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Stanford declared: 'Song-writing is as miniature-painting. The scale is small, and everything must conform to that scale' (Interludes, Records and Reflections, 1922). Such a rigorous sense of focus depended, as Stanford saw it, on a well-defined hierarchy: the poem should always remain the principal consideration, governing all other artistic decisions.
Stanford's care for the voice and the vocal line sprang from his own natural lyrical impulse. Through access in his early years to the almost limitless font of melodic material in Thomas Moore's (mainly eighteenth-century) melodies and the collections of Petrie, Bunting and Joyce, he developed a profound love of traditional melody which remained a vital source of creativity throughout his life. Irish folksong informed much of Stanford's own melodic parlance, but more than that, it engendered a predisposition towards simplicity, a love of diatonicism and a desire for economy, facets which informed not only the lyrical dimension of Stanford's art but also his approach to harmony (in which the presence of a strong bass was imperative), texture and accompaniment.
The composer was almost certainly influential on pupils such as Vaughan Williams, Gurney and Howells and all lovers of song are sure to be entranced by these performances.
Stanford asserted without equivocation in his primer Musical Composition (1911) that ‘the writing of a good song is one of the most difficult tasks which a composer can undertake’. It was a view based principally on the belief that song composition was per se a highly complex process demanding not only consummate skills of composition combined with a creative imagination and technique, but, and in some ways even more critically, requiring an intellectual discipline that could ‘express in the most compressed and yet intelligible form emotions which at first sight seem too great for the limited boundaries within which it must perforce be confined’. And more emphatically in Interludes, Records and Reflections (1922) he declared: ‘Song-writing is as miniature-painting. The scale is small, and everything must conform to that scale’. Such a rigorous sense of focus depended, as Stanford saw it, on a well-defined hierarchy: the poem should always remain the principal consideration, governing all other artistic decisions. ‘Music,’ he uncompromisingly declared, ‘should be co-ordinate or subordinate [to the poem] without ever being super-ordinate.’ Hence it was always with the clarity of the poem’s meaning and structure that Stanford conceived his songs. To his students he was careful to underline the importance of verbal rhythm, declamation, stress, scansion, quantity and stress, and to these ends he cited Purcell as the greatest master. Yet, important as these details were, he was more concerned with music’s ability to contrive sub-accents, which, through the manipulation of varying note-values and the rise and fall of melody, had the power to enhance the meaning of poetry beyond that of the reader or elocutionist.
Stanford’s care for the voice and the vocal line sprang from his own natural lyrical impulse. Through access in his early years to the almost limitless font of melodic material in Thomas Moore’s (mainly eighteenth-century) melodies and the collections of Petrie, Bunting and Joyce, he developed a profound love of traditional melody which remained a vital source of creativity throughout his life. Irish folksong informed much of Stanford’s own melodic parlance, but more than that, it engendered a predisposition towards simplicity, a love of diatonicism and a desire for economy, facets which informed not only the lyrical dimension of Stanford’s art but also his approach to harmony (in which the presence of a strong bass was imperative), texture and accompaniment. On the subject of accompaniment, Stanford was adamant as to its secondary role:
The accompaniment, that is everything which includes the bass, should be in most cases texture and suggestiveness, and not fixed detail of sufficient importance to interfere with the voice. Over-elaboration will kill the main theme, or at best, quarrel with it in a way sufficient to hide its purport. Support is what is needed, and support only. Accompaniment is only a secondary matter, however important it may be … In song-writing, it is imperative to remember that the chief exponent is the singer; that it is he who holds his public, and not his accompanist; therefore an unduly long instrumental passage intervening will tend to break the singer’s contact with his hearers. (Interludes, Records and Reflections)
Clearly, then, Stanford’s attitude to the relationship between singer and pianist was more traditional in outlook. In this regard his methods are more conservative than, for example, Parry’s, where greater consideration is given to a more ‘instrumental’, integrated partnership between the two performers. However, it would be misleading and unjust to place Stanford’s solo songs in too conservative a light. His highly developed lyrical powers are used with great effect and aptness in a wide range of poetical contexts and in an equally broad spectrum of song forms. Subtle artifice abounds within the larger structure and the more detailed strata of organic motive, key scheme and accompanimental imagery. Moreover, Stanford may have eschewed the excessive use of chromaticism, but there is no shortage of harmonic or tonal resourcefulness in his language. Indeed, his handling of diatonic and modal harmony is strikingly inventive, at times highly original, and was almost certainly influential on pupils such as Vaughan Williams, Gurney and Howells.
