Even those listeners with little more than a
nodding acquaintance of Stanford's music may have reflected that
the works they know often seem to have a doppelgänger
elsewhere in his vast output. In a few cases, both of the paired
works are well-known; "Songs of the Sea", op.91 (1904) and "Songs
of the Fleet", op.117 (1910) are an obvious case. Most organists
will know the two sets of "Six Short Preludes and Postludes",
opp.101 and 105 (1907 and 1908); many choirmasters will have noticed
that "The Blue Bird" is from one set of eight partsongs to words
by Mary Coleridge, while "When Mary thro' the Garden Went" is
from another (opp.119 and 127; 1910 and 1911).
Does this just mean that, when Stanford knew
he was onto a good thing, he didn't mind repeating it? A quick
skim through his catalogue of works might suggest that this was
indeed the case. We find the highly successful "Revenge", op.24
(1886) joined by another swashbuckling sea-ballad, "The Battle
of the Baltic", op.41 (1891); following the international success
of the third Symphony (the "Irish", op.28, 1887) he produced another
barely a year later (the 4th, op.31); his earlier partsong production
saw three sets of "Six Elizabethan Pastorals", opp.49, 53 and
67 (1892, 1893 and 1897), although the one piece among them to
achieve popularity, "Corydon, Arise", was from the first set.
In later years he returned to the scene of his best-known Irish
song-cycle, "An Irish Idyll in Six Miniatures", op.77 (c.1901;
words by Moira O'Neill), and produced a further set of O'Neill
settings, "Six Songs from The Glens of Antrim", op.174 (1920);
other late works include a pair of unaccompanied Mass settings,
opp.169 and 176 (c.1919 and c.1920) and two sets of 24 Preludes
for piano, opp.163 and 179 (1918 and 1920). And here is the rub;
while some of these "couples" mark a later return to a successful
subject, a fair number came out contemporaneously. Thus the first
two string quartets were completed within a month of each other
(August and September 1891) and bear consecutive opus numbers,
44 and 45, paralleled at the end of his career by the last two,
nos.7 and 8, opp.166 and 167 (c.1919). In between he composed
his two string quintets, opp.85 and 86 (1903), while other late
couples include the "Two Sonatas for Violin with Piano Accompaniment",
op.165 (c.1918) and the two Fantasies for clarinet and string
quartet (without op. nos; 1921 and 1922. There is also a Fantasy
for horn and string quartet dated 1922). His racy Irish ballad-opera
"Shamus O'Brien", op.61 (1895) was barely out of his pen than
he was at work on an English comic opera, "Christopher Patch,
or the Barber of Bath", op.69 (1897), while the hard-hitting satyrical
opera "The Critic" was followed almost immediately by a warm-hearted
fairy-tale opera, "The Travelling Companion" (opp.144 and 146;
1915 and 1916).
These last couples lead to the real point of
this study; Stanford did not swell an already large output to
twice its natural size by writing everything twice over, as some
might be suspecting. Rather, certain contradictions in his own
character frequently lead him to conceive two musical "opposites"
concurrently. While his later returns to a previous subject often
reveal an almost pernickety insistence on "doing it differently
this time". A full investigation of Stanford's many "couples"
would require much space and would run against the problem of
the current unavailability of many of the pieces. So the following
examination of just a few "couples" is intended to open a debate
rather than close it.
The first String Quartet is about as classical
in layout as a quartet can be. Take the first movement; the first
subject has three elements; a falling fourth in long notes, a
more melodic continuation and then a rhythmic pendant. Three ideas
ripe for development, as the bridge passage immediately shows.
The second subject is longer-breathed and also features a falling
fourth. It is accompanied by a rhythmic figure which comes out
on its own to round off the section before a quiet codetta leads
to the double bar. A strong development section discusses all
the main ideas in turn, climaxing on the falling fourth and an
extended tranquil lead-back to the recapitulation which is very
much varied, particularly in the first bridge passage. A fairly
full coda begins quietly but concludes brilliantly.
If this sounds a little forbidding, a "textbook"
movement rather than real music, it should be said that it wears
its mastery lightly. The material is attractive and the aural
effect is remarkably spontaneous. Furthermore, there are some
unusual features to be noted. Although there is no exposition
repeat, the beginning of the development brings a varied version
of the theme in the tonic, tricking the listener for a moment
into thinking that an exposition repeat may be in the offing.
Then, with the recapitulation under way, there are so many variations
and extensions as to suggest that this is in reality a further
development. And, since the coda begins with a final statement
of the first subject, the movement has almost the appearance of
Not quite such a textbook example of sonata form
after all, then. The obvious model is Brahms's Fourth Symphony,
but Stanford perhaps goes even further in the direction of using
apparent sonata form for a purpose other than that for which it
The problem which faced any late-romantic composer
who wrote in sonata form was that sonata form itself was born
from a musical language which could make a drama out of the progress
from tonic to dominant. But late-romantic music tends by its nature
to move freely from key to key, so the arrival on the dominant
often seems more like a homecoming than an adventure. In the case
of the Stanford movement, which is in G, his first bridge passage
takes him through B flat and E flat; the second subject does begin
in D, but avoids a clear dominant-tonic cadence until the end
of the paragraph, which has in the meantime travelled as far afield
as E flat minor. So Stanford joined the ranks of such composers
as Bruckner and (later) Mahler and Sibelius who had to face the
fact that, though it might be possible, using their natural musical
language, to write a movement which looked like sonata form on
paper, the actual effect would be the opposite of what sonata
form was intended to do. Remember the controversy which has rumbled
down the years over the assertion by Cecil Gray that the exposition
of the first movement of Sibelius's Second Symphony was at the
end of the movement, not the beginning. Here Stanford obtains
tonal stability by combining sonata form with rondo form, but
at this point a little voice at his elbow maybe started to suggest
that there could be another way of writing a string quartet.
