The second instalment
of Naxos’s Stanford cycle neatly couples
two works based on famous English poems:
Tennyson’s "In Memoriam" and
Milton’s "L’Allegro ed il Penseroso".
Accounts of the genesis
of the Second Symphony vary slightly,
so perhaps it is worth trying to sort
them out. Richard Whitehouse’s notes
to the present issue tell is that it
was "composed in the summer of
1880". Lewis Foreman, too, wrote
in his notes for the first recording
of the work, by Vernon Handley on Chandos,
that it was "written in the summer
Jeremy Dibble, however,
in "Charles Villiers Stanford,
Man and Musician" (OUP 2002, pp.106-7),
states that "Stanford embarked
on a new symphony in July 1879".
This, then would have been an immediate
response to the fairly successful première
of his First Symphony at Crystal Palace
in March 1879. "The work was finished
in October", Dibble continues,
"at which time Stanford wrote to
Henry [presumably he means William]
Cummings asking if it might be offered
to the Philharmonic Society" (letter
from Stanford to William Cummings, 17
However, Stanford clearly
continued to work on the first movement
since – again quoting Dibble – "the
manuscript bears a much later date of
completion (21 December 1880)".
All this is more than
mere quibbling since Stanford’s father
had died suddenly and unexpectedly on
17 July 1880. In spite of the "Elegiac"
title Stanford did not dedicate the
work to any specific person’s memory.
Obviously proper chronology is crucial
to the question of what it does or doesn’t
If it was really composed
in "the summer of 1880", that
would make it an immediate reaction
to his father’s sudden death. The letter
quoted by Dibble shows that it was already
in existence well before that. Furthermore,
Dibble, while not quoting Stanford’s
actual words in the letter to Cummings,
tells us that "Stanford stated
specifically that the symphony was not
programme music; nevertheless it was
intended to illustrate Tennyson’s cantos
and identify the emotional states of
the four verses with the corresponding
movements of the symphony".
It would be tempting
to look at the December 1880 date on
the first movement and suppose that
Stanford had revised the symphony to
give it an elegiac tone – and he revised
it again in January 1882 before it was
finally performed at Cambridge in March
of that year. The letter to Cummings
makes it clear that it was elegiac and
Tennyson-inspired from its conception,
however much Stanford may have fiddled
around with it between October 1879
and January 1882. Rather than looking
for someone in Stanford’s life who had
died at about the right time to set
him onto writing an "Elegiac Symphony"
in July 1879, perhaps we may suppose
that Stanford simply found inspiration
in the work of a poet who was a personal
friend of his and to whose verses he
frequently turned throughout his career.
Paul Rodmell (Charles
Villiers Stanford, Ashgate 2002, p.87)
is therefore correct in remarking that
"It is not clear if Stanford intended
to commemorate anyone in particular
in the symphony; ironically, his father
died between its composition and first
performance." However, Rodmell
continues: "Although it is tempting,
and possible, to match each stanza with
a movement, it is not evident that this
is what Stanford intended". As
the letter to Cummings shows, Stanford
did intend just that.
At this point I had
better quote the verses in question.
I cannot see the
When on the gloom
I strive to paint
The face I know;
the hues are faint
And mix with hollow
masks of night;
Cloud-towers by ghostly
A gulf that ever
shuts and gapes,
A hand that points,
and palled shapes
In shadowy thoroughfares
And crowds that stream
from yawning doors,
And shoals of pucker’d
Dark bulks that tumble
And lazy lengths
on boundless shores;
Till all at once
beyond the will
I hear a wizard music
And thro’ a lattice
on the soul
Looks thy fair face
and makes it still.
Any attempt to link
the poem to the music is likely to come
up against the consideration that Tennyson’s
verse has a mystic pregnancy and power
that Stanford achieved less consistently
in his work, and certainly not here.
In other words, too much delving into
the literary genesis of the piece may
get in the way of our enjoyment of a
vital and attractive, if hardly great,
symphony. However, a few correspondences
can be pointed out, and I think the
poem provides a big clue to our understanding
of the finale, and indeed of the "death
to life" programme Stanford often
favoured in later works.
Though in one sense
the first movement is in completely
orthodox sonata form, the actual proportions
are a little unusual. The exposition
is extremely succinct, with a pithy
main theme leading almost immediately
to a more lyrical second subject in
the relative major. About half of the
exposition is therefore taken up by
what is technically a codetta, the material
of which comes dangerously close to
quoting Schumann’s "Rhenish"
Symphony. Even with the repeat played,
the development is already under way
around the 4½-minute mark. This development
is more imaginative than its premises
might have led us to expect. Furthermore,
when one might suppose it to be nearing
its end, it is extended, leading to
a triumphant affirmation of the major
key. The triumph quickly collapses,
however. The minor key returns and the
recapitulation slips in somewhat dejectedly.
