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From the charming whimsy of Fairy Day to the dignified ceremonial of Verdun, this is a welcome and varied collection of some of Stanford’s finest occasional pieces.
Composed the same year as A Welcome March, Stanford’s Overture in the style of a tragedy, Op 90, was completed on 7 December 1903. For what purpose he wrote the work is unknown and there is no evidence of a performance given during his lifetime. The overture was first performed by the Ulster Orchestra under the direction of Kenneth Montgomery on 24 August 2010 at the Ulster Hall and broadcast the following year by the BBC. A substantial essay in C minor, it belongs to the same dark, brooding genus of overtures as Brahms’s Tragic Overture and Parry’s fine Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy (inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello). Full of rhythmic dynamism, the work begins violently with an expansive melody in the depths of the orchestra but soon erupts with an explosive agitation for the whole. A more lyrical second subject, containing some of Stanford’s most advanced chromatic harmony, provides an emotional foil and a glimpse of optimism. These two ideas vie for position in the development but it is the gloomy, disconsolate demeanour that prevails, and though the lyrical material, in C major, emerges for orchestra with splendid equanimity, it is the persistent, indeed sinister rhythms of the drama that carry the movement to its shadowy, oppressed conclusion. Last but not least, the valedictory fragments from the clarinets in the final bars, reminiscent of the music from the composer’s incidental music to Oedipus Rex, suggest that, perhaps, Sophoclean tragedy was in the mind of the composer.
During the course of 1917 and 1918, Stanford composed no fewer than five organ sonatas, four of which he dedicated to prominent organists of the day. Three of these were his fellow countrymen, Alan Gray (No 1), Walter Parratt (No 3) and Harold Darke (No 4). The Sonata No 2 in G minor, Op 151, subtitled ‘Eroica’, was dedicated ‘To Monsieur Charles Marie Widor and the Great Country to which he belongs’. Completed in August 1917, the work was intended to pay tribute to the great French organist and senior figure of French music, but it also paid homage to the titanic struggle the French army had experienced in 1916 at the Battle of Verdun and the destruction of the medieval cathedral at Rheims, an iconic building which became part of France’s anti-German propaganda machine. The first movement bore the title ‘Rheims’ (and was based on the French tune ‘O filii et filiae’), the second movement was a solemn funeral march, and the finale ‘Verdun’. The latter two movements both featured quotations of the ‘Marseillaise’. After completion of the sonata, Stanford arranged the last two movements for full orchestra, renaming the work Verdun: Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue. It was first performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 20 January 1918 under the baton of Landon Ronald where it was much appreciated by its audience. Later that year, as part of a concert to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, Stanford directed a second performance along with his fifth Irish Rhapsody on 22 May. A brilliant orchestrator, Stanford had that rare ability of orchestrating keyboard music with legerdemain. His orchestrations, like those of Ravel, have no idiomatic awkwardness and are a model for those aspiring to master the art of instrumentation. The ‘Solemn March’, replete with edifying drum rolls and ‘blaze’ of brass, is a deeply moving, sedate affair that greatly benefits from Stanford’s orchestration. Cast in ternary form, the outer sections present an extended stately theme, full of arresting modulation (an aspect Stanford exploits to great effect in the reprise). The central section, to begin with more turbulent as it develops the original theme with the brass to the fore, is eventually becalmed as the funereal tribute is marked by numinous strains of the ‘Marseillaise’ on muted trumpets. A similar gesture dominates the tranquil coda. For the ‘Heroic Epilogue’ Stanford evidently wanted to create a sense of ‘reveille’ (symbolically a sense of resurrection) and in doing so chose to quote almost all of the ‘Marseillaise’ but in a symphonic manner defined by an imaginative sonata structure, ingenious harmonic variation of the national anthem’s individual phrases, and a coda in which the tune is quoted in a harmonization and instrumental panoply to rival that of Berlioz. As a whole the work is a deep mark of respect for the French Army: Stanford headed his score with the French battle cry at Verdun—‘on ne passera pas’—but it also possesses a true sense of pathos, over and above patriotism, for every soldier’s sense of courage and resilience.
The ‘Three Idylls for Female Chorus and Small Orchestra’ which Stanford entitled Fairy Day, Op 131, were completed on 6 November 1912 in London and published in a vocal score by Stainer & Bell the following year. Settings of three poems from ‘Prince Brightkin’ in William Allingham’s Songs, Ballads, and Stories of 1874, the miniature cycle was dedicated ‘To the St Cecilia Society of New York and its Conductor Mr Victor Harris’. Harris was himself a composer, organist, teacher and conductor and spent much of his life working in New York. A vocal coach at the Metropolitan Opera for three years (1893–6), he founded the St Cecilia Chorus (as it was initially known) in 1906, made up exclusively of women’s voices (formed from a more informal Tuesday Morning Singing Club: an association of women who met regularly to sing at the Waldorf Astoria, the grand Art-Deco hotel in mid-town Manhattan, where they gave concerts). Harris probably commissioned the work from Stanford (although we have no evidence to confirm this at present) but there is no record of a performance by Harris who remained conductor of the Chorus until 1936. Fairy Day in this orchestral version was first broadcast by the BBC on 17 January 2011, the Ulster Orchestra and Ulster Youth Choir being conducted by Howard Shelley.