The first movement of the second string quartet,
in A minor, steals in with a fugue-like subject, pianissimo, in
tempo "molto moderato". But it is a fugue destined to get nowhere,
for the second entry remains in the tonic and thereafter it peters
out, the theme being developed more harmonically before it cadences
back in A minor. Then a quicker tempo begins, the music dances
away with a lyrical theme in F major, and this, unprepared by
any bridge passage, is the second subject. In common with the
first movement of the first quartet, there is no exposition repeat,
but the development takes as its starting point the "fugue" theme,
back in the original tempo and, most importantly, back in A minor.
Again, the fugal aspect is not pursued for very long but instead
of petering out the theme is developed motivically, the tempo
quickens and a passionate expansion of the second subject takes
place, subsiding to a varied recapitulation of the "fugue" theme
and a restatement of the second subject in D, not in A. Thus this
recapitulation, too, seems like a further development rather than
a homecoming. A major is finally reserved for a last appearance
of the "fugue" theme, followed by a very beautiful coda based,
first on wholly new material and then the "fugue" theme joined
by a snatch of the figure which had accompanied the second subject
- the first hint that the two themes may not be wholly incompatible.
So we have a movement which may look like sonata form but what
it is actually about is the reconciliation of two utterly contrasted
ideas and the gradual transformation of a wan little motive into
something beautiful. As romantic a concept as the first quartet
Nor does the classical/romantic duality between
the two works finish here, for the first quartet's remaining movements
are thematically independent while the second is a cyclic work.
The "fugue" theme reappears during the scherzo, forms the basis
of the slow movement and is remembered in tranquillity just before
the final coda of the last movement.
What can we deduce from all this? Stanford's
ideals, fuelled by his admiration for Brahms, led him to a theoretical
preference for "absolute" forms; forms where the abstract structure
is its own justification. But he was by nature a racconteur (Irishmen
so often are) and his inner self was attracted towards "symbolic"
forms; that is, forms where themes bearing some extra-musical
label are manipulated to illustrate some sort of a programme,
such as a "darkness to light" progression. This duality was so
deep in him that the creation of a work in the one form was likely
impel the immediate creation of a work in the other. In the present
case it is noticeable that the "romantic" work seems to have freed
his imagination. The first quartet is extremely attractive but
the second has themes of a sharper, more memorable profile and
should be played by every string quartet specialising in late-Nineteenth
When returning to a successful idea Stanford
always took care to "do it differently this time". Sometimes it
is clear that he felt he had more to say. It is not only in their
layout that "Songs of the Fleet" differ from "Songs of the Sea"
(the deeply moving "Farewell" at the conclusion whereas the earlier
set ended with the rollicking "Old Superb"). They have a mystic,
other-wordly feeling not present in the first cycle.
"The Revenge" and "The Battle of the Baltic"
offer an interesting contrast. "The Revenge" is essentially romantic,
constructed on operatic, dramatic lines. There are leitmotives
for the Revenge itself, for Sir Richard Grenville and for the
Spaniards, and these come and go as required. The battle and the
storm have their own material. In other words, the poem dictates
the form. The classical Stanford may not have been quite happy
with this, for "The Battle of the Baltic" is almost monothematic,
deriving much of its material from a snatch of "Hearts of Oak".
Most choirs in Stanford's day continued to prefer the earlier
work (Campbell's poetry, less flamboyant than Tennyson's, was
another factor). In an age where Tennyson's "Revenge" is no longer
loved, the tauter construction of the later piece might have more
appeal, though the most inspired section does seem to be the only
one (beginning from "Then Denmark blest our chief") which is not
derived from "Hearts of Oak".
So different may not mean better. In the two
sets of Preludes and Postludes for organ, Stanford's Irish/English
duality rears its head; the second set offers three pieces on
themes of Gibbons to counteract the two on ancient Irish themes
in the first set. But most organists find that, while the first
set is uniformly attractive, the second is disappointingly arid,
excepting only the splendid, and decidedly Celtic, D minor Postlude.
The second set of Mary Coleridge partsongs offer some interesting
textural experiments but several of them seem rather fussily overwritten
compared with the first set, all of which hit the mark effortlessly.
In conclusion, it had better be said that not
all of Stanford's works have a twin. He was a compulsive writer
and completely unsystematic. His classical/romantic, or his Irish/English
dualities came out unconsciously, not as the result of deliberate
self-investigation. Nevertheless, the hunting down and examination
of these "couples" in his work can help us to get a better perspective
on his output and pave the way to a fuller understanding of a
Christopher Howell 1997.