STANFORD, EDMOND HOLMES AND "THE TRIUMPH
In 1903 Stanford had been married for 25 years
and he celebrated the occasion by composing a cycle of five songs
from Edmond Holmes's "The Triumph of Love". The choice of texts
by Holmes was of deep personal significance. Stanford had met
his future wife, Jennie Wetton, while studying in Germany, had
fallen for her at once, become engaged and then run into parental
opposition. This was overcome only by observing the conditions
laid down in stern Victorian manner by Stanford's father; the
two were neither to meet nor to correspond for a year. If they
were still of the same mind at the end of the year, they could
marry. At this point Edmond Holmes, already a friend of long standing,
played his part. Plunket Greene takes up the tale:
`He carried no messages, but he saw to it
that each had happy news of the other's well-being of mind
and body, and helped the black months to pass. Charles never
forgot it, and when the occasion arose, as many years later
it did, fought for him like a tiger.' (Harry Plunket Greene:
Charles Villiers Stanford, 1935).
It is a pity that Plunket Greene does not enlarge
upon the last statement, but as time went on Holmes probably needed
all the personal loyalty he could get. He produced his first volume
of poetry in 1876, and a second in 1879. Not much followed in
the next few years, but in 1895 he produced "A Confession of Faith.
By an Unorthodox Believer." This was a fairly good way to estrange
one's friends in Victorian England. "The Silence of Love" followed
in 1901 and "The Triumph of Love" in 1903. The second of the sonnets
chosen by Stanford also found its way into "An Edwardian Lady's
Country Diary" so Holmes had not yet disgraced himself utterly
in the eyes of respectable people. The fourth sonnet chosen by
Stanford begins as follows:
"I think that we were children long ago
In some far land beyond the gates of death,
Where souls, too innocent for bliss or woe,
Wait for renewal of their mortal breath."
This was no hyperbolic love-declaration, though
Stanford might just possibly have thought it was. Holmes meant
every word and in the following years there poured from his pen
"The Creed of Christ" (1905), "The Creed of Buddha" (1908), "Experience
of Reality. A Study of Mysticism" (1928) and "The Headquarters
of Reality. A Challenge to Western Thought" (1933), none of which
made any lasting impression on the public.
When not in mystic vein, Holmes can be fairly
"And howsoever deep my soul may drink
Of light and life, and wonder and desire, -
Love still remains, - the love that thou hast
Its deeps unfathomed and its thirst unslaked."
It is not so much the message which is at issue;
rather it is the impression of a life led all in superlatives
which seems artistically unbalanced. It is not entirely true that
Victorians and Edwardians never wore their hearts on their sleeves.
After all, at about this same date their drawing-rooms resounded
to the amatory songs of such composers as Amy Woodforde-Finden
and Robert Coningsby Clark. However, this particular brand of
musical endeavour tended to be the preserve of musicians whose
claims to be considered serious composers are about as great as
are those of Barbara Cartland to be considered a serious novelist.
At best, it can be said that they fulfilled a social function
in their day.
Naturally Stanford was an artist of a very different
calibre and his settings in a way complete the poems, giving them
a sweep and an emotional force which they lack. To this end he
employs a language which is remarkably close to that of Elgar
– including a splendid sequence in the first song. Of course,
by 1903 the Elgarian style was there for all to copy, but Elgarian
"echoes" (really pre-echoes" in Stanford (and even
more in Parry) go back to the early 1890s, so can we really be
sure that he could not have written in a similar vein even if
Elgar had never appeared? To a greater degree than is commonly
realised, there existed a "lingua franca" in England between about
1890 and 1910, which is known to the general public only in its
Elgarian manifestation. To take another example, in the third
song there is a moment of sudden stillness over an oscillating
bass. It may seem "obvious" that this is borrowed from the "Calm
Sea and Prosperous Voyage" passage in "Enigma" (Variation XIII).
Except that Stanford had written a similar passage in his "Elegiac
Ode " of 1884.
Vocally, the cycle makes rather strange demands.
The actual range required is small - from D flat to G - and could
theoretically be within the range of both a contralto (or baritone)
or a soprano (or tenor). In practice a high voice is needed, and
one able to sustain its upper-middle range without tiring. The
melodic line frequently proceeds by a series of climactic bursts,
calling for a technique similar to that of "verismo". The last
three songs were also orchestrated. The piano writing throughout
is satisfyingly full, but does seem a little orchestral in conception.
One wonders if Stanford had originally intended an orchestral
The demands of the sonnet led Stanford to a number
of formal solutions. The overall effect is freely rhapsodic, new
melodies appearing whenever the thought takes a new turn. Examined
more closely, the songs turn out to be highly organised. The chords
which close the first part of number one in E flat also underpin
its conclusion in C, and a four-note descending scale, first heard
in the bass, pervades much of the accompaniment, occasionally
spilling into the vocal line too. In the second song Stanford
takes a line from the middle of the poem and repeats it at the
end, thus providing himself with a refrain (much varied) and a
typical fade ending. In this song, too, the opening phrase, presumably
intended to hint at the thrush's song, is present in the piano
part for much of the time, and the vocal line begins each new
idea in the poem with a variation on it. The remaining three songs
all adopt their opening ideas in the piano part as mottos to be
repeated and varied during the song.
Having said all this, what we have not said yet
is that Stanford's inspiration is at full stretch throughout.
Given the slightly unusual idiom, it is totally consistent, as
if all five songs were written in a single burst, There are no
disappointing moments to be weighed against the finer passages.
The emotional climax is reached in the restrained intensity of
the fourth song, and above all in its final phrase. To express
so much with such simple means is surely to give proof of genius.
After this the pounding of "O Flames of Passion" makes a splendid
This cycle, then, is a masterpiece, and its Elgarian
tone should by rights be a point in its favour considering the
fact that Elgar did not exactly inundate the world with songs
which match his greatest achievements in other fields. And, if
Stanford’s biographers have searched in vain for any epistolary
evidence as to the strength or the nature of Stanford’s feelings
towards his wife, he could answer "it’s all in the music".
Christopher Howell 1994 rev.2003