Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


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 steamy:

"And howsoever deep my soul may drink

Of light and life, and wonder and desire, -

Love still remains, - the love that thou hast waked -

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 Ė 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 cycle.

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 release.

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 Stanfordís biographers have searched in vain for any epistolary evidence as to the strength or the nature of Stanfordís feelings towards his wife, he could answer "itís all in the music".

Christopher Howell 1994 rev.2003



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