Friday 19 January 2018

Classical: Charles Stanford: the Irishman at the heart of the Romantic era

Imposing: Charles Stanford
Imposing: Charles Stanford

George Hamilton

There may have been no record stores or radio stations to promote their music, but their fame still spread far and wide. The Romantic era created a tight international band of composing brothers, and there was an Irishman among them.

Charles Stanford was the son of a musically gifted Dublin lawyer. The elder Stanford had sung the title role when Mendelssohn's Elijah had its Irish premiere in 1847.

Charles grew up in some style in Upper Mount Street. He too was talented, learnt to play several instruments, and was taught composition. He was mad into music and loved going to the opera.

Stanford was an only child, and the family wanted him to become a barrister like his dad, but all he wanted to do was music. They reached a compromise. The boy could follow his star, but only after he'd got himself a decent degree.

So he went to Cambridge to study classics, but once he got there he threw himself into what he loved doing most. He conducted choirs, he became the organist at Trinity College, and when the exams finally came, he scraped himself a third.

Then it was off to Germany, the beating heart of European music, to the conservatory that Mendelssohn had founded in Leipzig. There he studied under one of the most influential teachers of the day, Carl Reinecke.

Stanford travelled extensively. He got to know Brahms, who was a major influence.

Back in England, his stock had soared. He became the music professor at both Cambridge and the Royal College in London, where he numbered Holst and Vaughan Williams among his students.

The Cambridge University Music Society had been a brainchild from his early days there – he'd amalgamated two choirs that he'd led – and when it came to organising an anniversary concert, he wasn't short of contacts.

He had ambitious plans to bring Brahms and Verdi and have them awarded honorary doctorates, but Verdi was about to turn 80, and Brahms didn't fancy the long overland trip from Vienna, so he had to look elsewhere.

The guest list he delivered was highly impressive. Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and Bruch all came to present examples of their music. Grieg would have been there too, but he had to postpone his visit until the following year because of illness.

Stanford – over six feet tall, sandy-haired, bespectacled – was equally imposing in the impact he made on musical life in England. Highly regarded as a tough but fair teacher, he was also a prolific composer.

There were symphonies – one of them named the Irish – and concertos, chamber music, and several operas, including a version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. There is also a sizable collection of songs, and a series of Irish rhapsodies for orchestra.

But it's for sacred choral music that he is most remembered. He made an enormous contribution to a raising of standards and a revival of interest in the repertoire of Anglican church services.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

Irish Independent

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