In general, Stanford exercised a catholic taste in literature. He loved Shakespeare, the Elizabethan and Jacobean lyricists; like his Austro-German forbears and heroes (notably Schubert and Schumann), he delighted in the lyrics of Heine; but he also seems to have been drawn strongly to writers of his own time – Tennyson (a personal friend), R L Stevenson, Keats, Newbolt, Whitman, George Eliot (little known for her poetry), Robert Bridges, and to Alfred Perceval Graves, his Irish compatriot, littérateur and antiquarian. Moreover, as an extension of his affinity with Irish folksong, he felt the need to express a nostalgic vision (albeit a romantic and idealised one) of Ireland through the words of a now largely obscure group of Irish poets (namely Moira O’Neill, James Stevenson and Winifred Letts) who wrote in regional variants of Hiberno-English. This passion spawned a series of cycles and collections which, while mixed in quality, nevertheless inspired him to produce some of his most personal utterances.
La Belle Dame sans merci, a setting of Keats’s famous poem, was first performed on 30 October 1877 at a Cambridge University Music Society (CUMS) chamber concert. Though Stanford had completed the work earlier that year, he had, according to his recollection in Musical Composition (pp. 143/4), actually sketched ideas as long ago as 1866. But, being conscious of his lack of technique, he put the song away and forgot about it. Eleven years later, unaware of his earlier efforts, he came across the poem again and wrote the song without hitch or interruption. Most surprising to the composer, however, was the rediscovery of his juvenile sketches in or around 1892 and, to his amazement, the revelation that the first three verses of the early manuscript were virtually identical with the published version. The song was published by Stanley Lucas in 1878 and later popularised by Herbert Thorndike, whom Plunket Greene credited with being ‘the first man to sing Stanford’s songs, and to him must be given the credit of being the first ‘interpreter’ of the ‘imaginative’ school of singing which those songs initiated’. In 1888 it was orchestrated by the composer for a concert at the Royal College of Music (26 March) and it was later sung in a German translation by Rudolf von Milde in a concert entirely of Stanford’s works in Berlin on 15 January 1889. The present location of this orchestral version is as yet unknown.
Dedicated to his close friend, barrister and enthusiastic amateur musician, Arthur Duke Coleridge, ‘La Belle Dame’ is a ballad that, replete with accompanimental imagery, looks back to the narrative traditions of Schubert and Loewe. Making pointed use of major-minor fluctuations (in much the same manner as Schubert and Loewe) within a strophic-variation structure, Stanford achieves a striking effect when he suddenly breaks the mould with a shift from G (the tonic) to the dominant of B (‘I saw pale kings and princes too’), heightening the sense of ghostly terror. Equally impressive is the harmonic progression of Stanford’s transition back to the recapitulation of Keats’s opening text as the knight awakens to find himself on the cold hill’s side, alone and desolate.
George Eliot’s dramatic prose-poem, The Spanish Gypsy, was written in the winter of 1864/5 and further amplified and reworked after a visit to Spain in 1867. It was published in 1868. At the centre of the tragic yet noble story is Fedalma, a gypsy girl brought up in a noble Spanish family yet unaware of her background. On the eve of her marriage to Don Silva she is reclaimed by her gyspy father (an enemy of society), at which stage a conflict of cultural loyalties arises for Fedalma. In the end she discovers her identity and, true to Eliot’s own ethical imperatives, settles for her gypsy roots out of solemn duty and becomes queen of her people.