Stanford’s ‘Three Idylls’ were conceived as a cycle of three partsongs to words by his countryman, William Allingham (1824–1889), who was famous for his children’s poems, especially those relating to the imagination and the supernatural. His lines ‘Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren’t go a-hunting, For fear of little men’ from The Fairies, his most famous poem, became a classic, especially for schoolchildren. Scored with a gossamer precision reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the work reflects the composer’s consummate brilliance in this ‘Urlicht’ idiom, and one that looks forward to the transparent ballet music of his last opera, The Travelling Companion (1916). With only the resources of a chamber orchestra, Stanford created indelible musical illustrations of those memorable images by Edmund Dulac, Charles Edmund Brock (who illustrated Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies of 1910), Hilda Miller and Ida Outhwaite—gentle images in pale pastel colours with which many children grew up during much of the twentieth century. The first partsong, ‘Fairy Dawn’, is in two parts: first, an extended introduction (‘Fairies and Elves! / Gone is the night’) depicting the awakening of the fairy world (and one in which Stanford shows himself the master of modulation and of a sensuous harmonic language redolent of early Debussy); second, a lively partsong (‘Golden, golden / Light unfolding’) with a refrain ‘All the length of a summer day!’ which celebrates the joy, warmth and vibrance of midsummer. ‘Fairy Noon’, a slow movement, begins with a horn call, summoning the fairies to rest as the sun reaches its apogee (‘Hear the call!’). Beginning obliquely, through D minor and G minor, a mellifluous cor anglais reworks the call into a longer melody in a luxuriant D flat major attended by the chorus. A more tonally fluid central paragraph anchored to B flat subtly facilitates an orchestral transition through its submediant G minor, and minor subdominant E flat minor, to a reprise of the opening material in D flat in which all fairies are tenderly conveyed to slumber. The final partsong, ‘Fairy Night’, is a lullaby (‘Moon soon sets now’) in rondo-variation form in which each occurrence of the lullaby, as a foil to the ‘scherzino’ episodes, is developed and transformed. In a feat of true artistry, Stanford never allows his lullaby theme, suspended continuously on its dominant, to cadence. This is evident in the first presentation of the main theme, but in the first variation, where it is more sensually adorned with the solo violin and some highly affecting key changes, the sense of ‘variation’ becomes evident. Moreover, the final variation, which carries the partsong to its restful conclusion, is a stunning example of Stanford’s flair for orchestration as ‘chamber music’ in its use of solo strings and wind. Only here, in the dying bars, does the composer also allow the music to cadence into D major.
The fifteenth-century ‘Agincourt Song’ or ‘Agincourt Hymn’, written in praise of Henry V’s victory (against the odds) over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, is probably best known today through its use by William Walton for his film score to Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Though a production of great artistic merit, Olivier’s film and Walton’s music undoubtedly had major propaganda value at a time when, after five years of struggle, Britain could begin to see a new horizon of victory and the destruction of Nazism. Even before Walton appropriated the ‘Agincourt Song’, however, Stanford had appreciated its propaganda appeal and associations when he chose to include it as the central focus of his tone poem A Song of Agincourt, Op 168. Composed in 1918 and revised the following year, it was written ‘in commemoration of those members of the Royal College of Music who fought, worked, and died for their country (1914–18), and dedicated (by gracious permission) to the Patron, his Majesty King George V’. The work was first given by the orchestra of the Royal College of Music on 25 March 1919 under Stanford’s direction. Shortly after this first hearing, a revision took place which was completed on 11 April 1919. A second performance at the RCM took place on 4 July in the third of three special concerts to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the opening of the new RCM building by the Prince of Wales on 2 May 1894. The concerts featured works entirely by those who had taught and studied at the RCM, and A Song of Agincourt was included alongside works by Holst, Rootham, Somervell, Dunhill, Coleridge-Taylor and Parry. It was attended by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) who, dressed in khaki, and having accepted the Presidency of the RCM, was making his first visit to the institution. A third performance of the work occurred on 16 October 1919 when it was played under Dan Godfrey’s direction in Bournemouth.
Lasting the best part of sixteen minutes, A Song of Agincourt has many similarities to his Irish Rhapsodies whose use of traditional Irish melody and free manipulation of sonata structure characterized their imaginative forms. The modal flavour (based around D minor) of the medieval English song, introduced forcefully by the trumpets, forms the first subject. Embellished by lively and inventive passagework from the strings, this idea has tremendous elan. This yields to a more tranquil second subject in E flat major, an idea full of the composer’s rich diatonic palette and which has all the thumbprints and contours of Irish melody (and is surely Stanford’s own personal tribute to the work’s dedicatees). A developmental phase recalls the lively tempo and the Agincourt melody which is thoroughly reworked. At its most chromatic apogee (in which Stanford’s advanced harmonic vocabulary is amply evident) a new folksong-like march idea is introduced which forms the central focus of the symphonic structure. Couched in F major, and a spectacular example of Stanford’s contrapuntal dexterity, the march is a lively orchestral tour de force. After quitting F major, another episode of development takes place, this time in the form of a nocturne replete with distant horn calls. This constitutes a transition to a truncated reprise of the second subject, this time in F sharp major and shared more wistfully between the solo oboe and cor anglais. After a cadence in F sharp, a dominant pedal of D emerges more ominously in the timpani which, in 3/4, anticipates the recapitulation of the ‘Agincourt Song’, but this is disrupted by three recurrences of the march in C, A and F, before the song returns in its full glory. While this might have provided a satisfactory conclusion to the work, it is the second subject, in D major and opulently scored together with passing references to the Agincourt material in the brass, that forms its peroration. It was as if Stanford, recalling all those he had taught, and especially those who had passed on—Hurlstone, Coleridge-Taylor, Butterworth, Purcell Warren, Farrar and Parry—wished to place his own personal stamp of tribute on the piece as one of Britain’s elder musical statesmen.
Jeremy Dibble © 2019