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  • Challenging History's Memory:C. V. Stanford and the Feis Ceoil
  • Adèle Commins (bio)

Composer, conductor, and pedagogue Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) is a central figure in the history and narratives of the establishment of the Feis Ceoil, founded in 1895 and now Ireland's largest annual competition for classical-music performance. Although Stanford served only briefly as president of the organization before resigning, this essay will argue that his role was significant, complex, and longstanding, a fact not developed in existing scholarship on Stanford or the Feis Ceoil. Born in Dublin, Stanford was afforded a rich musical education, with both parents active in music circles in the city. As a young boy he met many professional visiting musicians who called in to the Stanford home, and he received lessons from a number of Dublin's eminent musicians, among them Robert Prescott Stewart (1825–94). Exposure to a vibrant music scene in Dublin through concerts and experiences at the cathedrals gave the young musician a solid musical foundation. Stanford left Ireland in 1870 to pursue studies at Cambridge University and remained in England for the rest of his life. While a student of classics, he was deeply involved in the musical life of the university as organist, pianist, accompanist, musical director, and conductor. Shortly afterward he spent time in Europe taking composition and piano lessons in Leipzig and Berlin. These periods in Europe were to have a lasting impact on his musical style as a composer. Upon his return to England he soon settled into English musical life, earning appointments as professor at both Cambridge University and the Royal College of Music, London. He also worked steadily as a musical director, conductor, and composer, quickly becoming one of the leading figures in the British musical renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, acknowledged by a knighthood in 1902. While his compositional output was large and included pieces for all instruments and forces, his [End Page 137] music began to fall out of favor with critics and audiences toward the end of the nineteenth century. Notwithstanding harsh critical commentary, he continued to compose right up until his death in 1924.

Stanford's musical and compositional worldview was firmly rooted in the European classical-music tradition; however, he maintained cultural and musical links with Ireland and asserted his cultural Irishness in his creative outputs and ongoing commitment to music in Ireland. This was evident in his use of Irish folk songs and Irish themes in compositions and editing of a number of collections of folk melodies, although his Irishness and potential role as a national composer is a matter of some debate (White, Progress; Hunt; Klein; Murphy). After leaving Dublin, Stanford kept close ties with eminent figures in Ireland, including Annie Patterson (1868–1934) and Alfred Perceval Graves (1846–1931), and he was active in the Irish Literary Society, founded in London in 1892. Importantly for this discussion, he maintained an interest in the development of the Feis Ceoil movement from its inception until his death. Although his engagement with Irish themes may have aided his popularity as a composer in America, a country to which he never traveled (Commins), Axel Klein believes that Stanford was "too Irish for the English, too English for the Irish, and too German for both," which perfectly summarizes the situation Stanford found himself in as a voluntary exile working in England and trying to forge a reputation for himself in his adopted country (145). While Patterson viewed Stanford as a leading Irish composer, writers in England referred to Stanford variously as British, English, or Irish when critiquing his abilities and achievements, including his role in the British musical renaissance: George Bernard Shaw often referred to Stanford's Irishness, John Alexander Fuller-Maitland referred to Stanford as British, and Charles Willeby referred to his Englishness (Shaw 25; Fuller-Maitland 11; Willeby 1893).

Any assessment of Stanford's relationship with the Feis Ceoil must therefore problematize the complexities of his national, cultural, and musical allegiances and his roles as president (1895–96), advisor, adjudicator, and overall supporter of the organization. An acknowledgment of these are absent from the first biography, compiled by...