Stanford was evidently inspired by the operatic scenario of Eliot’s plot and resolved to set the songs (which form an important part of the drama) to music in 1872. In 1873 he wrote to Eliot informing her that he had already written three songs and asked permission to publish them as well as the remainder of the songs in the poem when they were composed. Eliot duly gave her consent and the songs – eight in all (out of a possible fourteen), written between 1872 and (probably) 1875 – were published in various groups between 1873 and 1878 by Chappell and Novello. Spring comes hither and Came a Pretty Maid appeared in 1873 (Chappell), The World is Great, Bright, o bright Fedalma and The Radiant Dark in 1874 (also Chappell) and Blue Wings, Day is Dying and Sweet Springtime in 1877 (Novello). This was the original order of publication, though a second order was suggested by Novello’s publication, which printed them as ‘Nos. 1-3’ and Chappell’s republication of the first five (in 1878) as ‘Nos. 4-8’. As to the order of composition, the information is extremely limited. Bright, o bright Fedalma is the only song to survive complete in manuscript (dated 6 May 1872) while Spring comes hither was given at a concert of the Cambridge University Musical Society on 22 May 1872. Only these two songs can we date with any accuracy. The Radiant Dark was first given at a CUMS concert on 18 May 1875, a year after its publication. Blue Wings, on the other hand, was first sung (again at a CUMS concert) on 19 May 1876, a year before it appeared in print, and may give an indication of its composition at that time; but it may on the other hand, like many of its companion pieces, have been written much earlier. This hypothesis is supported by Bright, o bright Fedalma which was not heard until 17 May 1878 and Sweet Springtime not until 3 February 1886 (when it was sung by Stanford’s wife, Jennie Wetton).
The eight songs (all, save one, from Book I of Eliot’s drama) are an indication of Stanford’s developing ambition in the province of art song, and of his more general growth as a composer in the early 1870s while he was undergraduate at Cambridge (1870 to 1873) and a private composition student in Leipzig and Berlin (1874 to 1876). His hugely impressionable disposition was saturated with the world of German lieder, and most of all the intense romanticism of Schumann with all its rich harmonic nuances and tonal detours. This is certainly the case with Spring comes hither, the first of Pablo’s songs sung in the Plaça Santiago. The simple strophic construction is subtly variegated by a series of tonal shifts to the subdominant, flat submediant and submediant, but equipoise is always restored by the refrain (‘O ja là’). This song and the amorous Came a Pretty Maid, a ‘lute song’ sung by Juan, were dedicated to Gerard Cobb, Fellow of Trinity, an organist, a keen amateur musician and a close colleague of Stanford. The World is Great (from Book II), dedicated to the singer Herbert Thorndike, conveys the loneliness of Don Silva after Fedalma has returned to her gypsy kind. Once again, Stanford’s design is an interesting elision of strophic and variation form cemented by a common refrain (‘and I am lonely’), a reference to Silva’s confusion and despair. Also dedicated to Cobb is Bright, o bright Fedalma, another strophic song full of fertile variation, and harmonic resource to match Eliot’s sensuous, not to say erotic, words. Here Stanford’s natural lyrical gift is given room to expand. By contrast, The Radiant Dark explores a much later nineteenth-century archetype – the lyric scena – which has much more in common with Liszt and Wagner. This is a big song, full of noble, passionate gestures more akin to opera. The sentiment of the text, the joy of night over the day, also has an operatic affinity with Tristan, a work well known to Eliot, a declared Wagnerian. Stanford, for his part, chose to match the poet’s heady emotionalism with a potently symbolic G flat major (viz. Act II of Tristan), and punctuate the spacious canvas with continuous reference to a voluptuously chromatic rising motive in the accompaniment and two arresting modulations to the flat submediant (D major).
Pablo’s second song, Blue Wings is a deft musical structure. The first two verses, using contrasting material, conclude with the same musical gesture, particularly distinctive in its shift to the mediant (C major) before recovering to the tonic (A flat). In the third verse, however, the familiar opening (recapitulating the material of the first verse), rapidly gathers momentum, reaching a climax that transforms the closing material of the previous two verses (‘Leaned to clutch the thing divine’). Stanford’s concluding bars, which capture the text’s fleeting vision, are also masterly. Arguably the finest song of the set, Day is Dying (dedicated to the soprano Sophie Löwe) is a modified strophic design in which the final verse, short and tonally intense, develops and distils harmonic and melodic elements of the previous two verses. The final song of the set, Sweet Springtime is an elfin scherzo, in two related, yet deftly contrasting verses.
