Weeks after his 50th birthday in September 1902, Charles Villiers Stanford went to Buckingham Palace to be knighted, as part of Edward VII’s coronation honours list.

Who was Charles Villiers Stanford?

In 1902 Stanford already had seven operas, five symphonies, important choral works and a multitude of other compositions to his credit; a professor at both the Royal College of Music, London and the University of Cambridge, he was also in high demand as a conductor. As a new century opened, his standing within the British musical scene could scarcely have been higher.

A hundred years later, we encounter a very different verdict on his achievement. ‘Posterity has not so much neglected Sir Charles Villiers Stanford,’ wrote the Australian musicologist Robert Stove in 2003, ‘as derived malicious satisfaction from ostentatiously yawning in his face.’ Stove’s pithy words pinpoint an uncomfortable truth about Stanford: while he is recognised as a key mover and shaker of his era, his music has gradually become a byword for Victorian fustiness, worthy if ultimately inconsequential. How fair is this? Has the time come for a root-and-branch Stanford reappraisal?

One problem of assessing Stanford is the sheer quantity of music he wrote – well over 200 works, including operas, symphonies and large-scale choral pieces. These flowed from his pen prodigiously from an early age.

When was Charles Villiers Stanford born?

Born in 1852 to a well-off Dublin family, he was surrounded by music in his infancy. His father, a prominent lawyer, had ‘a magnificent bass voice of unusual compass’ and sang the title role in the Irish premiere of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 1847. His mother was an excellent amateur pianist, and noted down her four-year-old son’s first efforts at composition.

Where did Charles Villiers Stanford study?

By the age of 18 Stanford, though feted in Dublin cultural circles, was ready to broaden his horizons. In 1870 he went as an organ scholar to Queens’ College, Cambridge, immediately plunging himself into music-making activities there. He conducted choirs, joined committees and became the driving force behind a rejuvenated Cambridge University Music Society (CUMS). Demonstrating an ‘extraordinary stimulating power’ as a conductor, he led numerous concerts at CUMS and opened the way for women to join its choir. He also made several trips to Germany for further study, at one point meeting his idol Brahms.

When did Charles Villiers Stanford start composing?

Behind this ceaseless flurry of public activities, Stanford was now also producing substantial compositions. In 1876, when he was 23, his First Symphony came second in a competition mounted by the Alexandra Palace, London. Schumann and Brahms are obvious models, but the score’s many deftly individual touches and its tender slow movement place it well beyond accusations of slavish imitation.

A year later came The Veiled Prophet, his first opera, an exotic romance set in Persia and completed soon after his marriage in 1878. Stanford was also beginning to hit his stride as a composer of church music. In 1879 his Morning, Evening and Communion Service in B flat was first performed at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had been appointed organist five years previously. The setting’s incisiveness and melodic appeal blew a breath of fresh air through Anglican choral music.

By the early 1880s, when Stanford turned 30, his reputation as an all-round musician had grown exponentially – probably only Arthur Sullivan, whose Savoy operas with WS Gilbert were nearing a peak of popularity, ranked above him in terms of name recognition. So, no surprise that the Royal College of Music, newly established in 1883, snapped him up as a professor of composition and co-conductor of the college orchestra. He was, put simply, the brightest rising star in British music of that period.

Stanford the teacher

Stanford’s years of teaching at the Royal College – he also became professor of music at Cambridge in 1887 – were highly consequential. As a teacher, he was famously opinionated and dismissive. ‘Your music comes from hell,’ he told one hapless student. ‘Brahms and water, and more water than Brahms,’ he helpfully advised another. In person, he cut a ‘tall, dark, dour’ figure, and his broguish Irish accent no doubt further accentuated his intimidating impact.

And yet he brought other qualities to the table. ‘His direct judgment, his tightness of speech, his fury of integrity, these were what he gave to those who could digest them,’ the composer George Dyson later remembered. ‘He had within him a refining fire and was something of a true father to us all.’ Gurney, Howells, Bliss, Ireland, Clarke, Dyson, Moeran, Coleridge-Taylor, Holst and Vaughan Williams are among those who imbibed the Stanford medicine and went on to major careers as composers.

