Surveying Stanford

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Review-article

ROBERT AND ERS ON welcomes two timely reappraisals of the neglected Anglo-Irish composer and pedagogue

Charles Villiers Stanford Paul Rodmell Music in 19thCentury Britain Ashgate (Aldershot, 2002); xxi, 495pp; L57.50. ISBN 185928 198 2.

Charles Villiers Stanford: man and musician Jeremy Dibble Oxford UP (Oxford, 2002); xvi, 535pp; L65. ISBN 0 19 816383 5.

STANFORD AT 150 DESERVES these two full-length books, if only because, apart from the more adventurous recording companies, it is mainly the churches that have kept him going since his death and that is not enough. He had his innings with continental reputation in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, but then Elgar bowled him out. The books are very different, if not exactly complementary. Rodmell came to me first. I recommend skipping the jargon of the general editor's preface and considering at once with Rodmell the paucity of unpublished Stanford material. Some 800 autograph letters survive, perhaps a year's effort for the mature Stanford. Indeed, Rodmell postulates a possible total somewhere between 28,000 and 56,000. Allowing for the margin of error, many are missing. All I can personally produce is a note to Edward Dent of 1912, saying he could not attend the Cambridge dinner for Alan Gray, who was giving up the conductorship of the Cambridge University Musical Society. Of equal importance, neither Stanford nor his wife Jennie appears to have kept a diary.

Rodmell takes an understandable delight in quoting Bernard Shaw whenever he can, including the `brilliant balderdash' dismissal of Eden, but more constructively the disappointment of a fellow Irish Protestant that Stanford the professor was usually in such firm control of Stanford the Celt. Whenever Stanford remembers the wildeyed fiddling, infectious dancing, and bottomless lamentations of their native land, Shaw rejoices. Dibble is more generous in his quotations of Stanford himself, whether of such autobiographical books as Studies and memories, Pages from an unwritten diary, Interludes, records and reflections, the many articles of far more than passing interest, or the often combative prose of his correspondence and their sometimes wounded ripostes. Dibble therefore gives the richer impression of Stanford the man, touchy, pugnacious on behalf of the causes he held dear and for his students, nor idle in the matter of seeking performances, the more essential in view of a financial position that was never very secure.

As quoted by Dibble, Stanford gives a vivid description of his native Dublin, with its impoverished Catholic core and affluent Protestant suburbs, where the Stanfords cut a prominent legal figure, as did the Henns on his mother's side. The father was notably musical, taking the trouble to attend the 1846 premiere of Elijah in Birmingham and becoming the first to impersonate the prophet in Dublin itself. It was a bachelor uncle Henn who gave Stanford his first grand piano, encouragement to a boy who showed the gifts of a prodigy at the keyboard, on the violin, and in composition. If a `Puss in Boots' March is his first surviving composition, he early developed the facility that brought his opus numbers near the 200 mark. Musically Ireland informed much of his work, obviously the 'Irish' Symphony no.3, the six Irish Rhapsodies spanning the twenty years from 1902, his Shamus O'Brien opera, and such a production as The songs of Old Ireland, which he dedicated to Brahms in 1882. Home Rule was anathema to him, and he was much agonised by the post-war convulsions in his country.

Cambridge, however, was to be his university. Originally at Queens' to read Classics, he plunged into local musical life, ensuring by a series of adroit moves that women should be allowed into CUMS, that he should become organist and adversary to the precentor at Trinity, and might have study leave for work with the 'dessiccated' Reinecke in Leipzig and a more congenial period with Kiel in Berlin under the wing of Joachim. …