Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2004), Volume 12

Charles Villiers

Charles Villiers

One May afternoon in 1868, a lanky adolescent in thick spectacles was hunched over some showy Chopin at a piano in Bray. As his fingers scattered notes profusely towards the Dargle, a three-year-old boy called Harry took advantage by secretly and expertly picking his pockets. Aside from the teenage pianist’s unusual virtuosity there was nothing to show that Charles Villiers Stanford would go on to become Ireland’s most prolific composer, the man whose new symphony was chosen to open the new Berlin concert hall, or the greatest innovator in English music since Henry Purcell, the man who saved the Londonderry Air for posterity—and whom posterity would repay by forgetting him!


‘Throwing off stars like Roman candles’

His little pickpocket was Harry Plunket Greene, who grew up to be a singer. In his out-of-print 1935 biography of Stanford, he describes the Ireland of the 1860s as a country of intensive brilliance of the imagination, where lawyers and soldiers of fortune and singers were ‘throwing off stars like Roman candles’. Then, as now, Dublin was a gregarious city: self-consciously bustling with a lively amateur music scene, bursting with life and song. It was, need we add, unionist through and through—from the garrison to the hunt, and the fabled heyday of the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, whose ‘Ghost’ Hamilton and Pim ruled at Wimbledon.
But as the three-year-old thief wrote 67 years later, just before his own death:


If you had prophesied that John Stanford’s son, whom they remembered playing the piano as a little boy so small that his feet could not reach the pedals would, with Parry the Englishman and Mackenzie the Scotsman, be buried eventually next to Purcell in Westminster Abbey, they would have looked at you and amusedly shrugged their shoulders and turned the conversation back to politics.


Harry was Stanford’s most affectionate biographer (not counting Stanford himself) and developed a fine baritone voice for which Stanford tailored original songs on Irish themes. They survive among his manuscripts at the Cambridge University Library.


According to George Bernard Shaw, Stanford was ‘not Irish enough'. (Hulton Getty Picture Collection)

According to George Bernard Shaw, Stanford was ‘not Irish enough’. (Hulton Getty Picture Collection)

But I did not see him [Stanford] again until 1888, when as a quarter-fledged professional I sang at a party at [the tenor] Arthur Coleridge’s house. We seemed to need no introduction. He and his wife took me into their family on the spot . . . That intimate association lasted until he died in 1924. Such a companionship in friendship and in music has been to some extent a hindrance to the writing of this book . . . about that tall, dark, dour man.


Those Irishmen and women born in the years after the Famine grew up to be the most fearless and questing in history—Stanford, Shaw, Wilde, and of course Joyce: they all shot out of their native city like hares from the trap. Yet, as Stanford later said to his friend and protégé Harry:


You could not take the car from Westland Row to St Stephen’s Green but something funny would happen, and if you came back after twenty years abroad the driver would say to you, ‘How are ye Master Charlie? Ye’re welcome home’—as though nothing had changed.


Stanford left Dublin for Cambridge, London and Germany by 1870; and from 1875 to 1915—heyday of amateur choirs and operas and choral society fever—he bestrode the musical world like a colossus. He wrote 200 works, including seven symphonies, 40 choral works, ten operas (Shamus O’Brien, The Critics, Much Ado About Nothing, and more), eleven concerti, 28 chamber works, songs, organ works and preludes. His is a life story that cries out for footnotes by the pile. But Plunket Greene tells more by omission than inclusion about Stanford’s cranky later years, when his mentor sank deeply into profound public neglect and was attacked by Shaw for ersatz Orangeism.
Plunket Greene’s portrait of the later, twentieth-century Stanford—vilified by his former protégé Edward Elgar and attacked by his countryman George Bernard Shaw—showed him as myopic to the point of blindness, a prickly old cove with an explosive ‘Celtic’ temper and a heart of gold. Stung pride had embroiled him in public rows and furious letters to the Times. His tragedy was familiar, of falling from youthful peaks into the heated rivalries of middle age, pitting himself against Elgar on the podium and against his senior Arthur Sullivan and his colleague Hubert.


