Born into an upper-middle-class family in Dublin in 1852, Charles Villiers Stanford received the core of his musical education in the organ lofts of the Irish capital’s two cathedrals of Christ Church and St Patrick’s. An organ scholarship to Queen’s College, Cambridge in 1870 enabled him to spread his wings, and migration to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1873 allowed even greater scope with its choir school and expanding choir of boys and men. Church music was therefore in Stanford’s blood from a tender age and it was one of many idioms in which he shone as a composer. Perhaps more importantly, Stanford’s cosmopolitan outlook allowed him to develop and experiment with traditional Anglican forms. Through the agencies of symphonic treatment and modern instrumental forms, the canticle, anthem, hymn and psalm were transformed in his hands while remaining (and therein lies the miracle) within the parameters of time restriction imposed by the liturgy. Even more astounding is the sheer range, quality and originality he was able to bring to these works throughout his career, well after he gave up employment as a church musician in 1892. Read more
The setting of Isaac Watts’s well known cradle song, ‘Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber’
, is an adaptation by Philip Moore of Stanford’s setting of Thomas Dekker’s song ‘Golden Slumbers’ Op. 19 No. 2 of 1882. The simple diatonic lullaby ‘charm’, which forms the basis of this gem, is disrupted only by the insertion of a hemiola (‘do not cry’), a vocal climax of reassurance (‘and I will sing you a lullaby’) and calming subdominant colour, especially marked in the final bars.
Completed in January 1883, the Easter anthem, ‘If ye then be risen with Christ’ takes its text from Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians (Chapter 3, verses 1-4) and is based on the well-known Easter hymn SALISBURY whose familiar Hallelujah ‘refrain’ permeates much of the organ accompaniment throughout. Cast in ternary form, a central, quicker paragraph (‘Set you affection on things above’) in the flat submediant is more dramatic and tonally exploratory. The recapitulation, highly typical of Stanford’s symphonic mindset, begins in the same manner as the opening, but its conclusion is extended, giving way to a more substantial contrapuntal, imitative coda based on the hymn tune and its text (‘Hallelujah’). This is a fine anthem which deserves to be better known.
The Lord is my shepherd, described by Howells as ‘one of the supremely lovely anthems of all our history’. was completed in May 1886 and is one Stanford’s finest examples of musical prose. His technique of overlapping irregular phraseology, gleaned from Brahms, gives the overall musical fabric a seamless quality. This is impressively essayed in the pastoral sonata scheme of the first section and in the more contrapuntal finale (‘But thy loving kindness’). Stanford’s tonal thinking is equally imaginative. After firmly establishing F major in the much larger first part, the choral recitative provides both tonal and textural contrast with a shift to D minor (‘Thou shalt prepare a table’). A continuation of this tonal area, modally altered to D major accompanies the beginning of the finale; but this is in fact only preparation for a return to F major, a move which both heightens the sense of tonal return but at the same time enhances the textual meaning (‘And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’). Stanford’s coda, which elusively recalls the opening material, is also deliciously romantic with its yearning appoggiaturas.
