Home » Uncategorized » Charles V. Stanford and his Irish Rhapsodiess

Charles V. Stanford and his Irish Rhapsodiess


Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (September 30, 1852–March 29, 1924) was an Irish born British composer, music teacher, and conductor.  Stanford was born on September 30, 1852, in Dublin, the only son of John James Stanford and his second wife, Mary, née Henn.   John Stanford was a prominent Dublin lawyer, Examiner to the Court of Chancery in Ireland and Clerk of the Crown for County Meath.  His wife was the third daughter of William Henn, Master of the High Court of Chancery in Ireland.  Both parents were accomplished amateur musicians; John Stanford was a cellist and a noted bass singer who was chosen to perform the title role in Mendelssohn’s Elijah at the Irish premiere in 1847.  Mary Stanford was an amateur pianist, capable of playing the solo parts in concertos at Dublin concerts.

The young Stanford was given a conventional education at a private day school in Dublin run by Henry Tilney Bassett, who concentrated on the classics to the exclusion of other subjects. Stanford’s parents encouraged the boy’s precocious musical talent, employing a succession of teachers in violin, piano, organ and composition. Three of his teachers were former pupils of Ignaz Moscheles, including his godmother Elizabeth Meeke.  At the age of seven, Stanford gave a piano recital for an invited audience, playing works by Beethoven, Handel, Mendelssohn, Moscheles, Mozart and Bach. One of the young Stanford’s earliest compositions, a march written when he was eight years old was performed in the pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Dublin three years later.  One of his songs was taken up by the University of Dublin Choral Society and was well received.

In the 1860s Dublin received occasional visits from international stars, and Stanford was able to hear famous performers such as Joseph Joachim, Henri Vieuxtemps and Adelina Patti.  The annual visit of the Italian Opera Company from London, led by Giulia Grisi, Giovanni Matteo Mario and later Thérèse Tietjens, gave Stanford a taste for opera that remained with him all his life.  When he was ten, his parents took him to London for the summer.  While there he took composition lessons from the composer and teacher Arthur O’Leary, and piano lessons from Ernst Pauer, professor of piano at the Royal Academy of Music.   On his return to Dublin, he took lessons from Henrietta Flynn, another former Leipzig Conservatory pupil of Moscheles, and later from Robert Stewart, organist of St Patrick’s Cathedral, as well as from a third Moscheles pupil, Michael Quarry.  During his second spell in London two years later, he met the composer Arthur Sullivan and the musical administrator and writer George Grove, who later played important parts in his career.

John Stanford hoped that his son would follow him into the legal profession but accepted his decision to pursue music as a career. However, he stipulated that Stanford should have a conventional university education before going on to musical studies abroad.  Stanford gained an organ scholarship, and later a classics scholarship, at Queens’ College. By the time he went up to Cambridge in 1870 he had written a substantial number of compositions, including vocal music, both sacred and secular, and orchestral works  such as  a rondo for cello and orchestra and a concert overture.  At Cambridge Stanford immersed himself in the musical life of the university. He composed religious and secular vocal works, a piano concerto, and incidental music for Longfellow’s play A Spanish Student.   In November 1870 he appeared as piano soloist with the Cambridge University Musical Society, and quickly became its assistant conductor and a committee member.  In February 1872 he co-founded a mixed choir, the Amateur Vocal Guild.  The members of CUMS agreed to a merger of the two choirs.

The conductor of the combined choir was John Larkin Hopkins, who was also organist of Trinity College. He became ill, and handed over the conductorship to Stanford in 1873.  Stanford was also appointed Hopkins’s deputy organist at Trinity, and moved from Queens’ to Trinity in April 1873.  In the summer of that year Stanford made his first trip to continental Europe. He went to Bonn for the Schumann Festival held there, where he met Joachim and Brahms.  After leaving Bonn he returned home by way of Switzerland and then Paris, where he saw Meyerbeer’s Le prophète.  Hopkins’s illness proved fatal, and after his death the Trinity authorities invited Stanford to take over as organist of the college.  He accepted with the proviso that he was to be released each year for a spell of musical study in Germany.  Two days after his appointment, Stanford took the final examinations for his classics degree. He ranked 65th of 66, and was awarded a third-class degree.

On the recommendation of Sir William Sterndale Bennett, former professor of music at Cambridge and now director of the Royal Academy of Music, Stanford went to Leipzig in the summer of 1874 for lessons with Carl Reinecke, professor of composition and piano at the Leipzig Conservatory.  Among Stanford’s compositions in 1874 was a setting of part one of Longfellow’s poem The Golden Legend.   Stanford ignored this and other early works when assigning opus numbers in his mature years. The earliest compositions in his official list of works are a four-movement Suite for piano and a Toccata for piano, which both date from 1875.  After a second spell in Leipzig with Reinecke in 1875, Stanford was recommended by Joachim to study in Berlin the following year with Friedrich Kiel.  Returning to Cambridge in the intervals of his studies in Germany, Stanford had resumed his work as conductor of CUMS.   During the same period, Stanford was becoming known as a composer. He was composing prolifically, though he later withdrew some of his works from these years, including a violin concerto.  In 1875 his First Symphony won the second prize in a competition held at the Alexandra Palace for symphonies by British composers.  In the same year Stanford directed the first performance of his oratorio The Resurrection, given by CUMS. At the request of Alfred Tennyson, he wrote incidental music for Tennyson’s drama Queen Mary, performed at the Lyceum Theatre, London in April 1876.

