Remembering Stanford

Finghin Collins and Sharon Carty performing in Galway last weekend (Photo: Mike Shaughnessy)

Remembering Stanford

Music for Galway's annual Midwinter Festival took place last weekend (21–23 January) and focused on the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford. James Camien McGuiggan reviews.

Music for Galway is gaining a reputation for highly specific festival programmes. Last year the festival focused entirely on Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ variations, and in 2019 the theme was composers’ final works. The festival, under artistic director Finghin Collins, is continuing this fine tradition with what might be the largest ever festival dedicated to the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924).

Stanford is relatively forgotten nowadays, despite being a well-regarded composer in his own time: he was professor of composition in the Royal College of Music for forty years, composing in most classical genres, and his church music is still important in the Anglican ecclesiastical repertoire. He was also a teacher of some renown, and this is an important theme in this year’s festival too, which includes works from some of his many illustrious students.

The five chamber concerts that comprise the musical strand of this festival range from the generation before Stanford to the generation after. Robert Schumann, an important influence on Stanford and a composer who shares his lyricism, is represented; so is Brahms, who informed Stanford’s compositional and pedagogical method. We also heard from Carl Reinecke, under whom Stanford studied, though apparently Stanford found him overly conservative. Stanford himself was of course represented heavily. Of his students, though, there was a curious lacuna: Holst is entirely absent, and Vaughan Williams is represented only by a short song. But in their place we heard from a range of under-performed composers, including two women (Rebecca Clarke and Muriel Herbert) and the black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and in my opinion this was by far the more interesting programming choice.

This was especially so because of how good the music was. From Clarke, we had a selection of modern, sensitively set songs as well as her colourful and individual Sonata for Viola and Piano (1919). Herbert was also represented by her songs, which were striking in their limpidity and lability. We also heard Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet (1906) and a song, two songs by Charles Wood, and William Hurlstone’s Phantasie for String Quartet (1905).

We heard quite a few works from Coleridge-Taylor, the last of Stanford’s students represented: his Clarinet Quintet (1895), written when he was only twenty years old, two of his Four African Dances (1904), and his most famous work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898). In these works, we see plenty of Coleridge-Taylor’s own talent and personality, but he was also Stanford’s student by the time he wrote the earliest of these works, and it is instructive to compare his work to Stanford’s other students. In particular, Stanford was widely acknowledged as a master of orchestration, and it must have been because of him that his students share their preternatural command of musical colour. (Their orchestration shares more than just competence: they also share a style that musicologist Wayne Shirley has referred to as ‘the approved British manner’, and I share the reservations in that appellation.)

Stanford’s own mastery of orchestration is on clear display in this festival. His late Fantasy No. 1 (1921) for clarinet and string quartet is remarkably well balanced, but more dramatically, his Nonet, Op. 95 (1905) combines diverse instruments into a perfectly unified whole that is nevertheless delightfully variegated, and which effortlessly maintains momentum over its half-hour duration. Curiously, another piece performed at the festival, his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 129 (1911), has a middle movement marked ‘caoine’, but I confess I could discern only the faintest touch of ‘Irishness’ in the music, despite the programme notes’ assurance and Stanford’s own documented interest in Irish traditional music. This movement, as all Stanford’s work, owes infinitely more to the European Romantic tradition and British taste than it does to Irish traditional music. Finally, I was quite struck by his Sixth String Quartet, Op. 122 (1910), which is probably my favourite work of his in the programme. This is a rigorously constructed work, as you’d expect, but it surprised me by how enthralling and dramatic it was too.

Responsive to every line
The performances were superb throughout. Of particular note is mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty, who sang both Clarke’s and Herbert’s songs with clarity and power, but also, and most impressively, with a subtle responsiveness to the particular character of every line she sang. John Finucane, who played the many clarinet parts, and the ConTempo quartet, who played in most concerts as a quartet as well as individually, were all wonderfully flexible, blending perfectly in all their configurations. Coleridge-Taylor’s
Clarinet Quintet, written when he himself was a student, was performed by a student quartet from the RIAM, and though this was certainly a student performance, the musicians brought fantastic energy and urgency to the piece. I commend the decision to include some student performers, especially in a festival dedicated to a composer to whom education was as important as it was to Stanford. But most of all, Finghin Collins himself put in an almighty shift, playing in every single concert on top of his duties as artistic director, and always springy and warm, even when playing music as difficult and as delicate as Brahms and Herbert.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the festival in person, and so I missed the Saturday afternoon concert, which was the only concert not available to watch online, and so I cannot speak to it. The online streams themselves were the weakest part of the festival: the audio and video recording quality was mediocre, not helped by a low electric buzz throughout.

The other strand of the festival was more academic. Because not many people know the first thing about Stanford any more, it was evidently deemed wise to programme two lectures by musicologist Jeremy Dibble, author of Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician (2002), one of the key biographies of Stanford. The first was an overview of Stanford’s life, and the second was a who’s-who of his more famous students. Riveting they were not, not at any rate to those who don’t find history intrinsically interesting, but they did a great job of contextualising Stanford and of making the festival a more well-rounded appreciation.

Finally, there were two films by director Charles Kaufman: the premiere of a rather messy five-minute film in which the composer Nicholas Bosanquet recounts his and Robert Honeysucker’s arrest after protesting segregation of concert halls in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963; and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and His Music in America, 1900–1912 (2013). I was unsure what this rather strange documentary was doing in a festival dedicated to Stanford, but it is a strangely enthralling essay that I was glad to have watched.

This year’s Midwinter Festival gave us a picture of a historical moment – Stanford’s mature period, and the confident (or self-satisfied) British compositional language that he typified – and allows us to peer beyond it and past it, to the cultural milieu that supported it and to whence it came and whither it led. Nothing is in this festival that does not contribute to creating this picture, and nothing is missing that could have made this picture more vivid. To those who are not fans of Stanford, or who think festivals should work in new music, no sop is given, but I found the rigour of the programming itself remarkable and invigorating. This, combined with the consistently superb contributions of all the performers, made the festival yet another success for Music for Galway.


Published on 27 January 2022

James Camien McGuiggan studied music in Maynooth University and has a PhD in the philosophy of art from the University of Southampton. He is currently an independent scholar.

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