Of all Stanford’s anthems and motets, the Three Latin Motets Op. 38 are his most regularly sung. Though published by Boosey in 1905 and dedicated to Alan Gray (who succeeded Stanford at Trinity), they were composed at a much earlier date. In a letter of 25 November 1891 we know that they were in the hands of Alfred Littleton at Novello. ‘Don’t forget to send my Latin introits back if you don’t want to publish them,’ Stanford requested; ‘I have no other scores, and we use them pretty frequently.’ We know too that ‘Justorum animae’ was sung in Trinity chapel on at least two occasions (24 February 1888 and 24 February 1892 on the Feast of St Matthias, apostle and martyr). In his book English Cathedral Music from Edward VI to Edward VII (first published in 1941), Edmund Fellowes states that these motets were written as anthems to be sung in the Hall of Trinity College on ‘Gaudy Days’ (Feast Days), but the latter term is peculiar to Oxford and not Cambridge. However, it was the chapel choir’s duty to sing grace in hall at Trinity and it is possible that one or more of the motets were sung on special feast days. ‘Justorum animae’ (‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God’) is a setting of the famous lines from the third chapter (vv. 1-3) of the Book of Wisdom. Stanford’s concise ternary structure is based on the theme of eternal peace, a sentiment which frames a more turbulent central section that moves increasingly to the flat side. The truncated and modified recapitulation, replete with reharmonisation and descant, is Stanford at his most affecting. A ternary design also frames the medieval hymn ‘Ceolos ascendit hodie’ celebrating Christ’s ascension. An exercise in antiphonal exchange for double choir, the motet’s sense of jubilation is captured in the concluding ‘Amen’, whose melody, issuing from a unison E, ‘ascends’ by step the interval of a tenth to an exultant G natural on the way to the final, euphonious cadence. For the small amount of text used for ‘Beati quorum via’ (Psalm 119, v. 1), Stanford makes fertile use of sonata principles, not least in the exquisitely understated recapitulation where the original alternation of upper and lower voices is transformed into a richer, polyphonic texture. The imitative accumulation of voices in the coda is also quite lovely.
Stanford’s tune ENGLEBERG was composed for the 1904 edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern to William Walsham How*’s ‘For all the saints who from their labours rest’. In many ways Stanford’s tune seems to foreshadow his pupil Vaughan Williams’s SINE NOMINE (which appeared in the EH for the first time two years later) with its three-note anacrusis at the opening, its variegation of verses in unison and harmony, and its muscular diatonicism. The tune has numerous sophisticated features including the importance of the organ part, the strophic variation of the eight verses (which are harmonised differently throughout), the division of some unison verses for high and low voices, a succession unusual irregular three-bar phrases, and each verse concludes (with the exception of the last) on the dominant, an open-ended factor which requires the succeeding verse to ‘resolve’ the cadence. This feature, above all, gives the hymn a sense of seamless continuity which concludes only with the final cadence.
The Service in C Op. 115 (published by Stainer & Bell in 1909) was Stanford’s last major setting of the Morning, Communion and Evening Canticles. It is also without doubt his most cohesive attempt in terms of thematic concentration and cyclic unity. The Te Deum introduces what are the three most important thematic germs of the entire service: the first, an idea (‘We praise thee, O God’) that rises and falls conjunctly through a tetrachord (a); the second, a figure (‘The glorious company of the Apostles’) marked ‘Alla marcia’ (b) in E flat that emulates the motion of (a); a third idea (c) forms the accompaniment to a section in A (‘When thou tookest upon thee’). The form of the Te Deum is also tightly-knit in terms of tonal and thematic interaction. The first major paragraph, in C major, is ternary in design in which the material of (a) frames a central presentation of (b) in E flat. A secondary paragraph, using (c), contrasts in A. This yields to a third section in E flat (‘We therefore pray thee’) where a new lyrical idea is initiated by the trebles. The tonal centre of E flat conveniently leads to a restatement of (b) but quickly this gives way, first to an allusion to A minor (‘O Lord, have mercy upon us’) and then to an expansive recapitulation of (a) as the final affirmation of faith. The Benedictus is more thematically independent from the Te Deum but nevertheless bears a strong allusion through the tonal organisation (C/E flat) of its two abundantly lyrical ideas. The character of a fanfare is assigned to the concluding Gloria (which shows an inventive use of the juxtaposition of root position chords), though it is the material of (a), first fragmented (‘world without end’) and finally as a whole (‘Amen’) in the last ecstatic utterance.
