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Growing up in his native Dublin in the 1850s and '60s, Stanford was no stranger to high-quality chamber music, even if the visits to Ireland's capital by pre-eminent executants of the genre were sporadic. As a teenager he recalled with some affection and excitement the solo recitals of Anton Rubinstein, Sigismund Thalberg and Charles Hallé‚ and string players such as Camillo Sivori, Ludwig Straus, Henry Vieuxtemps, Alfredo Piatti and of course Joseph Joachim, a friend of his father. Hearing Joachim play Beethoven's 'Kreutzer' Sonata and unaccompanied Bach at semi-private concerts left a deep impression on Stanford (himself a budding violinist), as did Joachim's appearances as the leader of Levey's (his tutor's) quartet. As a result of these formative experiences, Stanford became a devotee of chamber music.
The pieces performed here were all written between 1877 and 1905, giving a clear overview of the music Stanford wrote for violin and piano. They include the unpublished Sonata No 2 in A major, Op 70.
During his years as an undergraduate, Stanford increasingly participated in the promotion of chamber music as part of the Cambridge University Musical Society’s activities. At first the advancement of chamber music was relatively unsystematic, but by 1873, Stanford, who had by this time established himself as the Society’s leading luminary, began to impose a more organized framework. Tuesday and Thursday evening concerts began to show a more structured approach in which the mainstream repertoire of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms was performed. In part this newly found enterprise was due to Stanford’s own broader experience of contemporary works vitalized by his travels to Germany (one thinks particularly of his first visit to the Schumann Festival at Bonn in 1873 where he heard many of the composer’s fine chamber works). But it was also due to Stanford’s considerable technical abilities as a pianist and the enthusiasm of his undergraduate colleagues and friends. Cambridge boasted a number of able amateur pianists—Gerard Cobb, C J E Smith, William Austen Leigh and most of all J R Lunn—and several string players, among them the two musical Hudson brothers, Percy (who possessed an Amati cello) and Francis (who owned a Stradivarius violin), and W F Donkin (from the well-known family of Oxford amateur musicians). Other enthusiastic undergraduate members—among them C Abdy Williams, the future music historian—also campaigned for a regular chamber music series and this finally resulted in the institution of the ‘Wednesday Pops’ which joined with CUMS in 1876. Last but not least, Stanford’s growing acquaintance with London’s professionals—namely Ludwig Straus, Hermann Franke, Edward Dannreuther, Alfredo Piatti and Robert Hausmann—proved highly advantageous to CUMS, as did the young Irishman’s friendship with Joachim. These men were persuaded to come to Cambridge to participate in a new atmosphere of musical expectation. More carefully considered programmes were placed before the public that took account both of the contemporary and classic repertoire, and all was played in an environment where amateur and professional played happily side by side, watched over by Stanford from the piano.
During the last six months of 1874 and 1875 Stanford travelled to Leipzig as a private student to study composition with Reinecke and piano with Papperitz. By Stanford’s own admission, the arrangement was not particularly beneficial. Reinecke self-consciously viewed himself as the guardian of tradition; his mission as Professor of Composition at the Leipzig Conservatorium was to promulgate the values and rigour of the Classical masters, and to insist on a thorough grounding in counterpoint heeding the practices of Palestrina and Bach (a reputation which earned him the name ‘Reinecke-Fuchs’). In itself there was nothing wrong with Reinecke’s desire to inculcate discipline, but his many pupils kicked against his antipathy towards new music. Years later, in his autobiographical Pages from an Unwritten Diary (1914), Stanford recalled his own exasperation:
He [Reinecke] had not a good word for any contemporary composer, even for those of his own kidney. He loathed Wagner … sneered at Brahms, and had no enthusiasm of any sort. But he enjoyed himself hugely when he was expounding and writing canons, and had a fairly good idea of teaching them. His composition training had no method about it whatever. He occasionally made an astute criticism and that was all. He never gave a pupil a chance of hearing his own work, the only really valuable means of training, and the better the music, the less he inclined to encourage it. He was in fact the embodiment of the typical ‘Philister’.