The generally driving pace of the movement
thus far is allowed to slacken momentarily
in second subject territory. The coda
builds up strongly and the movement
ends in tragedy.
I take it that the
long development, with its piecing together
of thematic fragments, illustrates Tennyson’s
attempt to "see the features right".
The deceptive D major blaze represents
near success before the vision fades
and the "hollow masks of night"
I was considerably
impressed by this movement when the
Handley recording appeared. I felt,
though, that his brisk tempo and smart
phrasing denied the piece breathing
space. The music was prevented from
unfolding with full grandeur in its
stronger moments, while a more loving
treatment of the second subject would
have allowed its song-like nature to
flower. Whether the approach I have
in mind would actually work is still
not put to the test. Far be it from
me to suggest that David Lloyd-Jones
prepared the recording by studying Handley’s
performance rather than the score. But
the two could not be more alike had
he deliberately set out with the intention
of making them so. If put to a blindfold
test, I don’t believe I could identify
one from the other.
The second movement
is perhaps the most obviously attractive.
My only concern is that so far no theme
from it has actually lodged itself in
my memory. As a result of reviewing
this disc shortly after dealing with
a version of Elgar’s 2nd
Symphony I now note that one of the
themes, based on upward intervals that
gradually become wider ("A gulf
that ever shuts and gapes"?), has
a curious resemblance to a theme in
the finale of that work, though with
a character very far from Elgar’s combination
of striving and jubilation. Presumably
a coincidence. However, it is just conceivable
that Elgar was present in Gloucester
Cathedral on 6 September 1882, when
Charles Harford Lloyd conducted the
only other complete performance of the
"Elegiac" before the 1990s.
There is also a progression which seems
to have got into Stanford’s next symphony,
the "Irish". Leaving aside
the question of memorableness, I have
always found this a satisfying and engaging
movement. Like the first, it pops the
occasional surprise. The solo cello
episode matched with the woodwind, first
in the lower register then rising to
the upper one, is a harbinger of Stanford’s
most atmospheric later writing. The
transfer of the "Elgar 2"
theme to the bassoon at the recapitulation
is a piquant effect. The final coda
is heralded by a dramatic entrance –
the only such moment in the movement.
It arises expectations of a big climax
to come, but instead subsides immediately
and that is the end. Could this be the
"hand that points"?.
Handley played this
movement with considerable weight of
expression. My question as to whether
a real "Lento espressivo"
– this moves a little too easily to
my ears – might have found still more
in the music is not answered by Lloyd-Jones.
He is not a Handley clone this time.
Instead he shaves about half a minute
off Handley’s timing and keeps things
deliberately lightweight. The music
flows quite nicely but says less. That
climax-that-isn’t at the end of the
movement sounds awkward here while Handley
gives it a sense.
The brief, bustling
scherzo is a reasonable illustration
of the "crowds that stream from
yawning doors". The gentler trio,
underpinned by the rhythmic motive that
is present almost throughout, is a bit
too pleasant for the "Dark bulks".
The conclusion does surprise, with the
brass chorale suggestive of happier
things subsiding once again into gloom.
Stanford evidently hoped the public
might take to this lively movement,
since he included it in a Glasgow Saturday
Pops Concert on 15 December 1882.
This scherzo is pervaded
by the same dotted rhythm as brings
to grief most performances of the first
movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
Indeed, actual quoting from this movement
and the scherzo of the Ninth is only
narrowly avoided. Handley apparently
does not even try to get the rhythm
right and his performance slogs from
the start. Ironically, when I bought
the Handley, I also bought a record
conducted by Lloyd-Jones (on Hyperion)
that included Macfarren’s "Chevy
Chace". This is another work dominated
by the Beethoven 7 rhythm and it was
equally slackly played. Both conductors
went high on my list of conductors I
hope never to hear playing Beethoven
So let us rejoice for
the sinner who repenteth. In this new
Stanford performance Lloyd-Jones is
spot on, and it makes all the difference.
I should even be willing to listen to
him conduct Beethoven 7.
In his next symphony,
Stanford developed a type of finale
in which a completely new theme was
glimpsed during the development and
returned in triumph at the end. He employed
it again, for more specifically programmatic
ends, in his Fourth Symphony. In the
Second, the "darkness to light"
progression is charted in a slow introduction.
