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8.555201-02 - STANFORD: Requiem / The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan
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Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924):
Requiem • The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan (excerpts)

Charles Stanford was born in Dublin on 30th September 1852, the son of a prosperous Irish lawyer. Both of his parents were extremely musical, his father a singer and his mother a pianist, and the happy, intellectually alive, and thoroughly sociable home background in which he grew up nurtured the exceptional musical talent that became obvious from his earliest years: he is said to have started composing from the age of four. The young Charles learnt the piano and organ from a series of excellent local teachers, and gained a first-class classical grounding at what was said to be the finest school in Dublin. When he was ten he visited England for the first time, where he first saw works by painters of the day like Millais, Watts, and Frederic Leighton. The Stanfords came to England again in 1864 and stayed near Crystal Palace. On this occasion Charles met the young Sullivan, and George Grove, then secretary of the Crystal Palace. In Dublin works by the teenage Stanford were already being performed, and a career as a musician rapidly became inevitable. In 1870 he went to Cambridge as a choral scholar, and the tall, volatile, witty, brilliant young man burst into the University’s musical life. He took over conductorship of the Cambridge University Musical Society when he was only twenty, and soon bore it to heights of excellence. At the same time he became the Trinity College organist and, according to his friend and biographer Harry Plunket Greene, “as with the CUMS the moths and spiders disappeared by magic”. He graduated in 1874 and spent much of that year and the next two studying in Germany, first (and unfruitfully) with Karl Reinecke in Leipzig and then, at the instigation of Joseph Joachim, who was already a close friend, in Berlin with Friedrich Kiel, a rare man and a rare master. Not surprisingly his years in Germany consolidated the love and admiration he already had for the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. He heard Liszt play in Leipzig, and attended one of the first Ring cycles at Bayreuth, though antipathy to Wagner the man coloured his reaction to the music. Die Meistersinger, however, earned his profound admiration, and the devotion to opera that formed part of his musical temperament from his earliest years soon found form in the first of his ten, The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, completed in 1878 and staged in Hanover in 1881.

Stanford’s career rapidly developed. In 1875, out of the blue, he received a commission from the 65-yearold Poet Laureate, Tennyson, for incidental music to his play Queen Mary, though intrigue prevented its use. His First Symphony of 1876 gained second prize in a competition that year; a Festival Overture (1870) was a success at the 1877 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, and he continued to run the CUMS, using it as a platform to introduce his own works, organizing the English première of Brahms’s First Symphony under Joachim in 1877, and himself conducting Hubert Parry’s then highly adventurous Prometheus Unbound in 1881. He took on the London Bach Choir in 1885; Oxford awarded him the honorary degree of Mus.D in 1883, as did Cambridge in 1887, where he was also appointed Professor of Music in the same year. Over the years he was instrumental in bringing several of the greatest composers to England for important performances, which process culminated in honorary doctorates to mark the CUMS Fiftieth Anniversary in 1893 for Saint-Saëns, Boito, Bruch, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky.

Stanford’s volatile temperament and impatience with outmoded traditions, however, brought him into frequent conflicts with the University; and strained relationships also marked his long association with the Royal College of Music, where, from the College’s foundation under Sir George Grove in 1883, he taught composition and conducted the RCM Orchestra. When Parry became Director of the College in 1894, the two men, so often linked today as the founding fathers of the English musical Renaissance, together with Sir Alexander Mackenzie at the Royal Academy of Music, maintained an uneven, often stormy co-existence, its difficulties exacerbated by Stanford’s inability to keep his outbursts purely verbal, “took up me pen, me boy”. He was often a thorn in the side of Parry, the great administrator and enabler, who as a consequence sometimes misread and undervalued his loyalty. Nevertheless each had immense respect for the other’s music and musicianship, and the much-patched relationship held just until Parry’s death in 1918. Stanford retained his Professorships at both Cambridge University (Parry had also been his opposite number at Oxford) and the Royal College until his own death, on 29th March 1924. His body was interred in Westminster Abbey under a stone inscribed A great musician, close to the remains of Purcell.

In what way great? First, as a teacher: he was variously feared, revered, loathed, and loved by a long succession of pupils that included some of the most celebrated figures in that English Musical Renaissance, Ivor Gurney, Arthur Bliss, Herbert Howells, Coleridge Taylor, Gustav Holst, John Ireland, Rutland Boughton, George Dyson, E.J. Moeran, Rebecca Clarke, Eugene Goossens, and Vaughan Williams, to name only a few. His influence, both direct and indirect, was therefore immense, but rarely overt in a pupil’s style. He was also a fine executant, a pianist whose touch had a unique sweetness and beauty, according to Plunket Greene, and a vastly experienced and able conductor – Goossens thought him the finest interpreter of Brahms he ever heard. As well as all his other responsibilities he directed the Leeds Festival from 1901, the year before he was knighted, until 1910, and with as many human clashes as elsewhere in his career.