Papperitz was by all accounts a more enlightened teacher under whom Stanford made some progress. Nevertheless, after two periods of study in Leipzig, Stanford shifted his attention to Berlin, a course of action endorsed by Joachim. For the last six months of 1876 he spent the time working privately under the instruction of Friedrich Kiel, one of several professors Joachim had enlisted (together with Clara Schumann, Stockhausen and Rudorff) on his appointment as Director of the newly formed Berlin Hochschule für Ausübende Tonkunst in 1868. The change of pedagogical regime proved invaluable at once. Kiel was famous for his abilities as a teacher of counterpoint and theory (like Moritz Hauptmann before him), but he mixed rigour with free creativity which appealed to his many students, among them Frederick Cowen, George Henschel, Zygmunt Noskowski, Jan Paderewski, Richard Nordraak, Martin Loeffler, Victor von Herzfeld and Eugenio von Pirani. Stanford’s respect for Kiel was considerable, for under his master’s supervision he learnt not only to develop a greater sense of self-criticism, but also to grasp more fully the principles of organicism, an ideological aesthetic quintessential to the late nineteenth-century Teutonic perception of composition. This, as Stanford recollected, was embodied in Kiel’s seminal dictum, ‘Entwickelung [sic.], immer Entwickelung!’ (‘Development, always development!’ or perhaps even better, ‘Evolution, always evolution!’).
As a direct result of Kiel’s teaching, Stanford came away from Berlin with increased confidence. On resuming his duties as organist at Trinity College, he entered into a period of extraordinary industry, bringing an impressive technical assurance and fluency to everything he wrote. In 1877 alone he completed the ballad La belle dame sans merci, a setting of Psalm 46 for chorus and orchestra (performed by Richter), a Festival Overture for the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival (now missing), and two chamber works, the Cello Sonata (No 1) in A major, Op 9, and the first Violin Sonata. Stanford’s Violin Sonata No 1 in D major, Op 11, was written for his friend Ludwig Straus, the Austrian violinist who had settled in England in 1864. Straus had many calls upon his time with the Popular Concerts, the Philharmonic Society, the Crystal Palace and Hallé Orchestra; he was also a member of the Queen’s private band and ‘solo violinist’ to Queen Victoria. Stanford, who had heard Straus in Dublin in the 1860s, succeeded in securing the Austrian’s services for CUMS, both for chamber music and for the larger choral and orchestral concerts. Straus led the orchestra when CUMS gave performances of Schumann’s Paradise and the Peri and Scenes from Goethe’s Faust Part III in 1874 and 1875 respectively, and Straus often played in the chamber concerts in the capacity of soloist or as a member of a quartet with the Hudson brothers and Alfred Burnett. The Violin Sonata was first performed at a CUMS chamber concert at the Cambridge Guildhall on 18 May 1877 by Straus and Stanford and was repeated in London on 6 November; Hermann Franke, a pupil of Joachim and friend of Richter, also performed both the Violin and Cello Sonatas at his celebrated chamber concerts in London in 1882. The main frustration for Stanford, however, was securing a publisher. Writing to Alfred Littleton at Novello, he declared: ‘A good many people have asked me to publish my violin sonata; and before I offer it to a German publisher, I should like to know if you would undertake its publication.’ But Stanford knew only too well that publication of chamber music in England was a rarity and that it would be necessary to court a German publisher. After some negotiation it was taken by Ries of Dresden.
By the time Stanford came to write this Violin Sonata he was still in the process of consolidating the roots of his musical language. Although assimilation of Brahms’s classical romanticism had begun in earnest—a fact attested by the steady succession of performances by CUMS of Brahms’s works—it would be several years before it was fully digested. More conspicuous at this point in his stylistic development is a veneration of Beethoven and, most of all, Schumann. Through Beethoven’s instrumental works (and Kiel’s sterling instruction) Stanford had gained a thorough understanding of structural control and classical equipoise, but having mastered these essential principles it was to Schumann that he looked for harmonic resource, poetic gesture and lyrical intensity. This gravitation is clearly evident in the eight songs from George Eliot’s The Spanish Gypsy, Op 1 (1872–4), the Heine songs, Op 4 (1874), the Toccata for piano, Op 3 (1875), the Phantasiestücke ‘Charivari in Dresden’ (1875) and most of all in the first Symphony (1876), effectively the climax of his student years. The largely successful diffusion of Beethoven and Schumann in the first Symphony is also perceptible in this Violin Sonata No 1.