Stanford first set of Heine songs, published by Stanley Lucas in 1876 as Opus 4, was completed on 25 September 1874, three months into the composer’s first six-month period of study in Leipzig. It was dedicated to his close friend and art connoisseur, Robert Benson. The date of the second set, which appeared as Opus 7, was published in 1877 and was dedicated to (Louise Dorette) Auguste Redeker, the German contralto with whom Stanford had become acquainted in Leipzig during her appearances at the Gewandhaus. The acquaintance was strengthened after Redeker’s London debut at the Philharmonic Society (on 19 June 1876), New Philharmonic and the Monday Popular Concerts, where she regularly appeared until marriage brought about her retirement in 1879. Before the latter occurred, Stanford was, in his true enterprising fashion, able to bring her to Cambridge along with the distinguished soprano Thelka Friedländer, to sing songs by Brahms (including the first English hearing of the Neue Liebeslieder Walzer), duets by Schumann, and his own ‘Schlummerlied’ (CUMS concert, 18 May 1877), a concert which also included the first performance of his Violin Sonata in D, Op 11. Both Op 4 and Op 7 were republished together as one set by Augener in 1893 as Twelve Songs by Heine.
Stanford’s choice of Heine cemented a strong spiritual link with German lieder, with Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Franz and Brahms, whose settings of the German poet he knew well. Moreover, his interest in Heine’s work was significant in that it also formed part of a wider critical recognition of the poet in England (notably in the essays of Matthew Arnold and Eliot). Like his continental forbears and contemporaries, Stanford wished to tap into that rich source of romanticism, irony, and the tortured sentiments of the unhappy lover so plentifully developed in the epigrammatic lyrics of Buch der Lieder (1827), Neue Gedichte (1844) and the poignant Gedichte 1853 und 1854. On a personal note, some of the Op 7 love lyrics (three of which are included here) may well have had special significance for Stanford. He too was an unhappy lover at this time, for his parents had expressed absolute opposition to his engagement to Jennie Wetton (in October 1876). The marriage took place in April 1878 at St Margaret’s Church, Ockley, Surrey, in the presence of many friends (including Joachim) and relatives, but without the bridegroom’s father or mother present.
Sterne mit den gold’nen Füsschen Op 4 No 1 reveals Stanford’s increasing deference to Brahms in its thorough working-out of the rising arpeggio figure at the opening, though the freer, more sinister closing gestures (‘war es der Geliebten Stimme, oder der Nachtigall?’) are more reminiscent of the Romantic effusions of Schumann. Even more Schumannesque is the impassioned love lyric, Dass du mich liebst Op 4 No 3, an AAB structure which makes subtle use of variation in its first two verses before the emotion of the lover wells up in the climax of the final section (‘Mein Herz ist wie die Sonne’), replete with luxuriant dominant elevenths. Frühling Op 4 No 4, for all its gentle, pastoral atmosphere, is a melancholy utterance, typical of Heine’s irony. A shepherdess, sitting beside the stream amid the May blossom, weaves her garlands of flowers, for whom we are not told. This tranquillity is disturbed by the entry of a gallant knight (marked by an unexpected tonal shift from A flat to G) who gallops by, startling her. As he disappears into the distance she begins to weep (conveyed by A flat minor) and throws her posy into the river. The nightingale, that ubiquitous romantic symbol of grief and lament, sings of her unrequited love.
Even more dependant on symbol is Der Schmetterling ist in die Rose verliebt Op 4 No 6 where the lover observes the natural attraction of the butterfly to the rose, and the sun to the butterfly. But who is in love with the ‘soft red rose’, the lover asks vainly (of his own beloved)? The nightingale or the evening star? No answer comes and he is left to contemplate the symbols of his own torment. A similar sense of personal despair is continued in the first of the Op 7 set, Ich lieb’ eine Blume, truly Schumannesque in its rhythmic élan and passionate spirit (especially in the final cry of anguish ‘so bang’ und wehe, so weh und bang!’).
In Wie des Mondes Abbild zittert, the moon’s ghostly image, shaken by the wild surge of the sea’s waves, is mirrored in the lover’s own sense of torment as he remembers his beloved. Stanford’s sense of control – the tangential opening on the dominant, the avoidance of cadence, the interplay between voice and piano, the perfect reflection of the poem’s meaning in the modified ternary design, and the closing rhetorical gesture of the final bars – is masterly.
As with the previous two songs, Ich halte ihr die Augen zu is taken from Neue Gedichte, a collection whose enigmatic love sentiments Stanford clearly found enchanting. Once again, the precedent of Schumann – the highly calculated chromatic nuances, the delicate piano filigree, and the poignant use of appoggiaturas – is clearly in evidence, but there is also an extraordinary adroitness in the development of the song’s simple lyricism, a fact apparent in the reiteration of the opening phrase (‘Ich halte ihr die Augen zu’) which recurs each time on a different tonal plane, charged, as was Stanford’s intention, with different meaning. The means employed in Schlummerlied, a lullaby taken from Heine’s early play William Ratcliff, is also of the greatest economy: a repetitive, yet distinctively chromatic ‘charm’, suspended above an uninterrupted tonic pedal, provides mesmeric support for Stanford’s unassuming vocal lines which, especially in their melismatic flights of fancy, are almost Mahlerian.
