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ClassicsOnline Home » STANFORD: Clarinet Sonata / Piano Trio No. 3 / 2 Fantasies
At the height of his career Sir Charles Stanford held a leading position in British music, not only as a teacher of many of the most important composers of the new generation, but as one of the most significant British composers – the other was Sir Hubert Parry – to have emerged immediately before Elgar. Chiefly remembered today for his Irish Rhapsodies, Seven Symphonies and Clarinet Concerto, Stanford composed many chamber works, including several for clarinet written in what might be described as a ‘Brahmsian’ idiom. The Piano Trio No. 3, the last of three which span Stanford’s mature career, was written as a tribute to friends lost in the First World War.
By David Denton
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Music for Clarinet • Piano Trio No. 3
Born in Dublin in 1852 into an Irish Protestant family, Charles Villiers Stanford was the son of a distinguished lawyer. Brought up in a cultured home background, he showed early exceptional musical ability, and was allowed by his father, who had intended his son for the law, to contemplate a musical career, supported by earlier more conventional studies. In 1870 Stanford went to Cambridge, with a classical scholarship to Queens' College, where he was also awarded an organ scholarship. While his performance as a classical scholar may have lacked distinction, he won a considerable reputation for himself as a musician, becoming organist at Trinity College in 1873 and serving as a choral conductor. After his graduation in 1874, Stanford, as planned, left for Germany, while retaining his position as organist in Cambridge through the help of deputies. His choice, on the advice of Sterndale Bennett, was to study music in Leipzig, where he spent two years as a pupil of Reinecke, before, now on the advice of Joachim, moving to Berlin, where, to greater profit, he was a pupil of Friedrich Kiel. Stanford's period of study in Germany was to be followed by a career in which German influences remained important, as a composer with the example of Brahms, while Joseph Joachim remained an important friend for many years. It was often in Germany that Stanford sought to have his works performed, particularly his operas, which had a better chance of staging there than in England.
In Cambridge Stanford had secured his reputation as an organist from the start of his career there. His position as conductor of the Cambridge University Music Society, to which he had been elected in 1873, provided an opportunity for the performance of his own compositions and for the encouragement of others. Eventually, in 1887, he was to be appointed Professor of Music at Cambridge, a position he held with that of Professor of Composition at the newly established Royal College of Music in London, the latter employment held jointly with Hubert Parry. His responsibilities at the Royal College included shared conductorship of the orchestra. Stanford, with his bases in Cambridge and London, and his involvement with major musical activities in England, held a leading position in the life of the country. His influence as a teacher was incalculable. The list of his pupils contains the names of many of the principal British composers of the twentieth century, from Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst to Frank Bridge and Arthur Bliss. Abroad he won a reputation, notably in Germany through the connections he had made there over the years, with first performances that included the première in Hanover in 1881 of his opera The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, and of Savonarola, denied a proper performance in London through litigation over the use of an English libretto, in Hamburg in 1884. In opera, indeed, he did much to further his ambitions for viable opera in London, helped through his innovations in this field at the Royal College of Music.
Stanford enjoyed the height of his fame as a composer in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth. Knighted in 1902, by 1914 his reputation had started to fade, and his music began to seem old-fashioned. He had made significant and lasting additions and reforms to the repertoire of Anglican church music, with anthems and service settings, but in his orchestral music the example of Schumann and Brahms had always remained of importance. There was also, however, a strong Irish element that found overt expression in six Irish Rhapsodies, an Irish Concertino, in his 'Irish' Symphony of 1887, the third of his seven symphonies, and in many of his vocal works. His Irish loyalties, however, did not extend to any sympathy with Republicans, and he was deeply opposed to Irish home rule, let alone any ideas of further independence.
The earliest of the works recorded here, the Three Intermezzi for clarinet and piano, Op. 13, were written towards the end of 1879 and first performed at a Cambridge University Musical Society concert in February 1880 by Stanford with Francis Galpin, then an undergraduate at Trinity, librarian of the Musical Society and organ pupil of Sterndale Bennett. Galpin was ordained in the Church of England in 1883 and went on to combine his ecclesiastical duties with a study of musical instruments. His distinctive and wide-ranging contribution to organology was recognised after his death in 1945 by the creation of the Galpin Society, which continues his work. The publisher of the Intermezzi offered the three pieces as for violin (or clarinet) and piano, but Stanford was quite clear about his own intentions in his idiomatic writing for the clarinet in works that anticipate Brahms's clarinet works by over ten years. The first Intermezzo, in B flat major, has a livelier contrasting middle section. The second, in D minor, has a middle section marked Tranquillo and in B flat major, finding occasional use for Brahmsian cross-rhythms, and the third, in C minor, makes characteristic use of clarinet arpeggios in the C major middle section, with its arpeggiated piano chords.
The other works date from relatively late in Stanford's career. His Clarinet Sonata, Op. 129, was completed in 1911 and dedicated to the clarinettists Oscar Street, a pupil of George Clinton, and Charles Draper, who had been a pupil of Henry Lazarus. Street combined his work as a solicitor with orchestral-playing, while Draper had been the soloist in Stanford's Clarinet Concerto in 1903 and gave the first performance of the sonata in 1916 with Stanford's former pupil Thomas Dunhill, as part of a chamber music series arranged by the latter. The sonata, with distinct echoes of Brahms, starts with a sonata-form movement, with a third theme in A flat major that is alluded to once more in the final section. The slow movement, with the title Caoi n e (Keen), an Irish lament, marked Adagio (quasi Fantasia), allows the clarinet to explore its possibilities in runs and arpeggios, while the piano from time to time echos the Irish harp in its arpeggiated chords. Brahms returns in the final Allegretto grazioso in which the opening rhythmic motif assumes some importance, and a secondary theme makes use of the lower register of the clarinet. The movement ends in hushed tranquillity.
By 1918, the date of his Piano Trio No. 3, Op. 158, 'Per aspera ad astra', musical fashions had changed and Stanford was finding that there was no longer a market, at least for his more ambitious compositions. Financial needs necessitated further work, and he seems to have felt rightly embittered at the poor material reward for his manifold services to British music. At the same time he made no attempt to hide his views on contemporary musical trends. The score of the Piano Trio, completed in April 1918, eventually contained the initials of two of the sons of Alan Gray, his successor as organist at Trinity and as conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society, both of whom had been killed during the last months of the war. Tightly constructed, the Trio opens with a movement marked Allegro moderato ma con fuoco, its dramatic opening leading to the first of two themes that dominate the movement. The F major Adagio, with its contrasting middle section, is followed by a final A major Allegro maestoso e moderato in which counterpoint has its part, notably in a 6/4 quasi-fugal section before the final coda.
The two Fantasies, for clarinet and string quartet, were written in October 1921 and January 1922 respectively, it has been suggested for student performance at the Royal College (qv. Jeremy Dibble, Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician, Oxford, 2002). They were published in 1996. The Fantasies are both in three movements, perhaps to be played without a break. The first starts with a G minor march, to which the clarinet enters in syncopation. The E flat major Andante is followed by a lively final movement that eventually makes its way to the key of G major. The second of the two links the movements with thematic material from the first movement, which returns after the quasi-scherzo of the third movement, with its contrasting Trio section. Both works are evidence of Stanford's continued interest in the clarinet, to the repertoire of which he had made such significant contributions.
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