The first movement’s opening octave gesture, coupled with the precipitate shift to F sharp major after fourteen bars, suggests the influence of Beethoven, as does the reworking of this material on the development and coda. The second group of ideas in the dominant is, however, of a much more romantic frame of mind, looking more readily to the rhythmic and harmonic formulae of Schumann. The slow movement, a variation structure, provides yet another instance of classical method, in which the models of Beethoven and Brahms must have played a part (particularly in the process of gradual expansion and ‘alienation’), but the miniature framework is more suggestive of a Schumannesque romance or fantasy. The finale is even more indebted to Schumann for its devices and capricious handling of sonata form. The derivation of the opening thematic material from the slow movement recalls numerous instances in Schumann’s instrumental works (the two Violin Sonatas in A minor, Op 105, and D minor, Op 121, included) as does the unexpected beginning in the tonic minor. A sense of fantasy also pervades the development whose conventional process of reworking is truncated by the introduction of an entirely new thematic idea in D flat. This in turn gives rise to a spacious augmentation of the melody accompanied by energetic figurations in the piano that sound almost cadenza-like.
Stanford’s Violin Sonata No 2 in A major, Op 70, was never published and only survives (as far as is known) in a sole copyist’s score as part of a compilation of individual pieces in RCM MS 4080 (fols. 101–121). Its probable date of composition is 1898. Why it was written and for whom is not known, though it may have been composed for Enrique Fernández Arbós, Professor of Violin at the RCM who became the dedicatee of Stanford’s fine Violin Concerto, Op 74. In conceiving this second Violin Sonata, Stanford had the benefit of being acquainted with Brahms’s three Violin Sonatas written between 1879 and 1888 (which was not the case with his first essay in the idiom). The larger, four-movement plan of the sonata makes it comparable in scale with Brahms’s Sonata in D minor, Op 108, but the latter’s earnestness has little in common with the tender euphony of Stanford’s work. Instead it seems much more likely that Stanford was drawn to the rich, quasi-vocal lyricism of the G major Sonata, Op 78, and A major Sonata, Op 100, a characteristic that predominates in the tight organic invention of the first movement.
If lyricism is the controlling feature of the opening movement, then structural sophistication is the distinctive factor of the slow movement which builds a monothematic design from its opening three-note cell (A–B–C#), itself derived from the initial piano gesture of the first movement. Again one can feel the shadow of Schumann in the simple thematic strands of the melody, but this time what appears to be insignificant is in fact highly complex. Stanford’s seamless sonata construction gives the impression of a free form, and his manipulation of other features within the theme—the interrupted cadence on to VI (which quite magically gives rise to the development’s embarkation in D major) and the dark Neapolitan colouring—is masterly.
As light relief, the scherzo is a cheerful, spirited affair, full of contrapuntal dexterity, its main thematic material being a transformation of the slow-movement melody. To contrast with the energetic demeanour of the scherzo, the sonata-rondo finale is more earnest. The rather Brahmsian rondo idea, cast in A minor, projects a mood of disquiet, the portent of which is only lifted by the edifying second subject in C major, richly presented by the piano. A minor and the rondo theme return briefly but are soon dispelled by a passionate developmental paragraph in which the second subject reaches new heights of emotional fervour. As if spurred on by a new sense of optimism the recapitulation of the rondo passes quickly into A major, quitting for ever the pensive sobriety of the minor and lending a sense of invigorating well-being to the rest of the movement.
The fluency Stanford was able to bring to extended chamber music was also exercised with equal panache in the province of instrumental miniatures. Learning much from the examples of Schumann and Brahms, he was equally inventive in the creation of fantasy pieces, intermezzi and character pieces, all of which exhibit a high level of refinement. The Three Intermezzi, Op 13 (1879) for clarinet, written for his Cambridge friend Francis Galpin, are an early example of his ability in this area of composition. It was not until 1893, however, that Stanford turned his attention once again to the solo instrumental miniatures. By this time the market for solo violin music had grown apace. Publishers considered the market for small-scale pieces to be potentially lucrative and many sets of pieces began to appear in their catalogues. Of those that survive today one thinks for example of Mackenzie’s Six Short Pieces, Op 37, of 1888 (which includes the famous ‘Benedictus’) and Elgar’s violin pieces, Opp 13, 15, 17 and 24; Parry’s exquisite Twelve Short Pieces (recorded on) were published in 1895. Stanford’s Six Irish Fantasies for Violin and Piano, Op 54 (composed in 1893 but not published by Boosey until 1900) were clearly written as a response to this area of the market, but they were also intended to capitalize on the buoyant demand for music based on the Irish traditional repertoire in Britain, Ireland and the United States during the 1890s and 1900s. The commercial prospects of the Irish Fantasies were further enhanced by their dedication to Lady Hallé‚ (née Norman-Neruda) who was one of London’s most prominent recitalists along with her husband and accompanist Sir Charles Hallé.
