About this Recording
8.573512 - STANFORD, C.V.: Choral Music - Stabat Mater / Song to the Soul / The Resurrection (The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony, D. Hill)

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924)
Choral Music


Choral music was the very stuff and fibre of Charles Villiers Stanford’s life as a composer and musician. In his home town of Dublin he grew up immersed in the music of the city’s two cathedrals, Christ Church and St Patrick’s and, as a student at Cambridge University, which he entered in 1870 as one of the first organ scholars, the choral experience continued unabated, both as an organ scholar at Queens’ College (1870–73), organist at Trinity College (1873–92) and as conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society (1871–93). The Resurrection, Op. 5, or Die Auferstehung as it began life, was his first major choral essay which was composed in Leipzig while studying under Carl Reinecke. It was part of a period of immense creativity as he explained to his old friend, supporter, and Trinity colleague, Canon Thomas Hudson:

‘I like Reinecke immensely, and I have written a fair amount since I began with him. I finished the Trio in Dresden and have since done 6 Heine Songs, a short Cantata to Klopstock’s ‘Die Auferstehung’, for Tenor Solo, Chor & Orch:, a String 4tett, a Concert Overture which is going to be tried at the Gewandhaus in a week or two, an Organ Prelude and Fugue which is coming out in Spark’s Organist’s Quarterly Journal, a Pater Noster in 8 parts, a Commem: Anthem for Trinity, an Introduction to Schumann’s Rose Pilgrimage for Orch: - 2 P.F. Noveletten, and I am just working at Longfellow’s Golden Legend which will take until Xmas at least as it is 9 Scenes long. This is a long catalogue to trouble you with!’

Reinecke was clearly pleased with his pupil’s progress and advised him to have Die Auferstehung performed in England. To Hudson he added: ‘I have written at Reinecke’s advice to Barnby about the Auferstehung to see if it would be done at the Albert Hall. The translation (Miss C. Winkworth’s) is first rate. I have not much hope however.’ Barnby did not take up the work with the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society, but, instead, Stanford gave the first performance of Die Auferstehung with CUMS on 21 May 1875 sung in its English version. He then proceeded to revise the score in October 1876 no doubt with a view to a second performance in Cambridge or London, but though it was published by Chappell in or around 1878, it was not performed again until 10th May 1886 when it was sung at evensong in Trinity College Chapel. The work has since been almost entirely neglected. It is recorded here in an edition specially prepared by Jeremy Dibble.

Taking his text from the eponymous poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (the same poem which Mahler later chose for his ‘ResurrectionSymphony after hearing it at the funeral of Hans von Bülow in 1894), first published in the author’s Sacred Songs of 1758, Stanford conceived the choral part of the work in three parts (ternary form) prefaced by a slow, solemn prelude characterised by its rich orchestration for lower strings (one distinctly reminiscent of the archaic introduction to Mendelssohn’s ‘ReformationSymphony). The first choral section is a lively, effusive, scherzo-like dance in which the principal upward-rising theme mimics the words ‘Rise again!’ A central trio, in D flat, with attention to more chamber-like scoring (including the harp), introduces a solo tenor (‘Day of praise’) whose melodic material is derived from the prelude. Latterly the chorus joins the solo tenor in affirmation. A modified reprise of the scherzo is followed by the summoning of the solemn, prayerful music of the prelude. This moment of more restrained contemplation is, however, quitted for a more rapturous coda.

In 1901 Stanford undertook the first of four engagements at the Leeds Triennial Festival. A major event in the programme of Britain’s choral festivals, Leeds boasted one of the finest and best-trained choruses in the country, a reputation it had gained during its period under the direction of Arthur Sullivan between 1880 and 1898. Indeed, in this regard Leeds undoubtedly rivalled Birmingham in its choral opulence and ambition. For Stanford the festivals also provided a major artistic opportunity to promote new British choral and orchestral works by composers such as Parry, Elgar, Mackenzie, Charles Wood, Vaughan Williams, Bantock, Holbrooke, Coleridge-Taylor and Walford Davies, and for each of the festivals he also produced a number of major new works of his own. Among these was a setting of the Stabat Mater, Op. 96 written for the 1907 festival.