In April 1878, Stanford married Jane Anna Maria Wetton, known as Jennie, a singer whom he had met when she was studying in Leipzig. She was the daughter of Henry Champion Wetton of Joldwynds in Surrey, who had died in 1870.They had a daughter, Geraldine Mary, born in 1883 and a son, Guy Desmond, born in 1885.  In 1878 and 1879 Stanford worked on his first opera, The Veiled Prophet, to a libretto by his friend William Barclay Squire based on a poem by Thomas Moore, and his friend the conductor Ernst Frank got the piece staged at the Königliches Schauspiel in Hanover in 1881.  By the early 1880s, Stanford was becoming a major figure in the British musical scene. His only major rivals were seen as Arthur Sullivan, Frederic Hymen Cowen, Parry, Alexander Mackenzie and Arthur Goring Thomas.  Stanford was also making an impression in his capacity as organist of Trinity, raising musical standards and composing a Service in B flat (1879), the anthem “The Lord is my shepherd” (1886), and the motet Justorum animae (1888).

In the first half of the 1880s, Stanford collaborated with the author Gilbert à Beckett on two operas, Savonarola, and The Canterbury Pilgrims.  In 1883, the Royal College of Music was set up by George Grove to replace the short-lived and unsuccessful National Training School for Music (NTSM). Stanford accepted Grove’s offer of the posts of professor of composition and (with violinist Henry Holmes) conductor of the college orchestra. He held the professorship for the rest of his life; among the best known of his many pupils were Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Frank Bridge and Arthur Bliss  Stanford was never an easy-going teacher.  In 1887 Stanford was also appointed professor of music at Cambridge in succession to Sir George Macfarren who died in October of that year. During the last decades of the 19th century, Stanford’s academic duties did not prevent him from composing or performing. He was appointed conductor of the Bach Choir, London, in 1885, succeeding its founding conductor Otto Goldschmidt.  He held the post until 1902. Hans von Bülow conducted the German premiere of Stanford’s Irish Symphony in Hamburg in January 1888.

For the Theatre Royal, Cambridge, Stanford composed incidental music for productions of Aeschylus’s The Eumenides (1885), and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos (1887).  Stanford returned to opera in 1893, with an extensively revised and shortened version of The Veiled Prophet.  Stanford’s next opera was Shamus O’Brien (1896), a comic opera to a libretto by George H. Jessop. The conductor was the young Henry Wood.  At the end of 1894, Grove retired from the Royal College of Music. Charles H. Parry was chosen to succeed him.  In 1897, Stanford accepted the conductorship of the Leeds Philharmonic Society.  The following year, Sullivan, ageing and unwell, resigned as conductor of the Leeds triennial music festival, a post which he had held since 1880 and Stanford was appointed in Sullivan’s place.  He remained in charge until 1910. His compositions for the festival included Songs of the Sea (1904), Stabat Mater (1907) and Songs of the Fleet (1910).

In 1901 Stanford returned once again to opera, with a version of Much Ado About Nothing, to a libretto by Julian Sturgis that was exceptionally faithful to Shakespeare’s original., Stanford continued to compose. Between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 his new works included a violin concerto (1901), a clarinet concerto (1902), a sixth and a seventh (and last) symphony (1906 and 1911), and his second piano concerto (1911).  In 1916 he wrote his penultimate opera, The Critic, a setting of Sheridan’s comedy of the same name, with the original text left mostly intact by the librettist, Lewis Cairns James.  The First World War had a severe effect on Stanford. After the war, Stanford handed over much of the direction of the RCM’s orchestra to Adrian Boult, but continued to teach at the college.  He gave occasional public lectures, including one on “Some Recent Tendencies in Composition”, in January 1921. His last public appearance was on March 5, 1921 conducting Frederick Ranalow and the Royal Choral Society in his new cantata, At the Abbey Gate.

In September 1922, Stanford completed the sixth Irish Rhapsody, his final work. Two weeks later he celebrated his 70th birthday; thereafter his health declined.  On March 17, 1924 he suffered a stroke and on March 29 he died at his home in London, survived by his wife and children. At his funeral, the orchestra of the Royal College of Music, conducted by Boult, played music by Stanford, ending the service with a funeral march that he had written for Tennyson’s Becket in 1893.  Stanford’s last opera, The Travelling Companion, composed during the war, was premiered by amateur performers at the David Lewis Theatre, Liverpool in 1925.   Stanford fulfilled contemporary demands in a wide range of choral works, services and anthems that remain in cathedral use in the Church of England.  Also, he wrote incidental music for a number of plays and several operas.  A prolific orchestral composer, he produced seven symphonies, a Clarinet Concerto and a number of other concertos, and six Irish Rhapsodies. His chamber music for various instrumental ensembles includes three piano trios, the last composed in 1918, and various works for clarinet and piano.  Stanford’s piano music is seldom heard but his organ music still finds a place in recital repertoire, including four sonatas and a number of compositions that explore again traditional forms of organ music.  In addition, he made a significant addition to the repertoire of English and Irish song.

My collection includes the following works by Charles V. Stanford:

Down Among the Dead Men, op. 71, Concert Variations upon an English Theme in cm for Piano and Orchestra.

Irish Rhapsody No. 1 in dm, op. 78.

Irish Rhapsody No. 2 in fm, op. 84, The Lament for the Son of Ossian.

Irish Rhapsody No. 3 in DM, op. 137.

Irish Rhapsody No. 4 in am, op. 141, The Fisherman of Loch Neagh and What He Saw.

Irish Rhapsody No. 5 in gm, op. 147.

Irish Rhapsody No. 6 in dm, op. 191.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in cm, op. 126.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources



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