Notes 60.2 (2003) 456-458
[Access article in PDF]
Charles Villiers Stanford. By Paul Rodmell. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002. [xxi, 495 p. ISBN 1-85928-198-2. $99.95.] Music examples, illustrations, select list of works, bibliography, discography indexes.
The Anglo-Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) occupies an important place in the history of music in the British Isles. At the height of his fame, his operas and instrumental works were well received in Germany; he was an intimate of Joseph Joachim, Hans Richter, and other celebrated continental musicians; and his European connections extended to such figures as Johannes Brahms, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Sergey Rachmaninoff, the major works of whom he introduced to the English musical public. In Britain, he was renowned for his precocity and industry. Appointed organist of Trinity College, Cambridge, while still an undergraduate, he began producing major compositions by his early twenties, built the Cambridge University Music Society into a vital force in British music, and became Professor of Music at Cambridge in 1887. Other affiliations included the conductorships of the London Bach Choir and the Leeds Festival, and [End Page 456] (from 1883 until his death) the post of professor of composition at the Royal College of Music (RCM). In this last capacity, he left his mark on some of the most distinguished British musicians of the next two generations, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Arthur Bliss, and Frank Bridge among them. This considerable workload did not prevent him from composing prolifically: his catalog runs to 194 opus numbers with works in all genres, including nine operas (still other large-scale works are unnumbered).
Stanford thus stood at the very center of the English music of his time, and he played a pivotal role in the English musical renaissance around 1900. Yet he remains largely a forgotten figure, a shadowy presence inhabiting the margins of monographs on his more famous pupils, but rarely examined in his own right. Paul Rodmell has corrected this omission in his engaging new book on the composer, a standard life-and-works volume offering a general overview of Stanford's huge output as well as a portrait of his personality and times. Rodmell realizes this traditional format exceptionally well. He offers a thorough chronological survey of the works, but keeps the discussion moving forward by wisely varying the amount of detail given to each piece. A prefatory note justifies this on the grounds that a book of this kind must inevitably be "a starting point" (p. xx) for the study of Stanford's music; the examples that he does discuss are well chosen, and the points of more detailed analysis often rewarding. (There are ninety-nine music examples in the text, as well as a detailed worklist and discography.) The effort to bring Stanford's personality to light is more difficult, owing to the dearth of information about his private life. The author compensates for this with his skillful handling of the composer's writings and letters, as well as the accounts of him left by pupils and contemporaries—including his RCM colleague Hubert Parry, whose private diary is the source of much vivid information. Rodmell is particularly good at placing Stanford in his social milieu, specifically that of the declining Anglo-Irish ascendancy of mid-nineteenth century Dublin, a group whose isolation from the Catholic majority after the 1800 Act of Union engendered a strong social and political conservatism. Certainly this background helps explain Stanford's reactionary position on many issues of the day. One quibbles, however, with Rodmell's uncomplicated reading of the composer's attitude towards his own Anglo-Irish identity. It is undoubtedly true that Stanford's notorious irascibility and moodiness, even his pathetic moments of self-interest—admirably brought out by the author—are owing to his sensitivity as an artist, but it also seems possible to attribute these traits, at least in part, to the conflicted emotions and ideological paralysis that membership in a besieged elite may typically call forth.
Excellent as this first part of the book is, the second is even better. Moving beyond the...