“A great figure in British music when his
country needed such men.” Cyril Rootham (Charles Stanford
- obituary by Cyril Rootham, RCM Magazine, 20/2/1924)
I warmly welcome this collection of Sir Charles
Villiers Stanford’s rarely heard piano music. It’s from the
Sheva label of Piedmont, Italy and was produced by Ermanno de
Stefani. Soloist Christopher Howell has titled the disc Land
of Sunset Glories which is a line from Ireland the
first of Stanford’s Cushendall Irish song-cycle, Op.118
(1910). Howell explains, “It is not intended to be merely
a fanciful title for the new CD. These last years of Stanford’s
life were ones of increasing emotional pain and isolation.”
Read the full article titled Stanford
and the Piano.
A large number of Stanford’s compositions have
yet to be recorded and his piano music is one of the most neglected
genres of his substantial output. Many of his secular choral
works and his sequence of nine operas have been ignored in the
For those unfamiliar with the Dublin-born Stanford,
his influence on the British music scene was quite remarkable.
His influence stretched out to the some of the furthest reaches
of the British Empire. He was a gifted composer, who wrote at
a rapid pace, and was also known especially for his role as
the first composition professor at the Royal College of Music
(RCM) from 1883 until 1923. He taught at Cambridge University
as professor of music from 1887 until 1924. Stanford’s appointment
as conductor of the Cambridge University Music Society (CUMS)
in addition to conducting the RCM Orchestra and other provincial
orchestras and choruses gave him significant opportunities to
programme the music of his choice as well compositions of his
own and by his pupils.
Stanford the pedagogue presided over two generations
of composition students. His remarkable success as a composition
teacher was unprecedented, ‘sprinkling stardust’on two generations
of young composers. Amongst their number we find some of the
most successful and individual British composers of the twentieth
century. The list of his former students who are probably the
best known today are: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst,
Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Ernest
John Moeran, Arthur Bliss, George Dyson, Haydn Wood, Ivor Gurney
and Leopold Stokowski.
In addition there are also a large number of
lesser-known composers who were former Stanford pupils the majority
of whom are virtually unknown to many of us (see list in footnotes).
With the odd exception changes in vogue have temporarily buried
the music of most of these lesser known composers. Maybe fashion
will swing around and a serious reassessment will take place.
Stanford took immense pride in the success of
his pupils. Following the release of the first list of prestigious
Carnegie Trust award winners he remarked, “The old hen and
her chickens have come out very well.” (Charles Stanford
- obituary by Edgar Bainton in RCM Magazine, 20/2/1924)
Six out of seven Carnegie Trust winners were scores by
Stanford is frequently at his very best in his
sacred works including settings of canticles, hymns, anthems,
services and organ works – all composed for the Anglican Church.
These are amongst the finest of their type and are still frequently
performed in Anglican cathedrals and churches around the world.
Although Stanford was a great teacher I am not making any claims
for greatness as a composer. However he wrote several works
that I consider as great. Several of Stanford’s scores are as
impressive as any in their genre. I cannot imagine a more beautiful
part-song than The Bluebird. Then there is the glorious
Magnificat from the Evening Service in G. Let’s
not forget the vigour and dramatic seafaring flavour of the
orchestral song-cycle Songs of the Fleet. The remarkably
rapt tone-painting and near impressionism of his Irish Rhapsody
No.4 ‘Fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw’ memorably
evokes the Celtic twilight.
Stanford clearly had an affinity for the piano.
It was his instrument which he played from a young age. He gave
a piano recital in his home town of Dublin when aged only nine.
Stanford played the piano throughout his life mainly as a chamber
musician and as an accompanist to singers; seldom as a soloist.
In his youth Stanford’s primary piano teachers in Dublin, Elizabeth
Meeke, Henrietta Flynn and Michael Quarry had all been pupils
of the great Prague-born piano virtuoso and composer Ignaz Moscheles.
In 1824 Moscheles had also given lessons to Felix Mendelssohn.
I also recall that Stanford had a close if unlikely friendship
with the concert pianist and composer the maverick Percy Grainger.
Stanford’s friend and fellow Irishman the baritone
Harry Plunket Greene fondly remembered his piano playing: “Stanford’s
touch was the most delicious thing imaginable, impossible to
define. It had a sweetness which gave one a lump in one’s throat;
a beauty which pervaded every note of the whole and a sparkle
which made one chuckle. It never varied in this respect and
seemed inviolate in crabbed passages, fifth-rate pianofortes,
or moods of irritation. He never practiced in later life, and
yet it was just as beautiful till the day of his death. His
playing was just as unself-conscious as himself, his hands just
following the colours of his joyous humorous imagination.”
