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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.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 1999