The source of Stanford’s interest in the folksong of his native land was essentially Ireland’s antiquarian revival initiated in the first half of the nineteenth century by the Irish Archaeological Society, the Irish Ordnance Survey and the Irish Celtic Society in the 1830s and 1840s. Central to much of this activity was George Petrie, a landscape painter, illustrator, editor (of the Dublin Penny Journal), director of the Ordnance Survey (1833-1839) and scholar. In 1851 Petrie founded ‘The Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Ancient Music of Ireland’ in order to promulgate his extensive collection of Irish melodies accumulated over many years, much of it from field work. The Society’s Council, over which Petrie presided, attracted support from Dublin’s professional classes, namely Francis William Brady (President of the Irish Academy of Music), F W Burton (Director of the National Gallery), the Rev Charles Graves, William Stokes, the Rev J H Todd (antiquarian and bibliographer), Eugene O’Curry and Thomas Rice Henn (Stanford’s great-uncle). Unfortunately the Society succeeded in printing only one volume of Petrie’s work even though at least five volumes had been promised.
The Petrie Collection, along with other collections by Bunting and Joyce, formed the basis of a tradition of arranging native melodies among which were names such as Sir John Stevenson, Hoffmann, Joseph Robinson and Robert Prescott Stewart. Stanford’s genuine enthusiasm for traditional melody, coupled with a sense of commercial opportunism – arrangements of English, Welsh, Scottish and particularly Irish melodies being particularly popular in drawing-rooms, and hence attractive to music publishers – encouraged him to publish arrangements of his own. The Songs of Old Ireland: A Collection of Fifty Irish Melodies Unknown in England was, as its title suggested, designed to appeal to the English market, though they would also have been eagerly marketed among the Irish communities in the United States as well.
Stanford’s collection, probably begun some time in the late 1870s or early 1880s, was completed in August 1882 in Cambridge, and was published by Boosey the following year. It was dedicated ‘with respect and gratitude’ to Brahms. This act of tribute was motivated by both admiration and friendship, but also by the momentous event at Cambridge of the first English performance of Brahms’s First Symphony in March 1877 (even though the university had been unsuccessful in inviting the composer over to receive an honorary doctorate). Furthermore, as Stanford recollected in his article ‘A few memories of Johannes Brahms’ published in Leisure Hour (1904): ‘A short time after the Cambridge performance, I had made my first collection of Irish folk-songs, and knowing the interest which Brahms took in such work [notably Sir John Stevenson’s A Selection of Irish Melodies], I asked and obtained his leave to dedicate it to him.’
The words for all the tunes in the collection were provided by Stanford’s boyhood friend, Alfred Perceval Graves, son of Charles Graves, scholar and eminent Irish cleric. My Love’s an Arbutus (No 25), a deliciously fluid, lyrical gem, became one of the most well-known Irish songs in the British Isles. It was also published separately by Boosey in 1890, and, much later, appeared in an SATB arrangement in 1922. It was orchestrated by Stanford (c1888) and sung at his Berlin concert in 1889. Almost equally universal was The Little Red Lark (an arrangement of an air by the same name) which exemplifies that quintessential feature of Irish melody, the short upward scale followed by (a) a large intervallic leap upward and (b) an immediate descent.
Trottin’ to the Fair was one of fifty arrangements of Irish melodies (No 33) included in Songs of Erin Op 76, dedicated to Queen Victoria and published by Boosey in 1901. It was a particular favourite of Plunket Greene and John McCormack. A delightful feature of this song is the conclusion to each verse which ends, somewhat quizzically, on the subdominant, leaving the accompaniment to re-establish tonal equilibrium.
