Charles Villiers Stanford

(d. 29 March 1924)

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford was a late 19th century Irish composer, teacher and conductor. He, along with several other composers including Hubert Parry and Edward Elgar, inspired a late 19th century renaissance in English music by combining the traditions of both German and Celtic music to create a new instrumental idiom. 

Stanford was born in Dublin, Ireland, which was at the time still part of the British Empire. He was the only child of John James Stanford and his second wife Mary. John Stanford was a prominent lawyer and Mary also came from a distinguished legal family. John enjoyed music and was a decent singer and cellist. Many musicians frequented the Stanford house, both amateur and professional musicians, among them Joachim.

Charles Stanford received a very fine education in the classics and music. His first music lessons were on the violin, piano and organ, though, it was as a composer that he showed the most promise. His education also reflected the influence of Dublin’s greatest musicians, Robert Stewart, Joseph Robinson and Michael Quarry. From Stewart he gained valuable insight into church and organ music, while from Robinson he was able to learn much about conducting and from Quarry he learned about the music of Bach, Schumann and Brahms. Later, in 1862, he studied composition with Arthur O’Leary in London and piano with Ernst Pauer.

With the approval of his father, Stanford moved to England and began his music studies at Queen’s College, Cambridge on an organ scholarship. There, he composed much church music and many songs and partsongs. In particular, he composed several evening services and a piano concerto. He also produced several orchestral works before his studies, including the Rondo for cello and orchestra (1869) and the Concerto Overture (1870). During his studies he also composed the incidental score for a play by Longfellow, A Spanish Student (1871).

After just a short time, Stanford was appointed assistant conductor to the Cambridge Musical Society (CUMS) and in 1873 conductor. The same year he went to Trinity College, where he was appointed organist the following year. While at Trinity, Stanford was allowed to spend six months out of each year in Leipzig to study piano with Robert Papperitz and composition with Reinecke. He was not fond of his time with Reinecke despite the fact that he composed many works during this period, including The Resurrection and The Golden Legend, a piano trio (lost), songs to text by Heine and a violin concerto (1875).

In 1876, Stanford studied for six months with Friedrich Kiel in Berlin, on Joachim’s recommendation. This arrangement was much more profitable than the previous one with Reinecke.

Left: Caricature of Charles Villiers Stanford by Leslie Ward, Published in Vanity Fair on 2 February 1905, with the caption "He Found Harmony"

Stanford's Stabat Mater - a mighty popular success.

Upon his return to Cambridge in 1877, Stanford’s name was well-established in British music through his popular Piano Suite Op. 2 (1875), Toccata Op. 3 (1875), Symphony No. 1 (1876) and the incidental music for Queen Mary (1876).

In addition to composing, he sought to bring the CUMS to new heights with performances of Brahm’s works and his own compositions. With this organization he was able to premiere his Symphony No. 2 (1882), Psalm xlvi Op. 8 and the Piano Quintet (1887). He also arranged for famous musicians to come to Cambridge, such as Hans Richter, Joachim and Piatti along with local artists such as Parry, Cowen and Mackenzie.

Though he had less freedom at Trinity, he was very active and ensured that the organ recitals continued. These also gained more attention as performers such as Walter Parratt, Basil Harwood, Frederick Bridge and C.H. Lloyd made appearances. The level of the choir also improved, allowing Stanford to produce some of his church music with them, such as the Service in B Op. 10, the motet Justorum animae (1888) and the anthem The Lord is my shepherd (1886).

Stanford was appointed professor of composition and conductor of the orchestra at the Royal College of Music in 1883. A believer in opera, he insisted that an opera class be established at the school. While there, he taught many major composers such as Frank Bridge, Gustav Holst, Charles Gurney, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Percy Grainger, Arthur Bliss and Ralph Vaughan Williams. As a teacher, he was very strict and was considered ‘the last of the formalists’ by Harold Samuel.  Stanford was known for his intolerance and great prejudices; he despised the ‘crushingly chromatic’ style of Wagner and Richard Strauss and preferred an elegant sense of diatonicism.

Stanford’s love for opera did not necessarily translate into his success in the genre. Though several of his operas were internationally recognized, such as The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan (1881), Savonarola (1884), Shamus O’Brien (1896) and Much Ado about Nothing (1901), others, such as The Critic (1916) and The Travelling Companion (1919) did not appeal to professional opera companies. Throughout his life he petitioned for a National Opera, though this never achieved fruition.

Stanford conducted many other groups in addition to the CUMS and the orchestra of the RCM. He was also active with the Bach Choir, Leeds Philharmonic Society and the Leeds Triennial Festival.

Stanford’s compositional output spans many genres and includes seven symphonies, ten operas, fifteen concertante works, more than thirty large-scale choral works and an array of chamber, piano and organ pieces. His contributions to the sacred music genre form the basis of the Anglican tradition.

Despite the fact that Stanford’s music was so influential, his popularity died with him. His music is now being re-discovered and performed. His greatest works include his symphonies, all written between 1876 and 1911 and his Irish Rhapsodies, written between 1901 and 1923. Although his Requiem (1896) was unappreciated during his lifetime, it is now considered one of his finest vocal works, and perhaps one of the greatest Victorian works of its type.

By the end of his lifetime, his symphonies appeared quite old-fashioned and plain. His own students began to overshadow him with their flashier compositions. Most of his works from his later years were left unpublished and unperformed. In his final years, his prejudices had become even more prominent, and he made the case for ‘a return to sanity in all aspects of composition, believing that modern tendencies were at best ephemeral and at worst ugly’.

Sir Charles Stanford died in London on 29 March 1924.

Images courtesy of RIAM Archives and Edition Silvertrust

Gerald Barry

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