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Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Sacred choral music

Winchester Cathedral Choir, David Hill (conductor)
3CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Previously issued on CDA66964/5, CDA66974
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: Various dates
Winchester Cathedral, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: November 2012
Total duration: 208 minutes 29 seconds

Cover artwork: Towards Grandborough (2004) by Ann Brain (b1944)
Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford is a central figure in Anglican church music. His many settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are evensong for generations of choirboys and church-goers. This three-disc set contains a generous selection of Stanford’s sacred choral music—settings for Matins and Evensong, motets, anthems and hymns—perfectly performed by Winchester Cathedral Choir at its best, conducted by David Hill.


‘This record is most welcome, as is the prospect of more to come’ (Gramophone)

‘An excellent initial survey of Stanford's superb contribution to the sacred choral repertoire’ (BBC Music Magazine)

‘Exemplary performances … Hill and the Winchester Choir are superb. The choral tone is luscious, the discipline outstanding, the recording captures the sumptuous acoustics of the cathedral without blurring the musical details, and the performances are vivid and exciting yet carefully nuanced’ (American Record Guide)

‘Followers of this repertoire should certainly not hesitate’ (Classic CD)

‘My congratulations on a very fine achievement’ (Classic CD)

‘Superb performances, supremely fine singing, magnificently directed. A delight for Stanford lovers’ (Organists' Review)

‘This disc is a real gem’ (Cathedral Music)

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The first eighteen years of Charles Villiers Stanford’s life were spent in his native Dublin. Modestly well endowed with music, Ireland’s capital took pleasure from the occasional visit of artists such as Hallé, Rubinstein, Thalberg, Vieuxtemps, Sivori, Bottesini, Clara Schumann and Joachim, and the city’s Theatre Royal revelled in the annual season of Italian opera made possible by the touring companies from London’s Covent Garden and Her Majesty’s Theatre. Home-grown music-making was largely amateur in constitution and during the first part of the nineteenth century (when much of its natural patronage, in the form of the country’s aristocracy, had migrated to London as a result of the Act of Union in 1800) it had struggled to survive. By the middle of the century there were signs of a modest revival. The ‘professional aristocracy’ of lawyers, physicians, clergymen, bankers, civil servants and academics—a quintessentially Protestant world—began to enjoy an increased prosperity after the slump of the 1820s and this was reflected in a growing enthusiasm for music through organizations such as the Antient Concerts Society, the Philharmonic Society, the Dublin University Choral Society and, most exclusive of all in its upper-class clientele, the Hibernian Catch Club. Professional musicians in Dublin made a living through their attachment to educational institutions (such as the Royal Irish Academy of Music, founded in 1848), to theatres (such as the Theatre Royal) or to the Church of Ireland.

Church music in Dublin was served by two cathedrals, the existence of which was, and still remains, unique within Anglican ecclesiastical polity. The Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, known as ‘Christ Church’, fulfilled the role of cathedral to the diocese, while the Collegiate and Cathedral Church of St Patrick, situated close by, was the ‘national cathedral’. The musical traditions of both cathedrals had been entwined for centuries; they frequently shared organists, choirmasters and choral vicars, and during the nineteenth century the choirs were, to use Stanford’s apt description, ‘the cradle and the nursery of music in Ireland’. As the son of a prominent Dublin lawyer and keen amateur musician, Stanford imbibed a substantial proportion of his musical experiences from Dublin’s ecclesiastical institutions. His family church, St Stephen’s, was only a matter of yards along Herbert Street from his home at No 2 and there he often deputized as organist and wrote anthems for the services. One short anthem for Christmas, How beautiful upon the mountain, which is still extant in manuscript (dated ‘Christmas 1868’) was probably given at St Stephen’s. As he grew older, however, the more elaborate musical regimes of Christ Church and St Patrick’s superseded the standards of his local parish church; moreover, he was able to obtain more advanced teaching in composition and organ-playing from Dublin’s most prominent and respected musician, Robert Prescott Stewart. Stewart was organist at Christ Church from 1844 until his death in 1894 and ‘afternoon organist’ at St Patrick’s (William Murphy was ‘morning organist’) between 1852 and 1861 (though he continued to play unofficially for services at St Patrick’s well after he relinquished his post). He was a fine player, whose ability as a recitalist measured up to that of S S Wesley, W T Best and Stainer. He was well known for his impromptu transcriptions of orchestral works (played from the score), for his flamboyant registration and for his abilities as a choirmaster. Stanford thought highly of his teacher and, during the 1860s, spent many hours in the organ lofts of the cathedrals listening to the Sunday services. As a teenager he became familiar with a great deal of eighteenth-century repertoire—the works of Nares, Hayes, Clarke-Whitfield, Stevenson, Battishill, Greene, Travers, Wise, Kelway and Boyce, supplemented by excerpts from oratorios by Handel, Mendelssohn and Spohr—which was the staple diet of most Anglican cathedrals, and, by way of Stewart’s enthusiasm, he developed an admiration for the works of S S Wesley and for seventeenth-century service music by Gibbons and Purcell.

