This year sees the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the most prolific composers of Anglican Church music, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Several of his settings and anthems feature in our repertoire, including the Evening Service in C and the anthem O for a closer walk with God.
Stanford came to prominence during the 1870s in Cambridge, where he was appointed assistant conductor of the University Music Society and later, whilst still an undergraduate, organist at Trinity College, Cambridge. There he raised the standard of the chapel choir and wrote the Morning Service in B flat (a Te Deum and Jubilate Deo) and, shortly afterwards, the companion Evening Service (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis). This is another stalwart of our repertoire and, probably, of every other church choir that ventures beyond hymns and unison chanted responses.
Stanford went on to write Evening Services in virtually every major key over the course of his career, as well as a range of anthems and motets, ranging from the martial For lo I raise up to the sublime Beati quorum via. It would be possible, indeed, to sing nothing but Stanford settings at Holy Communion, Mattins and Evensong on successive Sundays for a whole month in the keys, successively, of A flat, B flat, C and G. Now there’s a challenge for any choir
Church music was just one element of Stanford’s output. His name sounds quintessentially English, yet he was actually born and raised in Dublin. Celtic myths and melodies thus provided the inspiration for the six orchestral Irish Rhapsodies that he composed over the course of his career, as well as some of his seven symphonies.
The other major influence on his artistic development arose from periods of study in Leipzig and Berlin, where he imbibed the classical tradition personified by Brahms. His most famous concerto, for clarinet, dated from this period. He composed fourteen other concertos, chamber music and even ten operas, none of which have been professionally staged in recent times. Some of his large scale choral works, such as the Requiem and Stabat Mater, have been recorded, to critical acclaim, yet none have found a regular place in the repertoire.
Stanford’s legacy is not confined to his own output since, as Professor of Music at Cambridge, he taught Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells and many others eminent composer of the following generation. Each followed their own very individual musical paths, yet all would probably have been happy to acknowledge their debt to him as the father figure of the Twentieth Century British musical renaissance.