But was Stanford a great composer? One commentator has said he might have been a great composer if he had not been so superlatively good a musician. But that kind of hair-shirt suspicion of technical facility is surely discredited; would anyone now say it of Mozart? Like the music of Parry, Stanford’s was a victim both of Shaw’s brilliant, sarcastic, critical wit, and of Elgar’s supremacy in the public ear during the years up to the First World War. After 1918 Elgar himself became eclipsed to a considerable degree by the new generation, so many of whom Stanford had taught, but his reputation regained its ground decades ago and his place as one of the great masters of the twentieth century now seems inviolably secure. For Parry and Stanford, however, the progress back into some sort of currency has been far more difficult. A good deal of their orchestral music has been recorded in recent years, but even now a vast number of other works have remained unheard since their deaths.

It is, however, as much a mistake to pair Parry and Stanford too closely, as it is Bruckner and Mahler, though both the Englishman and the Irishman were almost as determined symphonists as were the Austrians (Parry wrote five, Stanford seven); both were greatly influenced by the German masters, their older contemporary Brahms in particular, and were highly prolific. But dimensions of paradox add different richnesses to Stanford’s creativity. First, this towering figure of the English musical establishment remained an Irishman in his blood and bones until his dying day, though he never returned to Dublin and could sign his Te Deum of 1898, written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, “her Majesty’s devoted subject and servant Charles Villiers Stanford”. His music easily takes, as in the Irish Symphony (No. 3, 1989) or the six Irish Rhapsodies, or leaves his Irishness, as subject dictates, form requires or inspiration wills. However an enriching brogue can often be detected even where there is no overtly Irish content. And this Dublin man was a Protestant who from 1879 wrote Anglican church music which remains a cornerstone of its service today.

Of Stanford’s more than thirty works for chorus and orchestra, a minority are on sacred subjects, but these include some of his largest pieces. Even the welldisposed Thomas Dunhill, writing in the 1930s, doubted whether the two full-length oratorios, The Three Holy Children, Op. 22 (1885) and Eden, Op. 40 (1891), could be revived, though only performance would reveal whatever qualities they have, but his praise was high for the Requiem, Op. 63 (Birmingham 1897), the Stabat Mater, Op. 96 (Leeds, 1907), and the Te Deum, Op. 66 (Leeds 1898), and to these should be added the late Mass Via Victrix, Op. 173 (1920).

What, then, of Stanford’s Requiem Mass, recorded here for the first time? It was composed in memory of the painter Lord Leighton, who died on 29th January 1896, a figure of enormous stature in English culture and society, and indeed in public esteem, as may be gauged from the scale of his obsequies. Painters were the stars of Victoria’s last decade, and large crowds watched Leighton’s funeral cortège proceed through central London to the service and burial in St Paul’s. The painter had always had strong musical friendships, skills, and interests that had nothing of the dilettante about them and ranged wide in their scope: in his student days in Italy in the 1850s he sang regularly in musical soirées; in a letter of 1857 to his sister Gussy he dwelt at length on the fascinations of Moorish music he had recently heard in Algiers; he attended the rehearsals of Brahms’ First Symphony under Joachim in 1877; in the years of his mature fame and wealth he gave fullyfledged post-dinner concerts at his astonishingly sumptuous house in South Kensington; and on 12th June 1893 he was to be found seated between Saint- Saëns and Boito at the CUMS anniversary dinner, switching from fluent French to equally fluent Italian as he conversed with them in turn.

Clearly, to celebrate a friend and artist of such stature was a major undertaking, and for Stanford the Irish Protestant involved another twist of paradox in that he was here setting one of the central texts of the Catholic Church. Aside from the personal friendship, there was, in fact, a close alignment of artistic ideals between the two. For both men “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, and the rich, elaborate, classically-inspired canvasses of Leighton found their parallel not in orgies of intricate counterpoint or instrumental extravagance, but in a poised, spacious overall design – the scale of Stanford’s Requiem virtually equals that of the great Requiems of Berlioz and Verdi – much use of the four soloists, singly and in ensemble, in vocal writing of grateful, Italianate eloquence, in some places of almost operatic sweep and elsewhere of song-like simplicity; sonorous chordal choral writing; and an orchestral style that is largely content with economical underpinning of the vocal forces, though with telling use of instrumental solos to broaden further the expressive resources. The Requiem is, in fact, a central work in Stanford’s output, uniting his love of opera and song in its vocal ensembles with a reminder that he was a symphonist in its skilful, subtle and economical use of a relatively small number of thematic ‘cells’.

Adapted from a note by David J. Brown


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