Harry White, review of Charles Villiers Stanford by Jeremy Dibble, in The Irish Times (10 May 2003)

Details: Harry White, review of Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician (OUP) by Jeremy Dibble, in The Irish Times (10 May 2003), Weekend Review, p.12.

In his autobiography, entitled Farewell, My Youth (1943), the English composer, Arnold Bax, wrote that ‘[Charles Villiers] Stanford was not Irish enough. An Irishman by birth, he belonged to the class abominated by Irish Ireland, the “West Briton”. There are intimations in some of his work that he started not without a certain spark of authentic musical imagination, but quite early he went a-whoring after false foreign gods, and that original flicker was smothered in the outer, darkness of Brahms.’

Thus the dismal reading of posterity: a judgment that has if anything been intensified by the renewed interest in Victorian music (to say nothing of music in Ireland), in which Stanford played a pivotal role. Jeremy Dibble’s unnerving and brilliant biography of the composer stringently avoids any question of special pleading on Stanford’s behalf and never once yields to the temptation of trying that most painful case in music history, the ‘unjustly neglected masterpiece’. Instead, Dibble offers a portrait of the artist not only as a Victorian figure of immense significance to the future of English music which followed hard upon his own career, but as an Irishman, an Englishman (Stanford referred to himself variously as both) and as a perplexing admixture of the two.

The struggle between what Bernard Shaw called ‘the Celt and the professor’ is only one strand in the complex fabric of Stanford’s amazing career as a musician. As an organist, pianist and conductor, as a composer of astonishing fertility and invention, and as an engineer of countless initiatives for the betterment of music in Britain and Ireland, Stanford emerges triumphant from this massively detailed and gracefully written biography. It was once remarked of Dickens that ‘the mere record of his conviviality is exhausting’ and something similar might be said upon reading Dibble’s immaculately reconstructed consideration of Stanford’s ambitious efforts to centralise the European repertory in Victorian England. The Cambridge University, Musical Society, the Royal College of Music and the Leeds Festival, to name but three institutions utterly transformed by Stanford’s energetic contributions, decisively altered the landscape of British music in the second half of the 19th century. Personally responsible for many first performances of Brahms’s late works in England, in addition to scores of other performances of contemporary music, Stanford changed the complexion of English music chiefly by means of his own absorption of and preoccupation with music in Germany. Three figures two of them close friends of Stanford’s over a period of 30 years proved to be central in these endeavours: Joseph Joachim, Hans Richter and (to a lesser extent than the other two) Hans von Billow. The clichéd pairing of Stanford and Parry (himself the subject of a superb biography by Dibble), with Arthur Sullivan trailing behind them and the solitary genius of Elgar on the horizon, is entirely redrawn and recontextualised by the depth and detail of Dibble’s research. In a phrase, the German presence in English musical affairs is far more deeply felt and disclosed by Dibble than by any other historian of British music.

Many would argue, nevertheless, that it was just this presence that was Stanford’s undoing as a composer. He himself keenly felt the unmistakable repudiation of Germany in the music of Vaughan Williams, Delius and, above all, Elgar. It was Elgar’s ill-judged and insensitive Birmingham lecture, ‘A Future for English Music’ (1905) which caused such a rift between Elgar and Stanford, even if Elgar protested to the end that he could not understand the older composer’s ‘eccentric silences’ . Stanford’s ambition, energy and infatuation with Germany had resulted in a large corpus of orchestral, choral and stage works (including 10 operas and seven symphonies), most of which had fallen into obscurity by the end of his life. With the publication of his Pages from an Unwritten Diary (1914), he was all but prepared to acknowledge that his prominence as a composer was no more. Dibble sensitively chronicles this sad decline, although he does not press home the striking contrast between Stanford’s popularity in Germany in the 1890s and the comparative neglect of Elgar there (a neglect which has endured almost to the present day).

Stanford’s greatest success was as a symphonist and composer of chamber music: his church anthems and choral music were also for a time definitive of late Victorian taste. His operas, by contrast, represent an honourable and repeated failure to break through the barriers of domestic resistance and international acceptance. Dibble also adduces Stanford’s eclectic appetite for Verdi and Wagner as a factor that may have hindered the development of his own voice in the theatre. The most explicitly Irish of his stage works, however, Seamus O’Brien (1896), enjoyed notable popularity and was revived by Stanford as an ‘Irish folk opera’ in 1906.

Shamus O’Brien prompts me finally to consider the presence of Ireland in this book. Dibble’s treatment of this abiding preoccupation in Stanford’s life could scarcely be bettered. His account of Stanford’s privileged, Anglo-Irish background includes a vivid sketch of the composer’s father that rivals Ellmann on John Joyce, and his understanding of Stanford’s own ‘pugnacious’ ’ brand of unionism is deftly secured by a grasp of Irish politics that struck this reader as both informed and sensitive. Two fascinating disclosures in this regard must stand here for many: Dibble shows that Stanford’s hostility towards Gladstone, when the two met to discuss the formation of the Royal College of Music, was firmly based on the prime minister’s support for Home Rule in Ireland. Secondly, Stanford’s lifelong engagement with Irish music (in particular his arrangements and editions of the-ethnic repertory) did not deter him from withdrawing Shamus O’Brien from performance in 1910 lest it encourage nationalist sympathies and the renewed case for Irish political autonomy.

The lustre and prestige of Stanford’s career notwithstanding, this story is ultimately dominated by an unnerving contrast between professional attainment and the remorseless processes of reception history, which were well under way by the time Stanford was in old age, Jeremy Dibble has written a book which adds substantially to Stanford’s reputation and which greatly enriches both British and Irish musical scholarship. It is brilliantly done.

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