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8.555794 - STANFORD: Anthems and Services
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Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Anthems and Services


Sir Charles Villiers Stanford was one of the seminal figures of the British musical renaissance in the late nineteenth century. Born in Dublin, he demonstrated talents as a composer from his teens and won an organ scholarship to Queens’ College, Cambridge, in 1870. During 1874 and 1875 he also studied with Carl Reinecke in Leipzig and Friedrich Kiel in Berlin. From 1874 to 1892 he was organist of Trinity College, Cambridge, and his skills as a conductor led to appointments that included CUMS (Cambridge University Musical Society) and the Bach Choir. His two principal academic appointments were as professor of music at Cambridge from 1887 to 1924 and as professor of composition at the Royal College of Music from 1883 to 1924. He taught two generations of British composers including Vaughan Williams, Holst, Ireland, Moeran and Howells, and was knighted in 1902. Brahms was Stanford’s musical ‘god’, and his own music reflects his influence. During his life his compositions were highly successful at home and abroad. His legacy includes seven symphonies, of which the Third, the ‘Irish’ (1887), is best known, choral works large and small, ranging from the Requiem (1896) and Songs of the Fleet (1910), to the exquisite part-song The Bluebird (1910), and operas such as Shamus O’Brien (1894-5).

            It is for his contribution to Anglican church music, however, that Stanford is principally remembered. This included major settings of the canticles as well as anthems, hymns and organ works. In his first important setting of the Services, in B flat (1879), it is clear that he is sweeping away the moribund approach of earlier Victorian composers and is establishing new expressive means through applying Brahmsian procedures in cyclical unity, thematic transformation and symphonic structure. The rôle of the accompanying organ is also heightened to superb effect. These tenets, subsequently enriched and developed with maturity, mark all the Services that followed.

            Stanford’s last important setting of the Morning, Communion and Evening Services, in C major, was composed in 1909. It is arguably his grandest and the one in which the thematic ideas are most closely knit together to provide a unifying force. The opening of the Te Deum is sonorous and expansive, its curvaceous melodic line, like the arches of a great cathedral, permeates the settings. So too the theme introduced by the basses at ‘The glorious company of the Apostles’, and the organ’s accompaniment figure at the section beginning ‘When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man’. At the end the opening idea returns to sweep the music to its resplendent climax at ‘O Lord in thee have I trusted’. Superficially the music of the lilting Benedictus is unrelated to the Te Deum, but links are present in the key scheme underlying its two principal ideas, and in the Gloria, when the opening phrase of the Te Deum returns in the glorious, affirmatory ‘Amen’.

            The unaccompanied Three Latin Motets have justly remained among the most enduring of Stanford’s sacred works. Although published in 1905, they were composed earlier in 1887-8. The words of Justorum animae derive from the third chapter of the Book of Wisdom. Cast in ternary form, the calm of the first section is contrasted by a more animated middle part with the voices entering in imitation. Coelos ascendit hodie is a setting of a medieval hymn whose words describe the glory of the ascended Christ. Conceived for double choir, the music is exultant throughout, and utilises antiphonal effects such as the pervasive crisp, fanfare-like call on the words ‘Alleluia’ which is tossed exuberantly between the choirs. Psalm 119 provides the words for the Beati quorum via which is scored in six parts. Particularly beautiful is the still moment when the upper and lower voices in turn hover between major and minor chords on the word ‘Beati’, and the tender, arched phrase at ‘quorum via’ near to the end.

            For his Evening Service in C major Stanford wrote an Allegro moderato movement around sonata-form principles with the verses of the canticle divided into four short sections. It begins with a majestic, ecstatic statement of praise; notable too is the contrast of textures at the start of the fourth section (‘He hath filled the hungry’), when the full choir is pared down to trebles, then tenors and basses at the words ‘the rich he hath sent empty away’. The Nunc dimittis is conceived in one span and builds resplendently to its final climax on the phrase ‘and to be the glory of thy people Israel’ which is a variant of the opening of the Te Deum. Both canticles end with the Gloria from the Benedictus thus achieving further thematic integrity.

            In the late nineteenth century it was not standard practice to set the whole of the Communion Service so that in the Communion Service in C the principal sections are the Credo, Sanctus and Gloria. During Stanford’s lifetime, however, choirs began to sing the Benedictus and Agnus Dei. In 1909 he added these to his earlier Service in F, but tonally they match the C major and B flat settings as well. A complementary Kyrie eleison was arranged by C.S. Phillips and C.E.S. Littlejohn in 1935 from Stanford’s Responses to the Commandments of his Communion Service in G. By this, a complete version of the Mass is achieved as is heard on this recording. In the Credo, Sanctus and Gloria the clarity of the words are emphasized for the communicant by vocal writing in which all parts move together, whilst in the Kyrie, Agnus Dei and Benedictus the lines are more independent. The latter begins with a melody of serene beauty for the basses which is marked by an expressive fall at the repetition of the word ‘Blessed’.

            The Prelude in G major and Postlude in D minor for organ that frame this recording of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in G were composed in 1907. Within the G major Services composed in 1902, the evening canticles have remained the most popular. This is partly owing to the composer’s striking use of the solo treble and bass voices, emphasizing that the texts are the ‘songs’ of the Virgin and Simeon respectively. The fleet Magnificat has a weaving arpeggiated accompaniment, which Sir Edward Bairstow perceptively likened to the image of the spinning-wheel that is invariably present in Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation. Throughout soloist and choir are interwoven in a seamless weft, with the soloist soaring high as if reflecting the Virgin’s heart leaping with joy at the angel’s news. By contrast the Nunc dimittis is solemn, growing from the organ’s introductory bars to which the crucial words ‘depart in peace’ are later set. The Glorias of both canticles are for choir alone and in Stanford’s customary manner utilise the same music but to entirely different effect.

            For lo, I will raise up is one of Stanford’s most powerful utterances: an anthem that in its scope is akin to an operatic scena with contrasting emotions, tempos and choral colours. It was composed in 1914, and Stanford’s choice of words from the Book of Habakkuk is significant, given the onset of hostilities and his abhorrence of war. The opening section is ominous, restless, with an agitated accompaniment that seems to set in motion implacable and relentless forces of destruction. Vivid musical images arise from the words, for instance the sound of the galloping horses’ hooves at ‘Their horses also are swifter than leopards’. An emphatic unison at ‘whose might is his God’, halts the terror, and leads to a reflective section, and a change to the major key, in which the oppressed place their hope in God and affirm their belief in his powers at ‘We shall not die’. Solos for treble and tenor lead to God’s promise that the foes will ultimately be vanquished. The tempo quickens and leads to a blazing, radiant treble phrase mirroring the words ‘earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God’, followed by a triumphant organ passage which ends with a dramatic harmonic jolt on the climactic chord. A brief, masterly conceived coda concludes the anthem, as the Lord in his holy temple is evoked by hushed music suffused with awe.


Andrew Burn

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