The movement begins in gloom, quoting
the opening theme of the symphony. A
gentler theme is hinted at in the relative
major. Darker moments are then increasingly
banished by what are to become the principal
themes of the finale as the music battles
its way to a big climax in D major.
When the finale proper begins, however,
it slips in with gentle, pastoral woodwind
writing. The effect is magical. Some
transition passages suggest that shadows
are still around, but basically it’s
now all feasting and fun to the end.
The soft brass chords before the final
pay-off remind us, though, that Tennyson’s
friend’s "fair face" is only
a far-off vision, albeit one that provides
some comfort in this life. In some ways
this is more satisfying than the similarly
jubilant finale to the Fourth Symphony,
but this may be because both conductors
trivialized the latter by taking it
too fast, a mistake they do not make
The two performances
are very similar. Both make the introduction
build up impressively. I wondered if
a more groping start and a slower build-up
might be more impressive still, but
this is not put to the test. Both note
Stanford’s "Allegro moderato"
marking in the movement proper and take
a tempo which allows such shadows as
there are to make their point. Handley,
however, manages slightly more amplitude
of phrasing at his virtually identical
In spite of Handley’s
rhythmically slack scherzo I suppose
the odds are very slightly in his favour.
A third recording is unlikely to appear
for some time. Neither of these seriously
misrepresents the work, as was the case
with the Fourth Symphony.
By 1894, when he wrote
"L’Allegro ed il Penseroso",
Stanford had achieved international
success with his Third Symphony, the
"Irish". His Fourth had been
well received in Berlin and at home
without establishing itself in the same
way. The Fifth, too, had a hearing in
Berlin as well as in London. It, too,
was then largely forgotten. An additional
problem was that it achieved publication
only in 1923.
By 1894 Stanford also
had a sizeable amount of chamber music
to his credit. In the first two String
Quartets especially but also in the
First Piano Quartet and the Piano Quintet,
he had proved himself capable of handling
abstract instrumental forms with considerable
mastery. There is no reason, therefore,
why the composer of the Second String
Quartet should not have written a symphony
along the same lines and with equal
success. It is therefore a little surprising
that all his symphonies except the first
and the formally experimental last have
some sort of illustrative programme
Did he feel unequal
to a challenge which he felt could be
met in his time only by Brahms? Possibly,
but modesty was not his strongest suit.
He was not afraid to challenge his idol
on home ground in chamber music; even
if he felt unable to match Brahms as
a symphonist he quite likely had no
about Dvořák or Tchaikovsky who
were rapidly becoming established in
the orchestral repertoire. We must suppose,
therefore, that he preferred to use
the orchestra for picturesque tone-painting,
with the symphonic form a convenient
prop rather than something central
to his compositional thinking. In fact,
he gradually relinquished symphonies
in favour of Irish Rhapsodies, and appears
to have been all the happier for it,
while he continued to produce chamber
works in abstract forms till practically
the end of his life.
That said, if we do
not expect profound symphonic thought,
"L’Allegro ed il Penseroso"
is an extremely felicitous piece. The
Miltonic verses quoted a various points
in the score are too long for inclusion
here; they are given in full in the
booklet, as they were in Lewis Foreman’s
notes to the Handley/Chandos recording.
However, the first movement basically
contrasts "Loathed Melancholy"
with "heart-easing Mirth".
The opening promises
something more dramatic. It is not a
since it is in the same tempo as the
rest of the movement, yet the first
subject according to traditional analysis
arrives when D major is established.
This "introduction" returns
again at the start of the development
and also before the coda. "Illustration"
is therefore compromised by the demands
of form, since "loathed Melancholy"
is banished three times over Yet the
form is also unusual since it looks
like a sonata-form movement on paper
yet, on account of the thrice inserted
"melancholy" material, doesn’t
really sound like one. An ingenious
solution if not exactly a symphonic
Unlike the Second Symphony,
I found that the themes of this one
quickly stuck in my head and stayed
there. I also felt that Handley slightly
hustled the music
along, ignoring the “moderato” part
of the marking. I wished I could hear
it unfold more gradually, more lovingly,
like the best Czech performances of
Dvořák. I still would like to hear
such a performance, but oddly enough
Lloyd-Jones, at a slightly faster
tempo still, is completely convincing.
The "melancholy" music is
played as if in quotation marks and
the "mirth" themes scamper
rather like a Mendelssohnian scherzo.
Lloyd-Jones finds more light and shade,
indeed magic, but also more unity in
The following movement
is a delightful evocation of "hounds
and horn" and village dancing,
with a particularly bewitching coda.