Stanford was educated at Bassett’s school in Lower Mount Street, Dublin. Henry Tilney Bassett, an Englishman of fiery temperament, was a fine classicist who instilled in his pupil a love of classical literature. It was largely he who recommended that Stanford should apply for entrance to Cambridge University in order to read for a degree in classics. Stanford’s father had in mind a career for his son at the Bar, but by 1870, with a prodigious reputation behind him in Dublin, Charles Villiers was adamant that music could be the only course of his life. It was agreed therefore with his father that he would study for a degree in the first instance, in order to obtain a general education, but consent was also given for a further period of purely musical instruction in Germany after his university education had been concluded.

After trying for but failing to secure a place at Trinity Hall, Stanford gained an organ scholarship (one of the first in the university) and, later, a classics scholarship to Queen’s College. On entering Cambridge University in the autumn of 1870 he soon attracted attention as a fine organist, choirmaster and conductor. Music, rather than classics, rapidly began to occupy a large proportion of his time and he was soon a conspicuous member of the Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS). At Queen’s, occasional special services and performances of sacred music took place in the chapel. His one and only piece from this time, dated ‘Queen’s Coll: Camb. Dec. 20/1872’, was the Evening Service in F major which may have been written for one of the chapel’s ‘special services’.

On 5 June 1871 Stanford was elected to the office of Assistant Conductor to CUMS in order to be of help to the ailing John Larkin Hopkins who had conducted the Society for many years. Hopkins was organist at Trinity College and had held the position since 1856. However, in October 1872, he was forced to leave Cambridge on account of his poor health. The post of organist at Trinity was temporarily filled by Gerard Cobb, a Fellow at the college and an able amateur, but on some occasions Stanford was asked to deputize. With Hopkins’ continuing illness, Stanford was offered the post of Assistant Organist by the Master and Fellows in March 1873 which brought with it a stipend of £80 per annum, rooms and commons. This he accepted and at the same time he migrated from Queen’s to Trinity as an undergraduate. In April 1873 Hopkins died and the post of organist became officially vacant. Stanford was appointed the following year (in February 1874) at a salary of £100 per annum for the next two years, after which time the pay and responsibilities of the position would be reviewed. For Stanford, acceptance of the position was conditional upon permission to be absent during the last six months of both 1874 and 1875 so that he could pursue his studies in Leipzig. This the Seniority granted along with further period of six months in 1876 which Stanford passed in Berlin.

Stanford arrived at Trinity College at an auspicious time. Hopkins had been enterprising in the time before his illness. He had instigated the rebuilding of the Father Smith organ and, on its completion, had instituted a series of organ recitals in the chapel (in which Stanford appeared from May 1872). At the same time he had also fulfilled his ambition of forming an independent choir school for the Trinity choristers. In 1856 the choirs and organists of Trinity and St John’s had become separate entities (having been joined since 1799). Connections with King’s College were also dissolved in 1870, the arrangements of a joint choir school shared with St John’s were wound up and an entirely separate establishment for the education of the boys was constituted for the beginning of the Michaelmas Term 1872. Stanford also inherited a body of singers with some experience, if somewhat lacking in finesse. Records of attendance in 1870 show that there were ten choristers and four probationers; under Stanford’s initiatives, this grew to sixteen choristers in 1875 and to twenty-two by 1878. There were eight salaried Lay Clerks (one of whom was the schoolmaster) and this number was augmented on several occasions by two or three additional singers.

During the 1880s Stanford’s career began to expand beyond the organ loft of Trinity College Chapel: he had two operas, The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan (1881) and Savonarola (1884), given in Germany; another, The Canterbury Pilgrims (1884), given by Carl Rosa in London; commissions began to flow from Norwich, Birmingham, Leeds and elsewhere; Grove invited him to become the Professor of Composition and conductor of the orchestra at the newly instituted Royal College of Music in 1883; and as recognition of his prowess increased, he succeeded Otto Goldschmidt as conductor of the London Bach Choir in 1885. His academic responsibilities increased in 1887 when, after the death of Sir George Macfarren, he was unanimously elected to the Professorship of Music at Cambridge. All these commitments served to distract him from his duties as organist and choirmaster at Trinity. Assistant organists were appointed, among them Thomas Tertius Noble (who worked under Stanford from 1890 until 1892), to plug the gaps created by Stanford’s regular leaves of absence, but in the end the pull of London was too great. He played his final service in chapel on Christmas Day 1892 before handing over to Alan Gray, his one-time deputy and dedicatee of the Three Motets.