Throughout the four decades that he spent teaching, Stanford continued to produce a formidable number of his own compositions. His ‘Irish’ Symphony No. 3 of 1887, a strongly attractive work with a jig-like scherzo and finale, was performed to international acclaim (including at the New York Philharmonic under Mahler). The comic opera Shamus O’Brien (1896) ran for a remarkable 82 performances in London before touring in Britain, Ireland and New York. A year later, Stanford unveiled a large-scale choral Requiem rivalling Verdi’s in scope and ambition, and his atmospheric Songs of the Sea were a triumph at the 1904 Leeds Festival.

No wonder, therefore, that around this period Stanford and his fellow composer Hubert Parry were being hailed as the progenitors of an ‘English Musical Renaissance’, finally emancipating native composers from a suffocating Austro-Germanic influence and enabling them to speak in a distinctively national accent. But not everyone accepted this bullish analysis. George Bernard Shaw was particularly withering in his criticisms, deriding the safe conservatism of the ‘sham masterpieces’ Stanford and Parry allegedly created.

Why did Stanford fall out of favour?

The truth is that Stanford, for all his productivity as a composer, was never a cutting-edge musical innovator. He had little time for any composer after Wagner, and even Wagner he took in selective doses. So as a new century unravelled, Stanford’s music came gradually to be seen as irredeemably outmoded, stuck in the old ways and impervious to the new.

Stanford knew his reputation was waning, and occasionally his frustration surfaced. His attitude to Elgar, whose Enigma Variations had succeeded spectacularly at its premiere in 1899, was unpleasantly snobbish and condescending. More generally, though, he accepted that his days of natural dominance were over. ‘The younger generation is excellent,’ he wrote in 1901. ‘But,’ he added poignantly, ‘it should not in justice cut out entirely the men who prepared the way for them.’

Undaunted by a rising wave of competition, Stanford simply kept on composing. The set of six Irish Rhapsodies for orchestra he wrote from 1902-22 are one obvious highlight from this period. Masterfully orchestrated and packed with evocative melodies from his native land, they fuelled the argument that Stanford had turned too seldom to his inner Celt for inspiration and had cleaved too closely to his status as an establishment figure of English music. In 1910 he wrote The Blue Bird, a mellifluous partsong that became one of his most loved compositions. And in the war years, which distressed Stanford greatly, two more operas – The Critic (1915) and The Travelling Companion (1916) – were added, taking his overall tally of completed operas to nine.

When did Charles Villiers Stanford die?

But nothing could conceal the fact that by the time he died in March 1924, aged 71, Stanford had been upstaged by the successes of much younger composers, his erstwhile pupils Vaughan Williams and Holst among them.

Much of his own output was, The Musical Times’s obituarist noted, unknown to the wider public. Was his music therefore doomed to an enduring neglect and obscurity? The obituarist thought not. ‘We believe that a revival of the bigger Stanford works will take place,’ he wrote, ‘and that it will show him to be of greater stature than was evident to most musicians during his lifetime.’

That Stanford revival has never quite happened, despite the valiant efforts of record labels such as Hyperion and Chandos to make available high-quality recordings of his finest compositions. Yet as the centenary of his death beckons in 2024, there are signs of a fresh awakening of interest in his music. Excellent recordings of both the Requiem and his final opera The Travelling Companion have recently been issued, and in 2024 Retrospect Opera will release a complete Shamus O’Brien for the first time on record.

Perhaps these and other releases will stimulate fresh interest in a man whose music, at its humane and melodious best, has much balm and uplift to offer to our troubled century. The total of his life achievement was immense, and movingly recognised at his funeral in Westminster Abbey. There, he was buried in the north choir aisle near Purcell. ‘Born 30th September 1852, died 29th March 1924,’ his gravestone reads. ‘A great musician.’

Illustration © Matt Herring


Terry BlainJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Terry Blain is a classical music journalist and broadcaster, writing for BBC Music Magazine, Opera magazine, Star Tribune, Culture NI et al.