(Charles Villiers Stanford biography by Harry Plunket
Greene. publisher: Edward Arnold, London (1935) Pg. 33)
The opening track on this Sheva release the Nocturne
in G minor is the first work in the op. 148 set of Night
Thoughts, Six Short Pieces from 1917. I occasionally
sensed a flavour of the orient in this dark and dramatic fusion
of Chopin, Schumann and Brahms. The Tempo di Valse is
taken from Stanford’s first series of 24 Preludes in
all the keys, Op.163/10 from 1918. A brief piece in waltz rhythm,
the music carries childhood memories of the nursery.
From the second series of 24 Preludes
in all the keys from 1920 the Basso Ostinato Op.179/14
is probably my favourite score on the release. This is glorious
music that develops in intensity before reverting to its original
mellowness. A Chopinesque theme that I know but cannot identify
never seems far away. The Caprice in C minor is the first
of the op. 136 set of Five Caprices from 1913. Brisk
and lively, often brash, the piece at times looks in the direction
Completed in 1912 the Roundel is the second
in the set of Six Characteristic Pieces, Op. 132.
Tender and tasteful, the piece could serve as a tribute to Schumann,
a composer Stanford revered. The substantial Ballade
in G minor, Op. 170 was written in 1919. Not surprisingly the
G minor score has a Chopin quality about it; the composer of
four large-scale and magnificent Ballades. Shifting from
irascibility to mellowness, from poignancy and jollity the music
perhaps mirrors Stanford’s character. Published in 1923 from
the set of Three Waltzes, the D minor Waltz,
Op. 178/2 is a playful piece, full of life and here taken briskly.
The set of Six Short Pieces entitled Night
Thoughts includes the Ballade in F major, Op. 148/2
in which we are moved from turbulence to tenderness, from vigour
to consolation, from mournfulness to exuberance. Stanford communicates
striking contrasts of mood in the mould of the great Ballade
master Chopin. Also part of the Night Thoughts set
is the Scherzo Marziale, Op.148/3 with
its bold and rather belligerent character.
Irresistible is the Caprice in D minor,
the second of the op. 136 set of Five Caprices. This
substantial score demonstrates confident and dramatic writing.
Surely Stanford had a programmatic inspiration for this captivating
D minor score. A headlong dash, compelling and playful,
the Toccata in C minor, Op. 132/4 is also from the set
of Six Characteristic Pieces. The Sarabande, Op.
2/2, a relatively early score from the 1875 Suite has
a tender nobility. A contrasting piece from the same Suite,
the Gigue, Op. 2/3 is fresh and breezy and has a slight
redolence of Irish folk-music.
Closing the release we hear the last in the
set of 24 Preludes series two; it’s Addio, Op.
179/24. With reference to the terrible aftermath of the Great
War soloist Chris Howell suggests that “There is no specific
reference here, yet it surely depicts a military funeral…”
The dark mood of searching and pining for a loved one permeates
the score. Glimpses of elation induced by fond memories soon
There is nothing dry or academic here from Stanford
- just a marvellous and rewarding collection of attractive piano
pieces with many delights to be uncovered. This recital is clearly
a labour of love for pianist Chris Howell who displays a close
affinity for Stanford’s music. Howell plays with a character
and style that helps reflect the sharply shifting moods of this
often beautiful music. The studio recording made at Lessona,
Italy is clear and well balanced. In the booklet notes all the
basic information is provided although I needed a magnifying
glass to read the print.
also review by John France
Lesser known Stanford pupils:
It is not possible to obtain a definitive list of all the pupils
that Stanford taught. In addition to those mentioned in the
text above some of those lesser known Stanford pupils include:
Hamish MacCunn, Rebecca Clarke, Gordon Jacob, Rutland Boughton,
Arthur Benjamin, William Hurlstone, William Henry Bell, Edgar
Bainton, Eugene Goossens, Thomas Dunhill, Cecil Forsyth, Arthur
Somervell, Cecil Rootham, Harold Darke, Henry Walford Davies,
James Friskin, Ernest Farrar, Charles Wood, Edward Naylor, Heathcote
Statham, Frederick Wadely, Alan Taffs, Frank Tapp, William Harris,
Geoffrey Toye, Richard Walthew, Marion Scott, George Thalben-Ball,
Sydney Paine Waddington, Frank Shera et al. The scores
of the majority of which are virtually never heard today. Then
there is George Butterworth and Fritz Hart who were former RCM
students during Stanford’s tenure. They certainly came under
Stanford’s sphere of influence but it is uncertain if they had
lessons with him.