Reclaiming Stanford 

Guest post written by Harry White, our Irish Music Studies series editor.

Twenty-two years ago, when Jeremy Dibble first published his acclaimed biography of Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), Stanford’s artistic reputation remained fugitive and insecure. Now, in the centenary year of his death, the publication of Dibble’s revised and expanded Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician as a volume in the Irish Musical Studies series signifies that he is no longer a forgotten figure.  

In the interim, a host of recordings, editions and performances of Stanford’s music (many of which have involved Dibble himself) happily attest a livelier reception for the composer than was the case for much of the twentieth century. Stanford, in a phrase, is back in town. New productions of his operas, including The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, The Travelling Companion, Shamus O’Brien and The Critic in the UK and Ireland have allowed a much better sense of Stanford’s theatrical enterprises than had been the case for almost a century. The increased circulation in Britain of both recordings and live performances of his major instrumental works, notably his symphonies, Irish rhapsodies and piano concertos (in addition to much of his chamber music), has redeemed Stanford from his hitherto forlorn status as a faded Victorian eminence, overtaken by the lustre and prestige of Elgar, to say little of his pupils and successors. A new recording in 2023 of Stanford’s Requiem (arguably his greatest masterpiece) with Martyn Brabbins and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has vitally renewed and refreshed Stanford’s reputation as a writer of choral-orchestral music of the very first rank. No less a figure than Giuseppe Verdi applauded the Requiem as the work of a ‘master’ a year after it was first given in 1897, an acclamation that gives the lie to later assessments of Stanford’s compositional prowess, notably Arnold Bax’s surly verdict in Farewell, My Youth (1943) that Stanford’s musical imagination had been ‘smothered in the outer darkness of Brahms’.  

It nevertheless remains the case that Stanford lies at one remove from the narrative of Irish cultural history. Despite Stanford’s lifelong engagement with Irish music as a composer, as an editor, as an arranger and on one memorable occasion as first President of the Irish Feis Ceoil in 1897 (a post from which he unhappily resigned), his Irish reception history has been a muted one. One might expect that such major works as the Piano Quintet (1886), the Irish Symphony (1887), the Irish Rhapsodies (1902-1922) and the second Piano Concerto (1915) would by now enjoy a degree of circulatory attention and performance in Ireland comparable to the reception afforded to the stage works of Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw, to instance two close contemporaries of Stanford’s who have long since been reclaimed as part of the Irish cultural canon. Stanford, by comparison, has not been thus recovered, and although his music has on occasion been brilliantly recorded in Ireland (as in Finghin Collins’s superb reading of the second Piano Concerto with the late Kenneth Montgomery and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra in 2011), it is difficult to escape the impression that the greater part of Stanford’s astonishingly prolific catalogue has yet to receive the attention it surely deserves in the country of his birth.  

There are reasonable grounds to suggest a somewhat better future for Stanford in Ireland, as in the recent series of three concerts of his chamber music curated by Collins at the National Concert Hall, Dublin (in March 2024) to mark the centenary of Stanford’s death, the forthcoming production of his opera The Critic at the Wexford Opera Festival (in October 2024) and the ongoing activities of the UK/Ireland Stanford society to promote a more pervasive understanding of Stanford’s cultural and artistic significance. But until Irish classical music is much more centrally engaged within the educational and cultural infrastructures of Irish life than is presently the case, Stanford, alas, will remain a somewhat peripheral figure in Ireland, at least by comparison with his literary counterparts. In the meantime, the publication of Jeremy Dibble’s revised biography of the composer, which so compellingly and persuasively addresses both Stanford’s seminal role in the reanimation of British musical life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the structural intelligence and imaginative mastery of his creative estate, could scarcely be more opportune. In particular, Dibble’s assessment of Stanford’s explicitly Irish works and his sensitive appraisal of the composer’s own admixture of staunch unionism and yet passionate Irishness represent a decisive contribution to Irish musical and cultural history alike. To read this book is to understand why Stanford matters, and why his reclamation as an Irish composer is so important.  

HARRY WHITE is a series editor for Irish Music Studies.

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