To Elgar, Stanford and Parry were the mere London fan club of the Schumann–Joachim–Brahms coterie in Germany, a back-scratching clique that deserved ridicule. Even Stanford’s adoration of Wagner—and later Verdi—became a stick to beat him with. At its worst, the contest between the two men resulted not just in letters to the newspapers but in Stanford refusing to shake hands with him in front of an audience. After this incident, touchy Elgar composed a piece with the interwoven musical motif ‘Stanford is Satan’!
Stanford also quarrelled with Parry, and with Shaw, who had in fact agreed with him about Wagner (Stanford’s favourite opera was Die Meistersinger—until Verdi wrote Falstaff). There’s little left in print about these epic Wagnerian-sized struggles. Gleaning the primary sources means reading between the lines of Stanford’s own Pages from an unwritten diary or combing the Times readers’ letters pages of the 1890s at either national library. Footnotes do not exist. As Plunket Greene advises in the first chapter of his book:


If I were asked—Heaven forbid! —to give some advice to a number of schoolboys, I should give that advice in seven words: Keep a diary and date your letters . . . You never know your luck in this world . . . Your country will be more than ever in your debt if they have your own account of how you raised the siege of Nairobi or discovered the race of pygmies in Dutch New Guinea.


Family background

‘Spy' drawing of Stanford. (Vanity Fair, 14 April 1904)

‘Spy’ drawing of Stanford. (Vanity Fair, 14 April 1904)

Stanford grew up in a middle-class Protestant Dublin household, a ‘delicate’ boy in a family of lawyers. His father was examiner to the Court of Chancery. It was a time of promiscuous brilliance in the Irish bench, upon which so many Stanford friends and relations strutted and starred: Blackburne, Brewster, Whiteside, Fitzgerald, May, Murphy, Lawson, Barry, Morris; Archbishops Whately, Trench, Magee and Plunket, Bishop Graves, Dean Dickinson, scholars like Salmon and Jellett, Tyrell, Stokes, Smyly Cruise, and Butcher, and those famous reunions at Lord Fitzgibbon’s house in Howth where Father Healy and Randolph Churchill met for philosophical debate.
Both Stanford’s parents were musical to their fingertips, literally. Stanford senior was a cellist and bass in demand for Bach oratorios. His great-uncle, Jonathan Henn, had defended Daniel O’Connell. Like his father, Charlie was six feet four inches, but while Stanford Senior was handsome as a god, young Charlie grew up spindly. He was afraid of his outrageous, larger-than-life father, from whom he inherited both height and infantile humour.
His mother was Mary Henn of Paradise, Galway—one of the ‘Birds of Paradise’ sisters, a talented pianist who was the soloist at the Dublin Musical Union. Charlie inherited the full double dose of their gifts; but unlike them he was shortsighted and never a prime specimen. He was faithful to his childhood friends all his life. At four he collaborated with Raoul de Versan to write ‘Venetian Dirge’. Alfred Graves and his brother Charles, later editor of Spectator and Punch, were friends.
One day, as the little boys were playing with toy soldiers on the floor (Mrs Graves played the harp, and Mr Graves—later bishop of Limerick—the Spanish guitar), Stanford Senior rushed the front door, dashed into the hall and fired a small cannon as a jape, knocking out the gaslights. It was just sheer excess of high spirits; but the families were estranged for years.


Stanford Junior was so frail that he was never sent away to school. Instead he went to Bassett’s, a private day school where his spectacles were shattered by the school bully. After training from the Stanford’s family butler, young Charlie managed to knock down the tyrant and took out his teeth too! The headmaster was the classicist H. Tilney Bassett, an authoritarian spanker who fixed his gimlet eye upon any straying boy, and stammered, ‘Come hither my gentle swain…’. Then, ‘…The old tiger-r-r’s in me still! Here they come, the sweet little feet, pattering—to their doom! Aha-ha-ha!!’ He was terrifying, yet somehow Bassett’s pupils guessed at his inner sweetness. In his later years Stanford himself was the sarcastic and explosive man who could be terrifying to his pupils as he shouted and roared, ‘Your playing is hell, boy, H-E-L-L!’ Yet his humorous side redeemed him.