Throughout his highly productive career Stanford aspired to be a fêted composer of opera. In this he had enjoyed mixed success in a range of operatic styles, not least with Shamus O’Brien in 1896 which had been performed across the English-speaking world. Elements of operatic rhetoric also inhabited his symphonic works (notably the dramatic end to the Fifth Symphony of 1895), the Requiem, Op. 63 for the Birmingham Festival of 1897, and the fine concert Te Deum, Op. 66 for Leeds in 1898. This operatic trend was also something that permeated the oratorios which Elgar composed for Birmingham, and while Stanford did not own to liking The Apostles and The Kingdom (and we know he owned a copy of The Apostles), he clearly followed in their wake with an equally operatic interpretation of the Stabat Mater. Completed in March 1906 and first performed at the Leeds Triennial Festival under the composer’s baton on 10th October 1907, the Stabat Mater was conceived as a ‘symphonic cantata’, suggesting components of a large-scale symphony as well as its associated organic treatment of material. Moreover, Stanford clearly considered that the ‘symphonic’ conception of his cantata should involve the orchestra in more than an accompanimental sense, since both the first movement (Prelude) and third movement (Intermezzo) were given entirely to the orchestra. In addition, Stanford evidently conceived his interpretation of the medieval Latin hymn (attributed to either the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi or Pope Innocent III) not simply as a lament but as a dramatic portrayal of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Judgment, the hope of Redemption and life in Paradise. This dramatic element is not only apparent from the narrative but also in the operatic way Stanford treats his four soloists and the chorus as a putative turba.

The Prelude in D minor, to all intents and purposes an overture with a fully worked-out sonata structure (in the manner of a symphonic first movement), presents two important themes. The first, a rising three-note idea, supported by a succession of arresting chromatic harmonies, appears throughout the work in different guises. Cleverly, Stanford’s representation depicts Christ’s agony and Mary’s sorrow on the one hand, yet on the other its sense of tonal instability suggests some latent form of spiritual transformation. The second theme, more diatonic in nature (though with a luxuriant passing modulation to the flat mediant), looks towards the end of the work and the promise of redemption. The second movement, in G minor, whose opening theme bears a striking resemblance to the plainsong ‘Salve regina’, is introduced appositely by the soprano as the voice of Mary (‘Stabat mater dolorosa’). This is the Virgin’s lament at the foot of the cross. Two other themes provide contrast. A second idea (‘Cuius animam gementum’) symbolizes Christ’s wounds, while a more lyrical falling figure in G major (‘O quam tristis’) evokes Mary’s distress. This last idea subsequently provides a remarkable wordless reprise in the orchestra at the conclusion of the movement along with the solo soprano’s final plaintive utterance as if, together, they sum up the pathetic nature of the Virgin’s resignation. The third movement, for orchestra alone, is quite remarkable in its position at the very centre of the cantata. Entitled Intermezzo, it functions as a transition between the depiction of the Crucifixion and the supplications of the fourth movement. But more remarkable is the dramatic element of this open-ended section, for Stanford, in reworking the two ideas of the Prelude, surely attempted to evoke those final moments of Jesus’s death on the cross, his final cry, the sense of physical chaos (as Matthew described in his Gospel: ‘And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent.’) and the overwhelming victory of the Resurrection which follows. Here Stanford’s climax, reminiscent of Tristan in B major, seems almost Wagnerian. The fourth movement, analogous to a Scherzo in E flat, is an entreaty to the Virgin to share in her sorrow. The body of the tripartite structure is taken by the four soloists, but each of the main sections is delineated by a recurring response from the chorus (‘Eja, Mater, fons amoris’).