The date of The Tomb, a setting of words by the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Stanley, is uncertain. In earlier work-lists of Stanford its publication (c1886?) was attributed to the Winchester publisher, Teague & King, though no specimen has been located. An imprint has, however, survived by T Andrews & Co of Guildford as part of an undated publication entitled Our Musical Album (which included other miniatures by Parry and Cowen). The final line of Stanley’s first verse, ‘There is more liberty in Death than Love’, summarises the mood of the forsaken lover who dwells indulgently on thoughts of death in the cold earth of his marble tomb; and yet in death itself (as in the final verse) he clings to the thought that his beloved may still retain his memory ‘buried in thy breast’. Stanford’s response was to match the theatrical gestures of Stanley’s poem with broad, seamless vocal lines (in accordance with the irregular lengths of the rhyming couplets), full accompanimental textures and strong harmonies redolent of Brahms. Especially effective is the last verse which, in triple metre, commences with cortège-like iambic rhythms in the piano before building to an impressive, impassioned climax (‘Since by thine eye slain’).
Heraclitus was originally composed as the fourth of Four Partsongs Op 110, completed in 1908 and published by Stainer & Bell in 1910. Later it was published by J B Cramer & Co. as a solo song arrangement in 1918. The famous text, taken from Ionica, a volume of poems by William Johnson Cory, is a translation from the Greek of an epigram by the finest of Hellenistic poets, Callimachus of Alexandria. The poem, an elegy, tells how bitter tears were shed at the news of the death of an old friend, Heraclitus of Hallicarnassus; yet, though long dead, his memory lives on in the mind of his friend. Cory’s translation is magnificent, as is Stanford’s limpidly diatonic setting, simple in its strophic design, yet full of deft harmonic turns and modal inflections; and, with the subtle ‘interjections’ from the piano, assumes a quite different identity in its solo guise.
Besides his sincere attraction to Irish traditional melody, which manifested itself in six substantial collections – Songs of Old Ireland (1883), Blarney Ballads (1889), Irish Songs and Ballads (1893), Moore’s Irish Melodies Restored Op 60 (1895), Songs of Erin Op 76 (1901) and the Petrie Collection (1902-5) – Stanford also expressed his (often politically awkward and tortured) affinities with his native land in a series of song-cycles and collections. These began in 1901 with An Irish Idyll Op 77 (1901) and concluded with Six Songs from ‘The Glens of Antrim’ Op 174 (1920). The text in both instances was taken from an extremely popular set of poems, Songs of the Glens of Antrim, published in 1901 by Moira O’Neill, pseudonym of Agnes Nesta Skrine (née Higginson). Born in Cushendun, County Antrim in 1865, O’Neill lived in Canada for some years before settling in County Wicklow where she died in 1955. She was the mother of the novelist Molly Keane, author of the black comedy Good Behaviour (1981), a satirical exploration of the economic and moral decline of the Anglo-Irish gentry.
O’Neill’s verse, Anglo-Irish in sensibility, reflecting a complex and often paradoxical equation of cultural, social and political sentiments, has excited both adulation and opprobrium from the critical fraternity during this century. Some such as Douglas Hyde (Ireland’s first President) felt that it was necessary to read Anglo-Irish literature if only to understand how Ireland’s culture could be de-Anglicised, a pronouncement later echoed, with more extremism, by Daniel Corkery in Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature of 1931, where such literature (which included Yeats, Lady Gregory, Somerville and Ross) was considered fundamentally foreign to Irish society. Contemporary verdicts have reached similar conclusions of condescension and quaintness. Yet, conversely, Thomas MacDonagh, a signatory to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic (and executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising), contended in his Literature in Ireland: Studies Irish and Anglo-Irish (1916) that Anglo-Irish literature had a place within the Irish cultural identity distinct from its English cousin. Moreover, MacDonagh argued that the use of Hiberno-English, often cited by its detractors as a pejorative characteristic, was an illuminating feature of this identity and its world. For its time, O’Neill’s Songs of the Glens of Antrim were hugely popular and were praised by Ernest Boyd in Ireland’s Literary Renaissance (1916; rev. 1922), notably for the poet’s understanding of localised speech and the Antrim dialect. This aesthetic criterion – the use of Hiberno-English (which was itself invariably influenced by Irish in terms of its vocabulary, grammar and syntax) – was close to many proponents of the Irish literary cause, as can be seen in Hyde’s folksong translations in The Love Songs of Connacht (1893). This relationship to the spoken language, to story-telling, the love of conversation, and to the oral tradition in general, was further highlighted by Stephen Gwynn, MP and man of letters, who considered O’Neill’s slender volume to be ‘one of the very few books which … could probably be reproduced from oral tradition.’