The Six Irish Fantasies (or 'Sketches' as they were originally called) were composed in October 1893 and consist of six varying styles of Irish song and dance—the Caoine, Boat Song, Jig, War Song, Hush Song and Reel—nearly all of which follow simple ternary designs. Four of them, which included the Caoine, Op 54 No 1 (pronounced ‘keen’), were first given at a Saturday Popular Concert at the St James’s Hall on 3 February 1894 by Lady Hallé and Henry Bird. Bernard Shaw, who reviewed the concert for The World (7 February 1894), was delighted with what he heard and, with characteristic anti-academic prejudice, felt that Stanford’s pieces ‘made excellent fiddling, and gave us at their best points a sense of the thatched roof, the clay floor, the potcheen, and the entire absence of professorial spirit proper to genuine Irish violinism’. The Caoine along with two other fantasies were also performed by Sir Charles and Lady Hallé at the Hampstead Conservatoire on 24 February 1894. A traditional form of Irish lament, the Caoine is characterized by its elaborate ornamentations and is very much the precursor of a more expansive movement in the same mould in Stanford’s Clarinet Sonata, Op 129 (recorded on). Rapid embellishments decorate a melody supported by harp-like arpeggios in the piano. D minor gives way to B flat major for some emotional respite in the central paragraph, but in the recapitulation, shared between violin and piano, the mood of lamentation is restored with increased fervour.
The Five Characteristic Pieces for violin and piano, Op 93, were completed on 1 February 1905 and were, one assumes, written for the same lucrative market as the Irish Fantasies. These pieces, however, exhibit a greater technical sophistication in terms of design which belies their miniature conception. The ‘Cavatina and Scherzino’ is effectively a reverse form of the ‘Scherzo and Trio’ model in that it is the lyrical episodes that flank a central scherzo rather than the usual converse arrangement. For the ‘Cavatina’, Stanford relies on a three-part texture: a self-developing melody in the violin (deftly avoiding regular periodicity with its three-bar phrases), a gently undulating quaver movement in the right hand of the piano, and a simple interjecting bass line to punctuate each phrase. The euphony of this section is broken by the ‘Scherzino’ in the mediant minor, whose unsettling rhythmical agitation is calmed only by a more voluptuous restatement of the opening paragraph. After the F major of the ‘Cavatina’, the central three movements, ‘Capriccio’, ‘In a gondola’ and ‘Arabesques’ are all set in minor keys. The first of them, the ‘Capriccio’, takes up the A minor of the ‘Scherzino’ but this time in a delicious Mendelssohnian style of ‘will o’ the wisp’ in the true manner of a scherzo. Mendelssohn’s idiom of the ‘song without words’ (in particular the movements entitled ‘Gondellied’ of Opp 19, 30, 38 and 62) inhabits ‘In a gondola’, cast in a dolorous D minor. Like the ‘Capriccio’ before it, the movement depends on the fluctuation of minor and major modes to delineate its tripartite structure, though for its conclusion Stanford gives us a sweet memory of the central episode in D major, replete with enchanting Lydian inflections and the most delicate of conclusions on the violin’s natural harmonics. A further step flatwards, to G minor, brings us to another scherzo. ‘Arabesques’, so named because of its elaborate curvilinear melody, is a miniature sonata and shows considerable inventiveness in the way both original and augmented forms of the opening material are deployed in an engaging dialogue between violin and piano. As a postscript to the previous four pieces, ‘L’Envoi’ provides the most intimate of glimpses into a more introspective world. There are many skilful touches about this enchanting piece. Stanford’s return to the major (after three pieces in the minor) provides a telling contrast, as does the choice of A major which serves as effective complement to the A minor of the ‘Scherzino’ and ‘Capriccio’. But perhaps most subtle is the tranquil secondary material in B major which seems to hint at the ‘Cavatina’ in the piano figuration. This remains only a vague allusion, but in the final bars the opening strains of the ‘Cavatina’ do indeed materialize, bringing us full circle. This time, however, its song-like innocence is transformed into one of melancholy as its two melodic phrases are answered by the violin’s tearful motif. Such a gesture suggests perhaps that throughout the five pieces as a whole we have been witness to an unwritten background narrative, too personal to intimate.
Jeremy Dibble © 1999