and thine are one", an overwhelming climax wells out of the orchestra. Though musically complete in itself, this climax gains in effect when the listener recognises, as most would have in Stanford's day, that it is based on the refrain of "The Old Superb", the last of the earlier "Songs of the Sea", op.91 (1904). Back in 1910, the sharp-eared listener would have recognised another quotation earlier in the cycle, this time not from Stanford himself. In "The Song of the Sou' Wester" Newbolt's poem speaks of the Middy who "may hear one day/His own big guns a-humming the tune/ ‘’Twas in Trafalgar's Bay’". This is a reference to "The Death of Nelson", a long-popular song by the English singer and composer John Braham (1777-1856). Stanford obligingly incorporates the opening phrase of the song in his own music.

Here we have, in a nutshell, a matter which to the best of my knowledge has scarcely been touched upon in print. Stanford's output is bestrewn, one might almost say cross-indexed, with quotations both from himself and from others, and they appear equally in sheerly humorous pieces and in works of the highest seriousness.

It is fairly well known, at least by hearsay (few of the works discussed in this article have actually been heard in recent years), that a certain number of Stanford's more comic pieces are virtually ragbags of quotations; the "Installation Ode" (1892), the "Ode to Discord" (1908), the opera "The Critic", op. 144 (1915), the brief "Elegia Maccheronica" (1921) and the posthumously published (1960) "Nonsense Rhymes, by Karel Drofnatzky". First in the line would seem to be the "Blarney Ballads" (pub. 1889) which include "March of the Men of Hawarden", where Stanford's political arch-enemy Gladstone is pilloried to the tune of "Men of Harlech". Like many of these jeux d'esprits, the words were provided by the composer's life-long friend Charles Larcom Graves.

All this in itself does no more than demonstrate that Stanford preserved into his old age that peculiar type of student humour which seizes upon the likes of Chabrier's Wagnerian send-ups and parades them before an audience of chortling contemporaries. But those who judge the most significant of these works, "The Critic", only by its reputation, or even by the scrappy orchestral extracts recorded by Stanford for HMV in 1916 and once available on a Pearl LP, will be unprepared for the mastery with which original and quoted material are woven together to make a genuine musical statement. Clearly something more than mere clowning is afoot.

Stanford's use of musical quotation can be classified into a number of categories: straightforward liftings of a movement or part of a movement from one work to another; high-spirited (rather than actually comic) pieces which throw in allusions to well-known themes; serious pieces which include major self-quotations; and serious pieces whose thematic material is derived, in whole or in part, from the music of other composers. Before proceeding further I should say that I am not concerned here with the incorporation of Irish folk tunes into Irish Rhapsodies, nor with the composition of anthems and organ pieces around well-known hymn tunes, since these are compositional techniques used by all composers (though the use of the Marseilleise in the Sonata Eroica for organ is something else again). I should also point out that, while I have studied a vast number of Stanford's works over many years, at least as many remain inaccessible to me. The present study will be limited by this fact and by the boundaries of my own abilities to recognise a quotation when I see it; not all the works alluded to have remained common currency.

The category of straightforward liftings need detain us least. The 4th Symphony is a special case, to be dealt with later; otherwise the main object seems to be that of not wasting good material. Thus the Morris Dance from "10 Dances, Old and New", op. 58 for pianoforte (pub. 1895) reappears in the opera "Much Ado About Nothing", op.76 (1900) and another piano piece, "In Modo Dorico", the first of the "6 Characteristic Pieces", op.132 (1912) is re-employed, its doric contours softened and humanised, as the prelude and one of the principle leitmotifs of another opera, "The Travelling Companion", op.146 (1916). In both cases Stanford clearly had a particular affection for the original piece; the Morris Dance was included, in its orchestral garb, in his 1916 HMV sessions while "In Modo Dorico" was also arranged for the organ.

More puzzling is the case of the Mazurka, no.5 of "Night Thoughts" for piano, op.148 (1917). This was originally the last of the unpublished "6 Concert Pieces" for piano, op.42 (1894). A comparison between the two shows the harmonic- and phrase-structure to be identical, while scarcely a bar passes without some minute change of detail. These alterations are largely a matter of a redistribution of the notes within the single chords, and seem to be differences rather than improvements. Did Stanford perhaps rewrite the piece without consulting the original version?