Firmly ensconced within the Anglo-Irish tradition, Stanford responded with alacrity to the poetry of O’Neill, Winifred M Letts, and the Ulster poet, John Stevenson. ‘Such poets are rare birds,’ he wrote to Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1917, ‘and the ones which smell of the real genuine turf are rarer still.’ For Stanford their words evoked an Irish landscape, in part remembered from his youth, and part imagined through years of absence. In later life this impression combined with the trauma of summoning the courage one day to visit his native soil once, a trauma imbued with a genuine fear of witnessing the disappearance, through rapid social and political change, of the world he had once known. ‘I shall see ghosts,’ he confessed to Mahaffy, ‘all day and every day.’ This complex admixture of nostalgia, homesickness, humour, folklore, a deep love of the Irish countryside, passion, tragedy and genuine personal trauma are explored in Stanford’s Irish cycles, a genre which, judging by its prominence in his later output, meant a great deal to him emotionally.
Denny’s Daughter, the first of Six Songs from the Glens of Antrim, is a deeply moving lament and serves to illustrate a remarkable conjunction of economy and sophistication. One dimension of the song is extraordinary simplicity – a syllabic folksong-influenced vocal line, fluctuating between the tragedy of the minor and the happy reminiscences of the relative major; yet, thrown into relief are those moments of emotional fantasy, where ‘the look of her’ is transformed, via the flat mediant, into the ecstasy of ‘the eyes of her’, executed by the simplest of means. The lack of a convincing cadence carries us into the second verse where the same music is rendered more intensely poignant by the sense of loss and premature death. The closing bars in particular sound a chilling note of tragedy using the slenderest of means.
The text of the next four songs focuses on a central theme in O’Neill’s poetry, that of exile and return, one with which Stanford readily identified. The Sailor Man, a patter song with the energy of a jig, cast in strophic variation form, sings the praises of Dublin’s young females. Lookin’ Back, a more contemplative essay, ponders on thoughts of Ireland from a distant life in Canada, while At Sea, fashioned entirely over a tonic pedal and a tribute to Stanford’s fertile diatonic imagination, dwells on the sentiments of regret and optimism as the ship sails away from Ireland to the New World. Similarly, I Mind the Day, reflects on the mixed emotions of loved ones parted by the ocean (symbolised on the one hand by the austerity of the minor key and on the other by the greater buoyancy of the relative major) and, in the final verse, on a sense of stoical contentment, as both lovers look to the life beyond.
The final song of the set, The Boy from Ballytearim, is a narrative, playing on the traditional archetypal story of the young unemployed, disillusioned lad who journeys away to seek his fortune, leaves his girl behind, then returns with the fruits of his success only to find his love is dead, causing him to leave for good. The folk influence of this song is self-evident, but it is the lyrical images of the lonely girl ‘sighing long for sorrow’ that are most memorable.
Just as Stanford had been impressed by the work of Moira O’Neill, he was equally affected by the poetry of Winifred M Letts (1882-1972), born in County Wexford, educated in England before returning to Dublin where she produced plays for the Abbey Theatre and the Gate Theatre. Letts’s first poetry collection, Songs from Leinster, published in 1913, was an instant success and sold many copies. Almost instantly after their appearance, in July 1913, Stanford composed A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster Op 140 and a month later he completed a further cycle, A Fire of Turf Op 139, though the two were published in reverse order by Stainer & Bell. The least musically consistent of the two is the Leinster collection; yet, arguably, it contains one of Stanford’s finest and most enduring utterances in song, A Soft Day, which, with its distinctively Irish expression, captures the warmth and scents of a misty day in a euphonious lyricism. The Bold Unbiddable Child is another patter song, though this time the rapid delivery of syllables is used to portray the angry speech of a parent shouting after a disobedient son. The theme of Irish Skies, of exile in London, was one that undoubtedly had some autobiographical significance for Stanford. His yearning, ultimately for an ‘idyllic’ Ireland of his past, is depicted in the modal fluctuations to C major from the ‘grey’ background of C minor that hovers oppressively over the song. The darker hues of this splendid miniature have a Brahmsian reminiscence (the opening progression, for example, is suggestive of Brahms’s ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ Op 105 No 4), but in those passages of white-note transparency, which evoke an atmosphere of reverie, Stanford’s true individuality shines through, most of all in the truly luminescent coda which surely must have reached the ears of Ivor Gurney.
Jeremy Dibble © 2000