During the course of 1917 and 1918, Stanford composed no fewer than five organ sonatas, four of which he dedicated to prominent organists of the day. Three of these were his fellow countrymen, Alan Gray (No 1), Walter Parratt (No 3) and Harold Darke (No 4). The Sonata No 2 in G minor, Op 151, subtitled ‘Eroica’, was dedicated ‘To Monsieur Charles Marie Widor and the Great Country to which he belongs’. Completed in August 1917, the work was intended to pay tribute to the great French organist and senior figure of French music, but it also paid homage to the titanic struggle the French army had experienced in 1916 at the Battle of Verdun and the destruction of the medieval cathedral at Rheims, an iconic building which became part of France’s anti-German propaganda machine. The first movement bore the title ‘Rheims’ (and was based on the French tune ‘O filii et filiae’), the second movement was a solemn funeral march, and the finale ‘Verdun’. The latter two movements both featured quotations of the ‘Marseillaise’. After completion of the sonata, Stanford arranged the last two movements for full orchestra, renaming the work Verdun: Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue
. It was first performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 20 January 1918 under the baton of Landon Ronald where it was much appreciated by its audience. Later that year, as part of a concert to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, Stanford directed a second performance along with his fifth Irish Rhapsody
on 22 May. A brilliant orchestrator, Stanford had that rare ability of orchestrating keyboard music with legerdemain. His orchestrations, like those of Ravel, have no idiomatic awkwardness and are a model for those aspiring to master the art of instrumentation. The ‘Solemn March’, replete with edifying drum rolls and ‘blaze’ of brass, is a deeply moving, sedate affair that greatly benefits from Stanford’s orchestration. Cast in ternary form, the outer sections present an extended stately theme, full of arresting modulation (an aspect Stanford exploits to great effect in the reprise). The central section, to begin with more turbulent as it develops the original theme with the brass to the fore, is eventually becalmed as the funereal tribute is marked by numinous strains of the ‘Marseillaise’ on muted trumpets. A similar gesture dominates the tranquil coda. For the ‘Heroic Epilogue’ Stanford evidently wanted to create a sense of ‘reveille’ (symbolically a sense of resurrection) and in doing so chose to quote almost all of the ‘Marseillaise’ but in a symphonic manner defined by an imaginative sonata structure, ingenious harmonic variation of the national anthem’s individual phrases, and a coda in which the tune is quoted in a harmonization and instrumental panoply to rival that of Berlioz. As a whole the work is a deep mark of respect for the French Army: Stanford headed his score with the French battle cry at Verdun—‘on ne passera pas’—but it also possesses a true sense of pathos, over and above patriotism, for every soldier’s sense of courage and resilience.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2019