Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Fantasia and Toccata Op. 57

A Song of Peace Op. 113, No. 4 — Irene Thompson, soprano

Hymn Op. 113, No. 4b “Pray that Jerusalem” — the Choir of St. Paul’s Church

Lento (Six Short Preludes and Postludes) Op. 105, No. 3

Allegro (Six Short Preludes and Postludes) Op. 105, No. 6

At school, our music master, Mr. Hauke, had a little Friday morning choir. We would meet at eight o’clock and gather round an old grand piano in a tall, wide, circular stairwell adjacent to the assembly hall. The acoustics were the best to be had. There were four or five trebles who happened to sing in the two best local church choirs, there were two or three masters, and three or four of us whose voices had changed. We sang Bach motets, Tudor church music – and we sang some pieces by Stanford. One Saturday, Mr. Hauke took us all to nearby St. Alban’s Cathedral to hear Evensong. It was a Stanford evening, and we heard the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in B flat and the glorious motet “Beati quorum via”. So the seeds were sown for my own love affair with the music of Stanford.

Stanford was born in Ireland, but lived most of his life in England. He entered Cambridge University in 1870 with a scholarship to Queens’ College, moving to Trinity College in 1873 where he became organist. He proceeded to the BA degree in 1874, MA in 1878, received an honorary D. Mus. from Oxford in 1883, and Mus.D. from Cambridge in 1888. He became the conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society which had been founded in the 1840s, Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music in 1883, conductor of the Bach Choir in 1886, and Professor of Music at Cambridge in 1887. He was knighted in 1902. At the Royal College of Music and at Cambridge, the list of people whom he taught and influenced reads like a musical “Who’s Who” of twentieth century English music-making. As if this were not sufficient, his own output as a composer is quite breathtaking, including 7 symphonies, 11 concerti, 8 string quartets, a huge amount of other chamber music, piano music, large-scale choral works, and the organ music and other choral literature that is beloved of church musicians. It has been said that he was responsible for a renaissance in English music making after the doldrums of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, as is often the case, a prophet is without honour in his own country, and the English tend to have a self-effacing approach to their own composers. Happily, in the past decade or so we have been “rediscovering” Stanford”. Google “Stanford” and you will be able to find lots of recordings of his music. In some cases there are good performances on “You Tube” which you can sample. Do try to find the anthem “For lo, I raise up” and the Evening Service in G major! Stanford is no mere imitator of his more famous contemporary Brahms, but a voice in his own right which, yes, has Brahmsian leanings but which also includes his Celtic roots.

The Fantasia and Toccata does not live up to any of the stereotypes which its title might conjure. The Fantasia itself is not simply a vehicle for technical display but has moments of extreme lyricism, and the Toccata is somewhat reminiscent of a Baroque concerto movement with its episodic structure.

Stanford’s innovation is seen at its most inventive in the Six Bible Songs. There is some influence from Dvorak’s Biblical Songs but the point of interest is the use of the organ which no longer provides a simple harmonic background to the vocal part. The organ part is an equal player in the motivic development of the music, much in the manner of the piano part in a Schumann Lied. “A Song of Peace” is a setting of the prophetic messianic text from Isaiah 11, which is associated with the season of Advent. Thus Stanford includes organ references to the Advent hymn “Veni Emmanuel” in both the song and the “Hymn” which follows. Here is the text of the song:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins. The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.

The closing pieces from Op. 105 are perennial favourites for organists because they are so useful. The “Lento” is a simple creation but captures the peacefulness that can obtain at the close of day. I last heard it played after Evensong in King’s College Chapel in 2007, and I was struck by its serenity. The “Allegro” is a complete contrast, and is based on an Irish folk melody.