Moving into the "high-spirited" category, an early example of a quotation of the "Death of Nelson"/"Sou' Wester" type appears in "Marching Song" from "A Child's Garland of Songs", op.30 (pub. 1892). "Feet in time, alert and hearty,/Each a Grenadier!" say R. L. Stevenson's words, to which Stanford adds a snatch of "The British Grenadiers" on the piano. Contemporary with "Songs of the Fleet" is the Irish song-cycle "Cushendall", op.118 (1910). In the fifth song, "Daddy-long-legs", the unfortunate insect singes its wings by flying too close to the candle-flame, while the piano quotes couple of bars from Wagner's "Magic Fire Music", "not pointed out like most quotations, but flung out like a laugh as you ride by". Plunket Greene's description cannot be bettered ("Charles Villiers Stanford": Arnold 1935). Other cases worth mentioning are the songs "A Carol of Bells", with its references to various chimes and the National Anthem, and "Wales for Ever" (pub. 1918) which is helped towards its climax by courtesy of "Men of Harlech".

The self-quotations in serious pieces serve a variety of purposes. In the Cantata "The Bard", op.50 (1892) we find a curious example of musical punning. As Gray's poem speaks of "gales from blooming Eden", a phrase from Stanford's oratorio "Eden", op.40 (1890) is heard on the orchestra. The composer perhaps derived a degree of private amusement from this, but how many listeners did he imagine would spot the quotation, and what were they supposed to make of it? In a little-known piano piece, "Farewell - In Memoriam K. of K" (1916), inspiration seems in short supply until, with audible relief, Stanford has recourse to an arrangement of "Fare Well" from "Songs of the Fleet" as his middle section. The once-popular song "A Japanese Lullaby" is pervaded by a pigeon call which was first heard in the love duet from Act II of "Much Ado About Nothing".

Rather more significant, since some sort of personal symbolism seems involved, is the Benedictus from the Mass "Via Victrix", op.173 (1919). For much of its length the "Paradise" theme from the "Stabat Mater", op.96 (1906) is intoned on the horn. Judging by the vocal score alone, Stanford ran the risk of banalizing one of his most beautiful themes; however, the result in actual performance may be quite different. Indeed, this Mass depends more than any other Stanford work on effects which have to be heard to be judged; all that can be said at present is that it is either one of his greatest works or one of his worst.

If no self-quotation seems to be as profoundly impressive as that in "Songs of the Fleet" (not least because the quotation stands a chance of being recognised as such even given the level of present-day knowledge of Stanford's music), two extremely interesting examples occur in the song-cycle "Songs of a Roving Celt", op.157 (1918). In the second song, "Assynt of the Shadows", the piano quotes, between the first and second stanzas, the "Fare Well" motive from "Songs of the Fleet"; a moving reminder that the Celt is returning home at the end of the war leaving his companion buried at sea. And the piano postlude to the last song, "The Call", recalls the postlude of an earlier cycle, "An Irish Idyll", op.77 (pub. 1901). But a comparison between the two reveals, no doubt deliberately, how the world had changed in those 17 years. In 1901 the Irishman embraced with rapture the idea of returning home; in 1918 the motive is a weary reminiscence. War and loss had intervened and the Celt (a Scot in this cycle, but the message is clear) returns home merely for lack of anything better to do.

Self-quotation at its best, then, can serve to clarify the composer's message and deepen the listener's perception of it. So what of the quotations from other sources?

Again, there is a variety of uses. The fifth String Quartet, op.104 (1908) was dedicated to the memory of Joseph Joachim, and contains references to a little phrase which the violinist was wont to play in the artist's room while waiting to go on stage. The "Wellington Ode", op.100 (1907) quotes a phrase from Goss's Anthem composed for Wellington's funeral. Wisely, Stanford noted this in the score, rather than trust to his listeners' familiarity with the piece. These almost private allusions are contrary to the fundamental rule of the musical quotation; if it is to tell us something, it must be of a familiarity and a clarity which make it instantly recognizable.

Quotations of this type are used tellingly in the late cantata "At the Abbey Gate", op.177 (pub. 1921) and the even later Anthem "While Shepherds Watched", op.192/2 (1922). In both works, the final climax is brought home with a reference to, in the first case, Handel's "Dead March" and, in the second, "Vom Himmel hoch". Nor is the allusion to Chopin's funeral march at the beginning of the Prelude in B flat minor "In Memoriam M.G." for piano, op.163/22 (1918) likely to be unintentional.

