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8.223754 - STANFORD: Sonatas for Organ, Opp. 151-153

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924)
Sonatas for Organ, Opp. 151–153


Organ music in England suffered the same decline as in the rest of Europe after the time of Bach. During the nineteenth century, generally, leading composers wrote very little for the instrument that once had occupied a central position in all musical activity. Many of the great Romantic composers—Bruckner, Saint-Saëns, Fauré—were organists by profession but, in their composition, neglected that instrument in favour of the piano.

Even the organ music of Edward Elgar, the leading British composer of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, is of relative insignificance. Only in the work of Charles Villiers Stanford does one find a sizeable body of composition that forms a meaningful contribution to the English organ’s repertory of this period. From short, serviceable preludes and fugues to five grand sonatas, the latter all composed within the last two years of the Great War, there is arguably the most significant agglomeration of music written for the organ in England after the time of Mendelssohn. That this music still remains relatively unknown only parallels and underscores the dilemma of Stanford’s reputation generally. Though he established a powerful and vigorous presence in British musical life, and though his roster of pupils numbered practically every English composer of note during the first quarter of this century (including Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Holst, and Howells, to name but a few), little of Stanford’s prolific output is performed regularly today, nor is he perceived retrospectively as a mainstream personality.

But along with Parry, Parratt, and Elgar, Stanford made the greatest contribution to the revitalisation of English music during the late nineteenth century, overcoming and compensating for those long and fallow years after Purcell when the domination of foreign musicians (Handel and Mendelssohn) inhibited the development of native talent.

Though he wrote in practically every musical form for all instrumental and vocal forces, it is in the domain of Anglican service music that his achievements rank supreme. Even his earliest work for chorus, orchestra, and organ, “The Resurrection”, of 1875, demonstrates a compositional aesthetic nurtured by the Anglican liturgical tradition. The renown of Stanford, a Protestant Dubliner, is inextricably linked to these functional works, and they have maintained a prominent place in every choirboy’s cognitive frame of musical reference. To the conventional sacred idioms of Magnificat and Te Deum he imparted a cosmopolitan, enriching framework of symphonic-cyclicism derived from German tradition. Instead of relegating to the organ a secondary, accompanimental rôle doubling the voice parts, it functions frequently in a free “concertato” manner.

The organ loomed large in Stanford’s musical growth. He received his initial musical training from the organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, and he was already appointed organist of Trinity College by the time he took the BA at Cambridge in 1874.

His reputation as both conductor and composer of the university musical society at Cambridge helped propel a career that eventually included major institutional appointments and prizes in composition, as well as an association with every British festival of his time. Throughout his life, Stanford kept up a relentless pace of activity; and conducting the London Bach Choir, while holding himself to an assiduous daily schedule of composing. His works encompass over 190 opus numbers. The entries include seven operas, seven symphonies, two cantatas, clarinet and piano concerti, a Stabat Mater, rhapsodies, instrumental chamber pieces, copious songs for solo voice and piano, in addition to motets and profuse settings for matins, evensong and communion. His treatise on Musical Composition appeared in 1911 and in 1916 he wrote a History of Music with Cecil Forsyth. Awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and Leeds, Stanford was knighted in 1902.

Oddly, all of Stanford’s works for organ (except a short manuscript found in Trinity College Library dated 1879) were written after he relinquished his Trinity post in 1882, and was no longer active as a professional organist. He wrote his first major organ piece in 1894, a Fantasia and Toccata in D minor, dedicated to Sir Walter Parratt, organist of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and Master of the Queen’s Musick. Twenty-three years later he composed the First Sonata in F major, Opus 149. It is the only one of the five sonatas not based on well-known hymn or folk tunes.

Stanford’s organ sonatas owe little to the organ voluntary of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but the inclusion of extraneous material—the hymns, anthems, and folk-tunes—is reminiscent of the same amalgamation with neo-classical elements evinced in Mendelssohn’s six sonatas for organ. Stanford’s conception reveals an interesting spiritual affinity through the enrichment of chorales and solidly structured imitative sections. In fact, perhaps Mendelssohn’s works serve as the genre’s paradigm. While the chorale themes and religioso flowing passages show the composer’s respectful connection with German polyphonic tradition, the texture is now decidedly pianistic. It is difficult to imagine that Mendelssohn’s sonatas, composed in 1844–45, had anything other than a powerful influence on Stanford’s organ writing. In Stanford, the trace elements of Bachian counterpoint are still manifest through his affiliation with the school of Mendelssohn. At various periods during the late 1870’s, he studied with Carl Reinecke in Leipzig. Then, at the instigation of Joseph Joachim, he went to Berlin and became a pupil of the celebrated pianist Friedrich Kiel, and consolidated acquaintanceships with Brahms, von Bülow, Saint-Saëns, Offenbach, and other leading figures. Thoroughly immersed in German performance and compositional practices of his day, Stanford’s organ style reflects the Romantic pianistic tradition with its Brahmsian hemiolas, arpeggios, staccato chords, octaves and lively rhythms.

