C. V. Stanford 1852 - 1924
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford
by Brian Moore

CHARLES VILLIERS STANFORD was born 150 years ago, during the year the Duke of Wellington died, Queen Victoria was in the fifteenth year of her long reign, there was no internal combustion engine, hence no cars or aeroplanes, and no wireless or telephone.  By the time he died, in 1924, all these things were well established and part of our lives. 

He came from a Dublin family where he was born on 30th September 1852, the only child of John James Stanford and his second wife Mary. On a visit to Dublin in September 2000, to attend a gathering of the Friends of Cathedral Music, my wife Jean and I went to St. Michan's Church and in the vaults we saw the burial chamber belonging to the Stanford family, although after his death, in London, on 29th March 1924, Charles was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Purcell.    

His father was one of Dublin's most eminent lawyers and was a keen amateur singer and cellist. Their home at 2 Herbert Street was filled with music and was occasionally visited by famous musicians such as the violinist Joachim. Charles himself soon showed early musical gifts, his first composition being a march written at the age of eight. This was soon performed at a pantomime at the Dublin Theatre Royal.    

Although his father intended him for the law, he received permission, in 1870, to take up an organ scholarship at Queen's College Cambridge and, in 1871, gained a classical scholarship. By then he was already composing church music, songs and orchestral works. In May 1873 he was appointed to the influential position of conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society. A further appointment followed in February 1874, that of organist of Trinity College, and it was here that he took his degree in classics, later gaining the degrees of MA and DMus.  Members may recall seeing the old console from the organ which he played when we visited the College last year.  In the church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge, Andrew Cesana tells me he has played the fine Abbott and Smith organ designed by Stanford.    

For six months, in 1874 and 1875, Stanford was given leave of absence to study the piano and composition in Leipzig and again in Berlin in 1876. On his return in January 1877 he was already well established as a figure of importance in British music and under his direction Cambridge University Musical Society flourished. Several first English performances of works by Brahms were given, including the First Symphony. Naturally, some of his own works also received first performances at these concerts. Standards also rose rapidly at Trinity and a noteworthy series of recitals by organists such as Walter Parratt, Frederick Bridge and Basil Harwood were introduced. Incidentally, Sir Walter, as he later became, had an amazing memory - Percy Scholes in The Oxford Companion to Music tells the story of how he once successfully played two others at chess without seeing the board, meanwhile performing, from memory, pieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Chopin on the piano, as requested!  

In 1887, at the age of 35, Stanford was appointed Professor of Music at Cambridge, a post he was to hold until his death in 1924. However, he was never elected a Fellow of Trinity and it is said that because of this perceived slight he refused to teach at Trinity and always held his composition classes in the waiting room at Cambridge railway station!  He finally resigned from Trinity in 1892, and from Cambridge University Musical Society in 1893.    

He took up another major appointment in 1883 as Professor of Composition at the newly established Royal College of Music, and was also the conductor of the Bach Choir from 1886 to 1902. At the Royal College he developed a legendary reputation as a teacher, his pupils including Frank Bridge, Bliss, Butterworth, Coleridge-Taylor, Dyson, Gurney, Howells, Ireland, Moeran and Vaughan Williams. The music of Richard Strauss was disliked intensely, anything more modern than Brahms was not tolerated. However, all his pupils expressed their gratitude for his disciplined guidance and criticism, which enabled them to develop their individuality as composers.    

Stanford was a man of enormous energy and composed in all genres though out his life.  There is a large range of works for chorus and orchestra written for provincial festivals of which Songs of the Sea (1904) and Songs of the Fleet (1910) are now the most well-known. Of the seven symphonies, No. 3  (Irish), premiered in London in 1887, was performed in Berlin, Hamburg and North America and conducted by no less a person than Mahler in New York in 1911. The influence of Irish melody is shown in many of his songs and in the six Irish Rhapsodies, of which No. 4 dating from 1914 is considered the finest. The three piano concertos and two violin concertos were all taken up by major artists of the day.  Some of this music is available on records and CDs including all the symphonies with the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley. Stanford was also a great advocate of opera and campaigned for the foundation of a National Opera and Opera House in London, unfortunately without success. There are nine operas, but in recent times, for instance, who has heard a note of Savonarola, produced in Hamburg in 1884, or Shamus O'Brien which reached New York in 1897?    

Although Stanford's church music forms only a small part of his output it has always maintained its place in the Anglican tradition. The B flat Morning and Evening Canticles of 1879 broke new ground with the notable use of thematic material and the influence of his settings spread to Charles Wood, Brewer, Noble, Dyson and Howells. There are six sets of canticles and, like many other larger parish churches, at All Saint's Maidstone we use the B flat, A major, G major and C major Evening Canticles as well as the B flat Te Deum and Jubilate and the Communion Service in C and F. H. A. Bennett, one of our earliest Presidents and a former organist of Rochester Cathedral, once told me that he had met Stanford when he came up to the organ loft at York Minister one Sunday morning. Mr Bennett himself was then Sir Edward Bairstow's assistant. Sir Edward asked Stanford which setting of his morning canticles he would like sung and Stanford requested the C major setting which he had never heard performed. There are also many fine anthems which we enjoy: And I saw another Angel, The Lord is my Shepherd, Ye choirs of new Jerusalem, How beauteous are the feet, and O for a closer walk with God.    

Of course, the organ music is of particular interest to us. The two sets of Six Short Preludes and Postludes op. 101 and 105 are played regularly and among the larger works there are the Fantasy and Fugue op 105 and the Five Sonatas op 149 151 152 153 and 159.  Some members will have the fine recording of David Briggs playing the Sonata Britannica op 152 on the Lewis organ, which we heard last November at St. John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood.    

So this 150th anniversary of his death is an appropriate time to remind ourselves of Stanford's many achievements. He was honoured with the degrees of DMus Oxford 1883, MusD Cambridge 1888 and a knighthood in 1902. His influence lasts through his music and that of his pupils. A substantial study of Stanford's life and music by Jeremy Dibble is due to be published this year by OUP, and perhaps we may also see the issue of some of his operatic music on CD!

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