Irish dominance of music scene

In the Dublin of the 1860s a love of song was inherited, but you had to go out to find your music or play yourself. Voce, voce, voce! The human voice was all. Musical evenings like Miss Merken’s in James Joyce’s The Dead were the entertainment, and everyone gave opinions. James Joyce and John McCormack sang at the Ancient Concert Rooms. Other home-grown geniuses were Mrs Scott-ffennell, Michael Kelly, Richard Smith, ‘Bapty’, Dr Peele, Stanford’s own parents and the Graveses, and many another. Opera composers were fewer: Lord (Garret Wesley) Mornington (Wellington’s father), and Sir John Stevenson of Moore’s Melodies, Michael Balfe of ‘I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls’ and Vincent Wallace of Maritana.
The Irish had dominated music in these islands since John Field’s day. In England there was Arthur Sullivan, who had written Box and Cox (Stanford later bumped him as Leeds Festival director). Charlie’s teachers abounded, from conductor Joseph Robinson to Robert Stewart, organist at St Patrick’s Cathedral—it was Stewart who introduced Wagner and music hall songs into the service—plus visitors like Austro-Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim.
Joachim’s influence on Stanford lasted all his life. At eight, when Stanford first met the charismatic guest, he cried at the sight. With his unruly locks and cape, Joachim cut a melodramatic figure. Joachim’s visits to Dublin were frequent, because as well as the Stanfords he had befriended Mr Richard Michael Levey (real name O’Shaughnessy), leader of the Theatre Royal Orchestra and another of Charlie’s teachers.
O’Shaughnessy was from the Irish midlands, but had adopted the name Levey. He was another fervent Wagnerian—perhaps the first Irish Wagnerian. So popular was he with audiences that they rose as a man to shout ‘Top o’ the morning to ye, O’Shaughnessy!’ whenever he appeared. Joachim took to Levey and played at Levey’s Classical Quartet series, leading Irish players in the most shining concerts ever performed. He encouraged Stanford Junior to compose; Charlie’s lessons included composition as well as violin, piano and organ. After all, hadn’t Mozart composed when only six?

Child prodigy

While still only eight Charlie composed a march that premiered at the Theatre Royal. He called it ‘Opus One’. At nine he played Beethoven, Handel, Mozart and Bach in Levey’s series. At ten he went to London to study with Beethoven’s arranger, Ernst Pauer, and two years later won admiring reviews for another recital that included his own composition, and met Sir Arthur Sullivan and George Grove. Sullivan was dismissive towards the prodigy—maybe Charlie remembered years later when he beat Sullivan for choir director and director at Leeds Choral Festival.
Little Charlie’s piano teacher, Miss Meeke, made him sight-read another Chopin mazurka daily, never letting him stop. After the fifty-second, he could sight-read anything. At Saint Patrick’s Cathedral his organ teacher was the self-taught Pat Stewart. Under another music teacher, Michael Quarry, he learned to think of his left hand as a ‘tenor’ and set a prayer of Mary Queen of Scots to music. He would ad lib for Trinity students under Robert De Vere, from sheer high spirits. While in his teens, he wrote two operas and a baritone solo performed at the University of Dublin Musical Society in 1867 when he was fifteen.
As a student he transcribed and edited Petrie’s old Irish airs to restore the tunes that Thomas Moore had altered for his poems; well over 2000 were handed to him by archivist George Petrie’s daughter. Copies survive in Cambridge and London libraries, together with the earnest introduction in which he explains his intention to save national songs in their original form. He was committed to creating this authentic national music for his own people. He arranged them in songbooks, often restoring the title too, making ‘I will raise my black sail mistfully in the morning’ into ‘I shall set sail for Joyce’s Country in the morning’, for instance.
Stanford was in his teens when he began this long labour—and though he disapproved of Moore’s way with songs, he committed Moore’s ‘Quick! We have but a second!’ to an old air. The ‘Londonderry Air’ appears under ‘Name unknown’. Petrie got it from Jane Ross of Limavady; Stanford set it to Graves’ poem ‘Emer’s farewell to Cuchullain’ and, incidentally, made a mistake; it’s sixteen bars in E flat and in the sixth he put B natural. He later repeated it in ‘Irish rhapsody’.


Not Irish enough?

Stanford (far right) with Hubert Parry, Alexander Mackenzie, Edward German, Edward Elgar and Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth, 1910.