In a number of other works the quoted material is absorbed into the compositional process rather than pasted on for a special effect. In the Cantata "The Battle of the Baltic", op.41 (1891) Stanford takes his cue from the words "Hearts of oak!" our captain cried" and leads off with a stirring reference to Boyce's song of that name. Much of the thematic material of the work is derived symphonically from this opening. The Choral Song "Last Post", op.75 (1900) has a bugler placed away from the orchestra to play the "Reveille" at the beginning, middle and end of the work; the remaining thematic material is at least partly derived from this. The Choral Overture "Ave atque Vale", op.114 (1909) was written for the centenaries of the death of Haydn and the birth of Tennyson. The listener may detect from time to time, during the first part, apparent allusions to the "Emperor's Hymn" but it is not until that melody appears in glorious fulfilment at the end that one realises, on thinking back, that the whole work, including its strange opening chordal sequence, has been derived from it. This is a remarkable tour de force.

But the most fascinating case is, without doubt, that of the Fourth Symphony, op.31 (1888). The lifting of an intermezzo from the recent incidental music for "Oedipus Tyrannus", op.29 (1887) as part of the second movement could possibly be attributed to the need to provide a new symphony in a hurry, but the 1889 Berlin Philharmonic concert at which the Symphony had its première also included the Prelude to "Oedipus", suggesting that Stanford saw the works as interrelated, with the intermezzo maybe finding its real context in the Symphony. In the four-part programme of the Symphony - "Thro' Youth to Strife/Thro' Death to Life" - the intermezzo represents Strife and it is a pity that Vernon Handley, in his Chandos recording, has chosen to interpret Stanford's "Allegretto agitato" as "Andante tranquillo", with results of quite remarkable flaccidity.

But the enigma of the Fourth Symphony hardly ends here. The principle subject of the first movement alludes unmistakeably to the "Frei aber froh" arpeggio motive which had also begun Brahms's Third Symphony, while the second subject quotes from the first of Brahms's Liebesliederwalzer far too extensively to admit mere coincidence. This is, after all, the Youth movement, and such an expert in musical cyphers as Brahms (who attended the concert) could hardly have failed to unravel the autobiographical content. Stanford had gone to Germany as a young student, free but happy, and there had met love in the form of his future wife, Jenny Wetton. So now he was offering a gracious compliment to the country to which he owed so much, both personally and professionally. Furthermore, when he returned to Berlin in 1895 his programme included the First Piano Concerto, op.59 (1894); here, too, the second subject of the first movement seems to contain a brief allusion to the first Liebesliederwalzer.

Before leaving the Fourth Symphony, it is worth noting that Stanford's Life theme in the last movement (unduly frogmarched along in the Handley recording) is basically a rising scale. (Having been so critical of Handley in two movements of this Symphony, it seems right to say that the first and third movements strike me as excellently done). When in the Sixth Symphony, op.94 (1905) he needed a Death theme, it was basically a falling scale. The Requiem, too (op.63; 1896), is dominated by a falling scale-motive. But rising and falling scales are the stuff of which music is made and, in the absence of confirmation from other works, I prefer not to make too much of this.

It would certainly be wrong to suggest that Stanford's work is systematically cross-referenced, and wronger still to suggest that it relies heavily on other men's music for its themes. Many of his finest works have gone unmentioned in this study because they contain no quotations of any kind. It would even be tempting to suggest that Stanford used such devices as a backup when he was short of inspiration; but "Last Post" and "Ave atque Vale" have high claims, and there is that terrific moment in "Songs of the Fleet". What we can say is that Stanford understood more than any composer except Charles Ives the value of musical quotation. It may seem perverse to mention Stanford in the same breath as a revolutionary like Ives, but musical criticism has laboured for much of this century under the delusion that musical modernity can be measured by dissonance; recently the tide seems to be turning. At the very least we can say that Stanford and Ives had this much in common; they understood that the sudden recognition of a musical theme by the listener, in a context far removed from its normal one, can create an effect which is both powerful and moving.

Christopher Howell 1997.


Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician by Jeremy Dibble (Oxford 2002, 535 pp) £65
Charles Villiers Stanford by Paul Rodmell (Ashgate 2002, 495 pp) £57.50 [CH]

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