Stanford’s marking of "Allegretto
grazioso" suggests something more
measured than these two conductors give
us and I should be interested to hear
a more rustic, bucolic gait. Once again,
Lloyd-Jones is faster still than Handley
but convinces me more. Indeed, it’s
an entrancing performance, again reminiscent
of Mendelssohn in "Midsummer Night’s
Dream" mood. Handley is sufficiently
slower to give the opening an air of
mystery, which I like, but later he
sounds a little stodgy beside Lloyd-Jones.
After two movements
are saved by their spontaneity and humanity
from being merely light music, the arrival
of one of Stanford’s deepest slow movements
is perfectly timed. In spite of Milton’s
evocations of “divinest Melancholy”,
“black staid Wisdom’s hue” and the “pensive
Nun", Stanford seems to have taken
his cue from the "cherub Contemplation"
which "soars on golden wing".
The music for the most part breathes
spiritual calm, though some more agitated
moments arise, leading to a citation
of the Symphony’s opening bars.
timing conceals a more complicated situation
than in the previous movements. At the
meditative opening he actually seems
a little slower than Handley, but he
later lets the music move on more freely.
Without a score I am not sure if any
such changes are indicated but whether
they are or not, they are justified,
firstly because Stanford’s own writings
show he expected this kind of performance
and, more importantly, because the music
comes to life that way. Lloyd-Jones
has the art of transition, making us
feel the arrival of each new theme and
giving it its own space. This is probably
something that can only be learnt in
the opera house, and this is an experience
has been rather lacking from Handley’s
curriculum. The actual orchestral playing
and phrasing in Handley’s performance
is often beautiful, but the rigid beat
After a delightful
symphony that turns serious halfway
through, will Stanford be able to write
a finale which balances the various
elements? In fact, he does.
The apprehensive opening
ushers in a D minor theme which must
surely represent "gorgeous Tragedy
in sceptr’d pall". Organists will
note its kinship to the popular D minor
postlude and the melodic formula with
which it begins is associated in Irish
folk music with battle songs. Two examples
worth the attention of violinists are
the War Songs opp. 54/4 and 153/3. Apart
from a transitional brass chorale this
movement has two distinct "second
subjects" in F major, a warmly
expressive one mainly on the strings
and a more lilting one on the horns.
These three themes are introduced gently,
as if as yet only glimpsed. More energetic
music is reserved for the transitions.
Following a structural
pattern sometimes used by Brahms, Stanford
begins what would be the development
section with a new statement of his
main, "gorgeous Tragedy",
theme. It is now heard more broadly,
forte, in all its sombre splendour.
Considerable development ensues before
D major is reached and the second subjects
are heard again. The one previously
heard on the horns is now allotted to
the organ, softly glimpsed through the
strings. This is a magical moment.
Stanford could, at
this point, have whipped up the tempo
and finished with a jolly coda. Instead,
the minor key returns and there is a
massive restatement of the "gorgeous
Tragedy" theme, underpinned by
the "pealing organ". Traditional
sonata form has now been stood on its
head and a jolly coda after this would
be merely superficial. As the major
key returns the tempo slows and the
climax is capped by a return of a theme
from the slow movement. The music subsides
to "bring all Heav’n before mine
eyes" and to usher in what is presumably
the first great "epilogue"
in a British symphony. As Paul Rodmell
has noted, it comes exceedingly close
to anticipating, even in the rising
scale of the material on which it is
based, the coda of Vaughan Williams’s
From the last statement
of the "gorgeous Tragedy"
theme to the coda, Handley is in inspired
form, at least as much so as Lloyd-Jones.
It had evidently crossed his mind that
the music he was conducting might actually
be great music. Unfortunately, up to
that point his input has been no greater
than might have been expected of any
competent metronome. The ideas I have
expressed about the structure of this
movement are not thoughts I have been
harbouring for a decade or so, they
are things I have realized as a result
of listening to Lloyd-Jones. He conducts
this like an operatic finale. Each theme
is a different "character".
The characters then encounter a dramatic
event which changes their lives and
produces an unexpected but wholly convincing
I had some doubts about
this Symphony while I had only Handley
to listen to. It now seems to me a perfectly
achieved work of art. If you like romantic
symphonies, and I don’t only mean British
ones, do give this disc a try. In view
of Lloyd-Jones’s clear superiority in
"L’Allegro ed il Penseroso",
my very slight preference for Handley
in the less important "Elegiac"
Symphony may be virtually brushed aside.
see also review