Stanford (far right) with Hubert Parry, Alexander Mackenzie, Edward German, Edward Elgar and Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth, 1910.

He saved many songs, wrote the first Irish symphony and plumbed his native music. Yet he was reviled in print for his efforts by everyone from Shaw and Bax to (more recently) Professor Harry White of UCD and Michael Murphy, who disinterred Stanford many decades later for Shaw’s verdict, ‘not Irish enough’. In becoming the great explainer of Irishness to the English, Stanford distanced himself from his home, they argue.
It seems a little late in the day for that. But why such intellectual discord in that particular generation of exiles? Perhaps something of the nationalist debate remained; national movements had transformed Europe and lent, above all, a subject, not just for Stanford but also for Dvorak, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and later Bartok and Janacek. Plunket Greene has this to add about Stanford’s nationalism:


Stanford was a typical Irishman of the old days. He had made his home in England and was a staunch unionist; but all those years could never change his Irish vision or dim the colour of his brogue . . . Once, I happened to be carrying a newspaper with a photo of Gladstone; Stanford grabbed it and yelled, ‘Look at that face! Sinister, sinister, my boy, sinister to the last degree! Ughh!’
Like so many of his countrymen, he was a mass of contradictions. He was a diehard conservative, rooted in the customs and traditions of his childhood. I have known him to hold up a family dinner while he boned a herring in the way his granduncle had shown him when he was six. The herring was stone cold, but . . . Jonathan Henn did it that way and all the rest of us were obscurantists and ostriches. Yet he was the greatest innovator in English music since Purcell.
Conservative as he was, he was a lifelong tilter at windmills, mostly in defence of his friends.


A former would-be iconoclast, Stanford was uncomfortable in authoritarian roles. He was always looking for trouble, clashing with Parry over the Royal College of Music (where both reigned). His temper was quick rather than bad; he was pugnacious as an Aberdeen, affectionate as a spaniel, quick to anger, and quicker to repentance, his wrath melted under the soft word. He was tall and dark despite tawny hair and dour—so dark and dour that many people were afraid to face him and never learned to know the mind behind that formidable exterior nor its equipment of gentle old-world manners.
Bitter rivalries

His declining years were filled with bitter rivalries; in 1898 he took over Leeds Philharmonic, and two years later Leeds Festival, replacing Sullivan. He ran smack up against a notorious local secretary and his festivals attracted disaster: Parry felt dizzy, guest composer Edvard Grieg dropped dead—after programmes were printed. Joachim died after one last visit. Stanford’s evil luck continued with the great new symphony that Elgar was writing. Elgar’s sub-Wagnerian Dream of Gerontius suffered critical drubbing. Wounded, he became suspicious of his former friend. Late in the day, he withdrew the symphony. Stanford was so hurt that he deleted Elgar’s name from the programme, then regretted it; but it was too late to replace.
Twenty years afterwards, during the post-war Great Flu, despite a severe infection he went to Alice Elgar’s funeral. Standing inside the door he said, ‘Tell Elgar from me that I had to come . . . I daren’t go to the graveside as the doctor has absolutely forbidden me; but tell him I just felt I must come . . .’. At this Stanford—now 72— broke down and left, and died shortly afterwards, on 29 March 1924. He had long since been eclipsed by his arch-enemy. His work, some very fine, was ignored for decades. His early work was not revived. Perhaps Stanford had to drink deeply of unhappiness before his work became original, and had to wait for his unhappy middle age.
Saddest of all in Plunket Greene’s eyes was that the only memorial ‘to the greatest musician her country ever knew’ is a modest blue tablet on the wall of No. 2 Herbert Street, put there by Raoul de Versan and Leo McClintock Dix. A far better memorial would be a revival of his best opera, The Critics.



Elgy Gillespie is a writer and journalist living in San Francisco.


Further reading

H. Plunkett Greene, Charles Villiers Stanford (Oxford, 1935).P. Rodmell, Charles Villiers Stanford (Aldershot, 2002).
H. White, The Keeper’s Recital: music and cultural history in Ireland 1770–1970 (Cork, 1998).
H. White and G. Gillen, Music and Irish cultural history. Irish Musical Studies, Vol. 3 (Dublin, 1995).


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