As for Trinity College choir, circumstances were soon to change. Shortly after Stanford’s departure the new Master, Montagu Butler, began to question the educative merits of the choir school with its one salaried schoolmaster. After consultation with other cathedral and collegiate institutions and with parents, the College Council resolved to close the school in 1896 and most of the boys were transferred to the Perse Grammar School. In all, therefore, the life of Trinity’s own independent choir school lasted but a total of twenty-four years, most of which had elapsed under Stanford’s superintendence.

Stanford’s resignation as organist and choirmaster at Trinity College, Cambridge, at the end of 1892 signalled the end of his days as a practising church musician. His decision to curtail his work at Trinity had largely been precipitated by an increasing need to be in London. Not only were his responsibilities at the Royal College of Music—teaching composition, conducting the orchestra and spearheading the College’s annual opera productions—ever more time-consuming, but there were other major distractions such as the direction of The Bach Choir and, most importantly, the pursuance of his career as a composer. For one more year he continued his link with the Cambridge University Musical Society in order to oversee the Society’s ambitious Silver Jubilee (in which Tchaikovsky, Boito, Saint-Saëns and Bruch all participated as either performer or conductor), but thereafter his one connection with the University was as Professor of Music, a position he retained until his death in 1924.

In London Stanford leased a sizeable property at 50 Holland Street, Kensington. It was ideally positioned, not far from the RCM and yet distant enough from the bustle and noise of the city to allow creative work to flourish. Stanford’s time at Holland Street (1893–1916) was very probably his most fertile period, perhaps reflecting a time of inner contentedness amid a life of frenetic activity. During the 1890s in particular he completed his Fifth Symphony, Op 56 (arguably his finest symphonic work), his Piano Concerto No 1, Op 59, the splendid Requiem, Op 63 (for Birmingham), three operas—Lorenza, Op 55, Shamus O’Brien, Op 61, and Christopher Patch, Op 69 (of which only Shamus O’Brien was performed but to great acclaim and widespread popularity in Britain, Ireland and the United States)—the Te Deum, Op 66, the Concert Variations on ‘Down among the dead men’, Op 71, and the Violin Concerto No 1, Op 74, written for his RCM colleague, Enrique Arbos. There were also numerous chamber works, many songs, part-songs (including the admirable Tennyson cycle for solo quartet, Op 68) and sets of arrangements of Irish melodies.

Only once during this period did Stanford turn his attention to the composition of liturgical music when, probably at the behest of Novello, he decided to supplement his Evening Service in A, Op 12, with settings of the Morning Canticles and the Ordinary of the Communion. These parts were published in 1895, but no other church music came from his pen until after the death of Queen Victoria.

The Coronation of George V on 23 June 1911 in many ways marked the commencement of Stanford’s final creative period. Although it would be inaccurate to say that his powers of composition were in decline, one could nevertheless claim with some justification that his standing and influence as a composer were being rapidly superseded by new musical tastes with which he had limited sympathy. The music of the European progressives—Richard Strauss, Reger, Scriabin and Schoenberg—was already beginning to establish itself in London’s concert programmes, and the works of his own pupils—Coleridge-Taylor, Hurlstone, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bridge and Ireland—were rapidly gaining the attention of conductors such as Henry Wood, Thomas Beecham and Landon Ronald as well as the up-and-coming young stars, Adrian Boult and Hamilton Harty. One should also not forget that Elgar, whom Stanford had aided generously at the turn of the century, was enjoying his heyday with a series of masterpieces including the First and Second Symphonies, the Violin Concerto and Falstaff. All this served to push Stanford steadily into the background. His career as a conductor was similarly less vigorous in the years immediately before the war. He continued to direct performances of the RCM Orchestra and Opera Class, but his active relationship with Leeds came to end with his resignation as conductor of the Leeds Philharmonic Society in 1909 and, more rancorously, of the Leeds Festival in 1911.

