Stanford's influence on 20th-century British music was profound and far-reaching. The list of composers who studied with him - striking not merely in its length but also in its diversity - includes Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bridge, Coleridge-Taylor, Ireland, Arthur Benjamin, George Butterworth, Howells, Bliss, Moeran and Goossens.
Stanford's list of compositions is equally diverse but, with the exception of his outstanding church music, few of his works have secured a place in their respective repertoires. He wrote – in addition to his major contribution to the Anglican church music repertoire - ten operas, seven symphonies, concertos for violin, piano, clarinet and cello, eight string quartets and a considerable quantity of other chamber music. Many of his major works are uneven in inspiration, while their craftsmanship – as a teacher he was a stickler for technique – is sometimes rather obvious. Also his melodic ideas are not always distinctive enough to stand the weighty treatment they receive. Nevertheless there are undoubtedly fine works to be found or rediscovered, especially among the concertos and the six Irish Rhapsodies, two of which themselves resemble miniature concertos for cello and violin respectively.
Born in Dublin, Stanford studied the piano and the organ locally. His organ scholarship to Trinity Hall (1870) marked the beginning of a life-long association with Cambridge, where he was Professor of Music at Trinity College from 1887 until his death. Stanford was also one of the founding professors of the Royal College of Music, where he taught for over forty years.
The second of Stanford's three piano concertos dates from 1911, the same year as the 7th Symphony, and is a grandly romantic work of ambitious scale. Harold Bauer gave the premiere in June 1915 as part of the American Music Festival in Norfolk, Connecticut. The first British performance was given in Bournemouth on 7th December 1916, Stanford himself conducting. The soloist on that occasion, Benno Moiseiwitsch, also gave the first London performance in 1919, having played it in Oxford the previous year. Stanford seems to have been fortunate in attracting famous soloists – Joachim played his Suite in D, and Kreisler played the 1st Violin Concerto. The 2nd Piano Concerto is dedicated to “Two friends on either side of the Atlantic: Carl Stoeckel of Norfolk, Conn, USA [president of the Norfolk Festival] and Robert Finnie McEwen of Bardrochat” [Scottish landowner, amateur musician and patron of the arts].
This large-scale, muscular work surely would attract more devotees if only it were better known. The very opening – the soloist's turbulent figuration punctuated by short orchestral chords - is immediately arresting. In 1910 in Leeds Stanford had conducted the British premiere of Rachmaninov's 2nd Concerto with the composer as soloist, and his own concerto clearly begins with a tribute to this masterly predecessor. We should not be too dismissive of such a reference. Do we despise Dvořák for his touching tributes to Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner, or Wagner himself for his obvious borrowings from Berlioz? Two horns now introduce a well defined theme based on a rising fourth and a rising fifth. This serves as a kind of motto, although it is soon modified to rising third - rising sixth and later appears in other variants, always recognisable because of the strong rhythmic profile. However, Stanford does not attempt to use it as a unifying element throughout the entire work, in the manner of Schumann's 4th Symphony or Saint-Saens' 3rd.. The lyrical second subject (cantabile) is introduced by the soloist with elegant triplets in the left hand. In the development section a relaxing of the tempo (Molto tranquillo) brings a delightful passage scored almost entirely for piano, solo cello and two clarinets, reminding us of Stanford the pianist's special love of playing chamber music. In this epic opening movement Stanford not only presents a wealth of material, but also shows great resourcefulness in the way he extracts different elements of his themes for motivic use.
The slow movement begins with a touching melody (molto teneramente) for the soloist, played arpeggiando throughout. In the middle section - marked Piu mosso (Quasi Andante) – the oboe introduces a new melody, which the soloist then injects with more urgency (marked appassionato).
A short cadenza-like passage culminates in a chain of trills, before the trumpet quietly refers to the motto theme. The opening theme returns, now completely re-scored and with elaborate figuration in the piano, and the coda is based on material from both opening and middle sections. In the final bars Stanford's touching reluctance to leave this deeply lyrical, heartfelt movement is reminiscent of Dvořák's similar tendency, exemplified in the slow movement from his 6th Symphony.
The finale opens with a preamble of vigorous gestures exchanged between orchestra and soloist, before the sturdy main theme is announced. Its earthy, rhythmically insistent character calls for some contrast of mood, which duly arrives with the first episode (Poco tranquillo) – a cantabile violin melody in 3-bar phrases. In a passage of development including some sparkling piano figuration the motto theme is heard on trombones. The second contrasting episode springs a surprise, as Stanford recalls both themes from the slow movement, newly scored and with some felicitous touches. The first episode returns in C major, the motto theme again adds to the momentum, and the concerto ends amid splendid octave-writing for the soloist. Regarding this finale Herbert Howells commented that Stanford “turns his face to the west … fills his mind with the thematic cut-and-thrust of melody and rhythm innately Irish”.