Stanford orchestrated the 2nd and 3rd movements, (Solemn March and Verdun), of the Sonata Eroica, aware, no doubt, of the work’s immediate appeal. It is a work that befits the grand sound of England’s finest organ builders, Henry John Gauntlett, William Hill and Henry Willis. Greatly influenced by the work of the French builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, they fulfilled their ambitions of orchestral Romanticism with colourful solo stops, powerful tubas, trumpets and horns. Stanford’s style exploits these resources luxuriantly; his score summons them explicitly. The heroic theme, stated boldly at the start in octaves, conjures up an image of the great cathedral of Rheims, conveying martial associations as it is heard on the mighty Tuba mirabilis, then becomes entwined with frequently quoted snippets from La Marseillaise. The sonata is dedicated to Monsieur Charles-Marie Widor, the distinguished French organist and director of the Paris Conservatory,” …and the great Country to which he belongs”.

Despite its grave and sombre ascription, the Second Movement begins in a manner typical of many idyllic character pieces. The contemplative character soon gives way to a martial refrain recalling the dotted rhythms of the First Movement. The Adagio reappears with a flowing, varied bass line. The movement ends with a few measures of the French anthem as a distant horncall, while the Ivesian harmonies that accompany it suggest a lingering haze of battle smoke. The final movement is a tribute to the entrenched poilus who, with the British Expeditionary Forces, sustained the longest battle of World War I against forces commanded by the German Crown Prince. Here, on the Meuse River at Verdun in 1916, two million men were engaged for almost the entire year!

Two popular hymn-tunes form the thematic cornerstone of the Sonata Britannica. Though Handel was thought to have composed Hanover, it has been established that William Croft was the author. The tune bore several names before acquiring its popular identification in hymnals throughout the Empire. St. Mary, the second hymn quotation, is of Welsh origin; the solemn character of its Dorian mode provides a fitting contrast to the exuberant Hanover.

A haunting Benedictus abruptly juxtaposed with a staccato motif forms the first part of the Second Movement. As the tempo accelerates, reed stops robustly proclaim a subsidiary theme that smacks of might and Empire. With the return of the Benedictus motif, the mood subsides to a quiet conclusion.

Brilliant and powerful cadences, angular patterns buttressed by rich, chromatic harmonies place the last movement on a symphonic scale. The colouristic resources of the organ become a significant feature in this thorough-going adoption of cyclic form, a device used extensively by Liszt and Brahms. The Hanover space theme is used in a varied fashion throughout the movement, culminating in a glorious false cadence. Worthy of subtitles and technicolour, it presages a spectacular coda in which the entire array of the organ’s trumpets, tubas and bombardes are brought into play.

The Sonata Celtica approaches the heart of Stanford’s musical ethos, that is, his artistic elaboration of the native musical resources of Ireland. Stanford’s use of the organ makes him unique among composers who express nationalistic and patriotic sentiments. The seeming reluctance of composers such as Dvořák and his contemporary Russian and Scandinavian nationalists to write organ music was due, partly, to the narrow, specific historic and cultural associations that went along with the instrument and its literature. Stanford’s preoccupation with Gaelic folksong material is evident in many of his compositions. He drew from the collections of Edward Bunting, the blind itinerant harpist Carolan, and his own edition of the Petrie Collection of Irish Tunes, published in 1902, from which the two tunes that form St. Patrick’s Breastplate were taken. Bunting called them the oldest known Irish airs and their original text has many suggestions of a Druidic incantation.

The opening movement of the Fourth Sonata is characterised by a trilled, angular melody that generates into wide leaps and irregular accentuations. The mystical Celtic quality is imparted through a succession of modal harmonies, giving way to a profoundly lyrical choral-like melody in major key. Elegiac and delicate, it possesses the narrative attributes of a character piece equivalent to Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte.

A charming theme full of Irish lilt with its progression of dance-like variations precedes the hymn-tune and grand finale—Allegro maestoso. There is constant exploitation of the considerable tonal resources at hand. Eventually, the last part of the hymn emerges with all stops drawn, climaxed with a pedal passage ending on lowest C of the 32 feet Contra Bombarde and Contra Ophicleide.

Stanford was born the year that saw the opening of the new Parliament buildings; he was buried in Westminster Abbey while the British Empire Exhibition was held at Wembley. Thus his life spanned the peak years of Britain’s colonial power to the period of its waning after World War I. Through it all, Stanford bestowed more than an appropriate share expected from a musician of his prodigious stature. His output encompassed all forms, but given that his contemporaries—Elgar and Mahler—were writing on the largest scale, there is more than a curious hint of atavism in Stanford’s return to more concise, classical modes of form and structure. His last symphony (No. 7 in D minor), for instance, is the most lightly scored of all. Stanford’s organ sonatas form a summation of Victorian musical expression, reflecting a lineage from the North German Baroque to the pomp and ceremony of the Edwardian court. Though he yielded to the tide of Romanticism, he lacked the intensity or fervour to maintain his position as England’s leading composer, and it was Elgar who supplanted him. At all events, he is a composer whose work deserves greater currency and recognition than it has yet been given.

© 1994 Joseph Payne

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