Stanford’s temperament is also the subject of legend. To those pupils of whom he approved and in whom he detected a natural instinct for technique (such as Coleridge-Taylor, Hurlstone and Howells) he could be abundantly encouraging; to others who took time to develop (such as Holst, Vaughan Williams and Ireland) or whom he professed to be unteachable (Gurney and Bridge), he could be formidable. As a colleague he was quarrelsome and reactionary; he could appear arrogant, inflexible, litigious and was quick to anger which, to his cost, often had a deleterious effect on his friendships: the silence with Elgar between 1905 and 1922 and the rift with Parry in 1917 are two striking examples. Part of the problem was that behind the mighty façade lay a deep-seated insecurity. Stanford craved recognition and approbation. He basked in his successes (such as the ‘Irish’ Symphony, Op 28, Shamus O’Brien, Op 61, and the Songs of the Sea, Op 91) but was bitterly hurt by his failures. In the 1870s and 1880s his astounding talent had promised much: many saw him as the ‘blue-eyed boy’ of British music, brilliant, ambitious, visionary, versatile and confident; but this great promise seemed to falter partly through circumstance and partly through the flaws in his own personality. At first glance his career seemed brim-full of honours: there was the triumph of the Cambridge Professorship in 1887, the honorary doctorates at Oxford, Cambridge and Leeds, his knighthood (in 1902) and membership of the Royal Academy of Arts in Berlin (1904). But he also had to contend with many personal disappointments. Although he conducted occasional concerts for the Philharmonic Society, he failed to secure the much sought-after conductorship, which went instead to Sullivan (and later to Cowen and Mackenzie); he was a candidate for the Directorship of the RCM vacated by Grove, but the College Council unanimously elected Parry (whose character Grove much preferred); on the appointment of Parry’s successor, Hugh Allen, in 1918, Stanford was deeply wounded at not being consulted; Trinity College, Cambridge never made him a Fellow; he hoped for an honorary degree from Dublin, his home town, during the Tercentenary of Trinity College in 1892, but the honour went to Parry, and by the time Dublin did offer him the degree in 1921 he was too ill to travel, and, as Plunket Greene remarked, ‘the bullets were already flying’, making Ireland an unsafe place. The strife in the country of his birth and the creation of the Irish Free State only added to his sense of disappointment and isolation, not least because he vociferously opposed Home Rule for Ireland and became an ardent follower of Craig, Carson and Ulster’s cause.

Another major factor in Stanford’s insecurity was his constant anxiety over money. Unlike Parry and Mackenzie who were both salaried (Parry also enjoying the security of a wealthy background), Stanford was paid by the hour throughout his teaching career. He had campaigned for special recognition to the College, hoping for an annual stipend, but this was turned down. At Cambridge University he fell out with the authorities over his professorial stipend which amounted to only £200 per annum. With the outbreak of war in 1914 the number of his pupils fell away as did his regular income. Soon he was compelled to ask for a loan from his great friend, Robert Finnie McEwen, a wealthy music-loving Scottish landowner. This helped to stave off the financial crisis for a while, but, unable to afford the lease at 50 Holland Street, he was forced to move to less spacious accommodation at 9 Lower Berkeley Street (off Portman Square) in 1916, and even at the time of his death in 1924 he was planning to move again to somewhere less expensive. These pecuniary difficulties would also explain why Stanford regularly fought tooth and nail for every penny owed to him in royalties and fees and why the many surviving letters to publishers seem obsessed with money.

And yet it would be wrong to perceive the last fifteen years of Stanford’s life as a period of degeneration. Between 1911 and 1924 he wrote some of his most impressive music. In 1915 he completed The Critic (or An Opera Rehearsed), Op 144, a setting of Sheridan’s play replete with clever parodies and satirized genres; it was performed with some success at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London on 14 January 1916 under Eugene Goossens, one of his many former pupils. The following year he finished what was perhaps his finest operatic venture, The Travelling Companion, Op 146, adapted by Henry Newbolt from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. It contains some magnificent music which one senses immediately from the prelude. The prelude was, however, the only part of the work that Stanford heard (given by the Royal Philharmonic Society under Albert Coates on 4 November 1920); the opera itself was not performed until after his death when it was taken up by the Liverpool Repertory Opera Company in 1925. One may also point to other fine orchestral works such as the Piano Concerto No 2, Op 126 (heard first at the American Music Festival at Norfolk, Connecticut in June 1915 but not heard in Britain until 1919 when it was performed at Queen’s Hall by Benno Moiseiwitsch to great acclaim) and the inspired Irish Rhapsody No 4, Op 141, a stirring expression of Stanford’s Unionist sympathies.

Jeremy Dibble © 1998

Other albums in this series

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