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‘A great musician’: Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

28 March 2024

The composer Charles Villiers Stanford, whose Anglican cathedral music is still a mainstay of the repertoire, died 100 years ago. His anniversary falls this Good Friday. On the centenary, in 1952, of his birth, the Church Times rose to meet a challenge to his posthumous reputation with this assessment by Henry G. Ley

Herbert Lambert

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford

LAST Tuesday, September 30 [1952], was the centenary of the birth of Charles Villiers Stanford, whose service to music, and especially Church music, deserves remembrance. Two recent articles in The Times have spoken, somewhat pontifically, of his compositions as outmoded. The very able music critic of The Times may live to repent his opinion. It was rebuked in a weighty letter to The Times from Dr. Herbert Howells and Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, OM. But The Times critic persists. We are glad to print below a constructive appraisement of Stanford’s work by Dr. Henry G. Ley, formerly organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and Precentor and Director of Music at Eton College.


CENTENARIES come and go. They rightly focus attention on distinguished men who have had, in one way or another, considerable influence on their generation. Stanford was the youngest of the three “firebrands” of the 1870’s — the others being Parry and Mackenzie.

Stanford made a substantial addition to the long traditions of English Church music, and may well be considered the successor of S. S. Wesley. Whilst Wesley’s artistic outlook was bounded by the cathedral choir, Stanford brought new life to Church music, because he moved in a far wider world. As Bairstow said, “English Church music has so often suffered in the past, because it was chiefly composed by men who were Church musicians and organists first, and composers second.”

The well-established Te Deum in B Flat, e.g., was spoken of by a contemporary as the first real composition of this type; i.e. it had musical form in the development of salient themes, and was not merely a somewhat detached and expressive rendering of devotional words, lacking in a real sense of continuity. The technique of a symphonic structure is applied here without transgressing the limits of time imposed by liturgical worship.


Wearing well

This mastery of design is exemplified in all his other liturgical settings, which stand up in a remarkable way to that supreme test of all music — constant repetition. It would indeed be difficult to find a weekly cathedral list to-day without some work of Stanford’s on it. Of his various anthems, The Lord is my Shepherd, written over seventy years ago, is by general consent outstanding.

In this centenary year of Stanford’s birth, it may be well to draw attention to some of his other anthems, such as And I saw another angel, suitable for Saints’ Days; O Living will that shalt endure, an unaccompanied four-part setting of words from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, showing his technique in vocal writing at its very best; Ye choirs of New Jerusalem, suitable for Easter; and his last anthem, written during the first war, Lo, I raise up that bitter and hasty nation. Needing a large choir and a good organ, it is admirably suitable for a festival of combined choirs. The three Latin “Grace” anthems, written for Trinity College, Cambridge, are also worthy of note; the last, Beati quorum via, being now widely used.

Special mention must be made of the magnificent Gloria in Excelsis (from the Festal Communion Service in B Flat) which Stanford wrote, with full orchestral accompaniment, for the Coronation of King George V. It was also performed at the last Coronation.


Victorian spirit

With the possible exception of Henry Purcell, beside whom he lies buried in Westminster Abbey with the simple inscription “a great musician”, Stanford must surely be accounted one of the most versatile of all composers. Among his large output, there are works, especially instrumental, which may only reveal the skilled craftsman. To see it at its very best, however, look at The Revenge; the Stabat Mater; his songs; part songs such as Heraclitus or The Blue Bird; or his sensitive and unusual treatment of the Magnificat as The Song of Mary at the Spinning Wheel and the Nunc Dimittis as The Song of Simeon.

His pupil, Vaughan Williams, has said of him: “His music is in the best sense of the word Victorian, i.e., it is the musical counterpart of the art of Tennyson, Watts and Matthew Arnold.”

Stanford, both for his compositions, and for the work he and his contemporaries achieved in raising the status of musicians, is to be remembered with enduring gratitude.

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