Stanford's solo piano music, which is among the most neglected areas of his output, includes only one sonata, of which the manuscript is lost. Among the other pieces or groups of pieces (about twenty-five in total) are two sets of preludes in all the keys. The Dante Rhapsodies of 1904 were inspired by the playing of Percy Grainger (whom Stanford nicknamed “Polar Bear”) and represent his grandest work for solo piano. Grainger had performed Stanford's Concert Variations upon an English Theme for piano and orchestra and also made virtuoso transcriptions of his Irish Dances Opus 89. The Steinway of the early 20th century was the prototype of the modern grand piano. Described by Stanford as “battleship grands”, these revolutionary instruments inevitably changed composers' and performers' approach to the piano, and this exciting new potential is certainly reflected in the Dante Rhapsodies. However, a complementary view of Stanford's relationship with the piano – as a performer - is provided by biographer Plunket Green: “Stanford's touch was the most delicious thing imaginable, impossible to define. It had a sweetness which gave one a lump in one's throat; a beauty which pervaded every note of the whole and a sparkle which made one chuckle. It never varied in this respect and seemed inviolate in crabbed passages, fifth-rate pianofortes, or moods of irritation.” In 1914 Stanford himself wrote “I shall always prefer beauty of tone to strength of muscle.”
Percy Grainger, the Dante Rhapsodies' dedicatee, premiered the second and third pieces in London on 13th February 1905 and introduced the complete set a few weeks later. Francesca is inspired by Canto V of Dante's Inferno and is inscribed with the famous quotation: “Nessun maggior dolore, Che ricordasi del tempo felice Nella miseria” (“There is no greater sorrow than to recall a time of happiness in misery”) These are the first words which Francesca speaks to the Pilgrim (symbolising the emotional and intellectual aspects of Dante's psyche), before she recounts her tragic story. Paolo and Francesca, the young wife of his elder brother, had a 10-year love affair. When the brother discovered their adultery he killed them both and the lovers were condemned to the Second Circle of Hell. With grandeur and tenderness Stanford evokes the tragedy in this impressive tone-poem of Lisztian eloquence. (Liszt himself had been inspired by Dante to compose a symphony and a piano sonata.) The main Andante con moto agitato is preceded by a brief Adagio which returns at the close in modified form, before the final fortissimo chords. The second rhapsody, Beatrice is inspired by the part of Canto II in which Beatrice, Dante's idealised beloved, asks Virgil to guide the Pilgrim to safety until she herself is able to be his guide in Paradise. Marked Lento moderato e cantabile, this tenderly poetic piece in B major has a central section in A flat major which rises to an impassioned climax. Capaneo is headed by a quotation from Canto XIV - “ Se Giove stanchi il suo fabbro … e me saetti di tutta forza, Non ne potrebbe aver vendetta allegra” (“Let Jove wear out his smith … Yea, though he hurl his bolts at me with all his force, no satisfaction of revenge shall be his.”) Capaneo was one of the seven kings who besieged Thebes only to die while cursing Jove. He defied Jove's thunderbolts even in Hell, determined that his spirit should never be broken. Like much of Stanford's music, this heroic C major Allegro in 2/2 reveals the influence of Brahms, especially the Rhapsodies Opus 79 and the last piece of the Opus 119 group. In the brilliant C minor middle section in 3/4 - Più mosso and leggierissimo – Stanford incorporates references to some of his opening material.
The Five Caprices Opus 136 date from 1913. The concluding piece begins as a charming waltz in A flat major, but this elegance is combined with more robust elements and further contrast is provided by the hemiola rhythms of the E major middle section.
The Six Characteristic Pieces, Opus 132 date from the same period as the 2nd Piano Concerto. They are dedicated to Moritz Rosenthal, whom Stanford had originally hoped would give the first performance of that concerto. These pieces, together with the Five Caprices, mark Stanford's return to solo piano music after an interval of about ten years. Both groups are generally less technically demanding than the Dante Rhapsodies. The fourth piece from Opus 132 – Roundel, marked Andante espressivo - is inscribed “In Memoriam. R. Sch. June 8. 1911” This wistful, undemonstrative miniature is a tribute to Schumann, a composer for whom Stanford had a deep affection. No. 3 of this Opus 132 set, entitled Study, is marked Allegretto tranquillo. Gentle triplet movement, predominantly in 5/4, is maintained until the peaceful concluding bars.