Stanford’s six Bible Songs Op. 113 (first performed by his fellow Irishman and future biographer, Harry Plunket Greene), for voice and organ, are designed principally for the church rather than the concert room. The more ambitious solo ‘verses’ in S. S. Wesley’s anthems (one thinks particularly of ‘Thou, O Lord God, art a thing that I long for’ from Let us lift up our heart) spring to mind as a precedent and it was repertoire he knew well and greatly admired. However, the more elaborate conception of the organ part (which has more in common with his orchestral songs) together with the scale of gesture and tonal organisation tends to suggest the idea of a miniature cantata rather than a song. As if to reinforce this cantata-like impression, Stanford composed a set of Six Hymns (sometimes known as short anthems, published by Stainer & Bell in 1910) which could be individually appended to each song. Based on well-known hymns of the day their intention, in an almost Lutheran, not to say Bachian manner, was to comment theologically on the scriptural meditation of the preceding song whose theme is made explicit in the title. The text of A Song of Wisdom (No. 6) is taken from the book of Ecclesiasticus (Chapter 24), the most extensive portion of Israelite wisdom literature in the Bible. Stanford’s textual adaptation on the poetical discourse on the virtue of wisdom and the Lord as its bountiful source, gives a freedom to his through-composed musical design: an opening paragraph is framed in E flat major (‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High’), after which a more tonally dissolute section (‘And I took root in a people that was glorified’ – verses 12-17) leads to the climax of a top B flat (‘Come unto me, ye that are desirous’ – v. 19). A third section in which the growth of the stream to a river, and the river to a sea, aptly mirrored in the imagery of the organ accompaniment, is likened to the limitless bounds of wisdom. The last eleven bars recapitulate the first two lines of text, though this time the mood is one of triumphant acclamation. The last of the ‘Hymns’, Oh! for a closer walk with God, taken from the Scottish Psalter (1635) with words by W. Cowper, is the most original of the six. Using three verses (1, 3 and 5) from the original five, Stanford constructs a chorale-prelude-like fantasia of strophic variations around the melody in which the diversification of harmony, phrase-length, register and counterpoint becomes increasingly intricate. This is especially edifying in the last verse whose phrase ‘Calm and serene my frame’ must be one of Stanford’s most enchanting phrases.
The setting of Psalm 150 (‘O Praise God in his Holiness’) was first published in the New Cathedral Psalter Chants by Novello in 1909. Constructed in Anglican chant form, Stanford still brings to bear his penchant for variation in the changing forces of delivery within the choir as well as the inspiring modulations. The anthem for harvest, ‘Come ye thankful people, come’, used Henry Alford’s famous text first published in Psalms and Hymns, adapted to the Sundays and Holydays throughout the year of 1844 made famous through George Elvey’s tune ST GEORGE’S, WINDSOR.
‘For lo, I raise up’ Op. 145, Stanford’s most dramatic anthem, was composed in 1914 though not published until 1939. Through the analogy of Habakkuk’s prophetic writings, Stanford sought to express his own sense of horror at the outbreak of the First World War, of its needless destruction and of future deliverance, and what he saw as Germany’s incomprehensible aggression. This is powerfully evident in the first part of the anthem, set in F minor, in which the restless choral lines are tossed about by a the turbulent (quasi-orchestral) organ accompaniment. Yet, although initially Habakkuk’s text (taken from chapters one and two) is infused with a sense of woe, its conclusion is concerned with hope and the fulfilment of God’s purpose. In the certainty that all enemies shall be vanquished with the establishment of God’s order, Habakkuk’s message is one of consolation, a sentiment that is affirmed in Stanford’s climactic cadential phrase ‘We shall not die’. Building on this declaration of spiritual confidence the momentum increases, animated by a sense of divine destiny (‘The vision is yet for the appointed time’) and an impassioned acclamation of faith (‘For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge and the glory of the Lord’) which is tempered only by the sudden and compelling stillness of the coda (‘But the Lord is in his holy temple’). Here the memories of violence and dread are dissolved in a vision of peace and awe.
(Jeremy Dibble, 2014)