Monday, September 6, 2010

In praise of Charles Villiers Stanford – Ireland's finest composer

In Ireland, Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) is relegated to the shadowy status of "Anglo-Irish". What this terms means is that Protestant, unionist, English-speaking artists were not, somehow, truly Irish. Universities have departments of "Anglo-Irish Literature", to which our finest writers are relegated (Yeats and Beckett, for example). Why should a country deny citizenship to some of its greatest creative spirits? Because they did not fit in with the ethnically clean ethos of post-independence nationalism.

In Stanford's case, his opposition to independence made his position even worse. Although Trinity College Dublin wanted to give him an honorary doctorate in the early twenties, they were advised that it would be unsafe for him to travel to Ireland.

Anyone who has sung in a cathedral choir in Britain or Ireland will know and love Stanford's church music, which set a standard and started a vigorous tradition what extended almost to the present day. But what I am uploading is one of his piano concertos, played with great verve by the young Irish pianist Finghin Collins. It's classic Stanford – you can hear a nod to Rachmaninoff in the first movement, but the bluff, muscular energy is very much Stanford. I played the first piano quartet a while back, and you notice the same thing – you have to dig into the music from bar one (literally for the strings, who have a wonderful flourish to open the work).

Ireland named the recital room of its national concert hall after that pianistic nonentity John Field. So far, they have not honoured Stanford at all. However, signs of life – a Stanford festival is coming up, with a significant concert from John Finucane's Hibernian Orchestra. John, who is a superb clarinetist, championed the Stanford concerto. Imagine his surprise when he proposed playing it with the national symphony orchestra, only to be told that it was five minutes too long! Clearly, the petty nationalists are still ensconced. More about the Hibernian Orchestra's concert here. And more about the festival at the nascent Stanford Society's website

And here, for your delectation, is Finghin Collins, with the Ulster Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Montgomery at the 2008 Proms, in the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 126

Download the concerto from Rapidshare

Bonus! A recording of Stanford's Stanford: Irish rhapsody No 4 in A minor, Op 141 (The Fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw) with the Ulster Orchestra under the magical influence of Vernon (Tod) Handley.

Download the Irish Rhapsody from Rapidshare


  1. Why do you crack down so scathingly on Field? He may not have been the greatest musician of his age, but he proved vastly influential. His piano concertos are anything but the work by a "nonentity", even from the pianistic viewpoint. His piano music may not be particularly impressive but it's well written, suggestive here and there, and pleasant to listen to. Chopin and Liszt loved him. What's wrong with Field? You know what, music players often think that just because they can play an instrument, they have understood all of the ins and outs of the art and are entitled to arrogantly give good and bad marks to composers.

  2. I find his piano works, concertos and solos, uninspiring in the extreme. The concertos sound like they were commissioned by the manufacturers of major scales, with additional funding from the importers of common arpeggios. Alongside the concertos of even people like Moscheles they sound banal in the extreme.
    Liszt did not care much for Field. The story is that he played all the nocturnes end-to-end one day, and started playing them again the next day only to give up. Once, I guess, is enough. My own experience too.