The finale begins with a dramatic introduction (‘Virgo virginum praeclara’) in which the ‘Salve regina’ theme is transformed from lament into triumphant affirmation, replete with brass fanfares, striking modulations and operatic rhetoric. This yields to the main musical structure in G minor which commences with a plainsong-like reworking of the Prelude’s opening theme (‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem’). A secondary idea, based on ‘Christ’s wounds’ from the second movement, acts as contrasting material before the climax, in the distinct key of D flat, vividly transports us to the terrible Day of Judgment (‘per te Virgo, sim defensus in die iudicii’). A reprise of the opening quasi-plainsong gives way, after a grand, theatrical cadence, to a visionary coda in G major. Here, Stanford recalls the second theme of the Prelude, and transforms it into a modal, mantra-like, prayer (‘paradisi gloria’) in which his handling of harmonic resources, the orchestra and choral sonority (even down to the final unaccompanied sounds of the chorus at the very end) is masterly.

In or around April 1913, Stanford received a letter from his old American colleague, Horatio Parker, Battell Professor of Music at Yale University, on behalf of Carl Stoeckel, the president of the Litchfield County Choral Union, inviting him to the United States to conduct the premiere of his new Second Piano Concerto, Op. 126 as well as the Fifth Irish Rhapsody, Op. 147 at the Norfolk Festival in Connecticut in the summer of 1914. This event would be part of a larger tour of the east coast of America in which Stanford would also receive an honorary doctorate from Yale and conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This had to be postponed until 1915, at which time Stanford’s arrangements were subverted by the sinking of the Lusitania on 7th May on which Stanford had booked his passage. ‘Doubly D[amn] those Huns,’ he wrote in frustration to Parker. ‘It has upset the whole thing: for they are unanimous here that I must not risk it: especially in returning, for anything may happen in five weeks and I might be marooned on your side.’ After the invitation from Parker in 1913, Stanford had replied with an additional request:

‘I see on your programme the words ‘Choral Union’. May I suggest, instead of a new orchestral work for the occasion, a new short choral work for chorus and orchestra (without solo) which I have on the stocks. A setting of Walt Whitman’s ‘To the Unknown region’ and ‘Joy, shipmate, joy’ in one movement: it wd take about 10 minutes as I have designed it, and wd be very appropriate. I think you wd like it, and it is not difficult… Try to work the Walt Whitman, I beg you. I believe in it!’

Stanford completed Song to the Soul, Op. 97b on 1st May 1913 and created a single choral movement from two of three Whitman settings he had composed for his Songs of Faith, Op. 97 in 1906, To the Soul (which Vaughan Williams had also used for his own choral work Toward the Unknown Region) and Joy, shipmate, joy (which Delius later used in his Songs of Farewell). Stanford was no stranger to Whitman. As early as 1884 in his Elegiac Ode for the Norwich Festival he had set Whitman’s famous words on the death of President Lincoln, ‘When lilacs in the dooryard bloom’d’. This new American opportunity encouraged him to return to the 1906 settings of which he was clearly proud and to create a new symphonic essay from the two themes of mystery and death. For the first part, Stanford composed an extensive orchestral introduction based on To the Soul and proceeded to expand the music of the song itself into a larger organic paragraph (although much of the thematic material is still entirely conspicuous). After a majestic climax in which the soul seeks to fulfil its fullest potential, the second song, Joy, shipmate, joy, breaks loose, signifying a new freedom in death. It is one of Stanford’s most exhilarating choral utterances, full of orchestral colour and vitality, striking key changes and inventive (yet simple) choral writing. The final climax, in particular, in which Stanford recalls the slow, processional melody of the first song, is splendidly impressive, as is the uplifting coda which carries us heavenward.

In the end Song of the Soul was not performed at the Norfolk Festival and the work remained both unperformed and unpublished at Stanford’s death. It was one of many disappointments he had to forbear (and there were many). Instead the American bass-baritone, Clarence Whitehill, well known for his roles in Wagner’s music dramas, sang his song settings of To the Soul and Tears in the composer’s orchestrations. The work was finally performed in an edition by Jeremy Dibble at the National Concert Hall in Dublin with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Hill on 16th May 2015, one hundred years after its intended first hearing.

Jeremy Dibble

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