Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Thomas Dunhill: An Appreciation of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford

Thomas Dunhill was an English composer and writer on music who is largely remembered for his didactic piano music and his famous song The Cloths of Heaven. However, he composed a wide variety of works including an effective Symphony and a fine Quartet for piano and strings. In 1893 he began study at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford composition and piano with Franklin Taylor. Groves notes that in 1899 he was the first RCM student to win the Tagore Gold Medal. He was later to teach harmony and counterpoint at the RCM. So he had plenty of opportunity to get to know Stanford. He writes an affectionate tribute.
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When Sir Charles Stanford, in 1911 published his Treatise on Musical Composition he paid a graceful prefatory compliment to those who "in learning from him, have taught him how to teach, and by their unvarying loyalty and keen endeavour have minimised the anxiety and magnified the interest of his labours on their behalf."
"In looking back upon the period of our studentship it is inconceiv­able that any of us can forget how largely both our loyalty and our keen endeavour were the result of our admiration for the great man who placed so much of his greatness at our disposal. He was not an easy task­master, but our worst lessons were often our best. He could (and did) give us a very bad time on occasions, but we emerged better critics of ourselves.

From all he demanded a high artistic fidelity. We were obliged to give our attention to form and shape and detail-the inspiration of the moment was not enough. Above all we were made to write clearly and cleanly. Slipshod workmanship was at once discovered, and at once condemned. He would not pass a weak or an unworthy bar; If we knew it was there and trusted it would escape his notice (as perhaps we some­times did) we soon found we had under-estimated his amazing quickness of perception. He had his foibles as a teacher, perhaps, and. some of these, especially in the matter of orchestration, were rather amazing. He was resentful if we wanted to employ such "luxury" instruments as bass-­clarinets and double-bassoons, and to write a tremolando for the double-­basses was a sure way of rousing him to wrath.
His favourite remedy for difficulties was "rests," of which he him­self assuredly knew the value. "Take refuge in simplicity," he would say, as he pencilled through shoals of notes-and he was often astonishingly right! Stanford's critical severity, however, was balanced by a boyish enthusiasm for everything we did well, and that was indeed wonderfully stimulating. He would rush with our manuscripts into the teaching-room of any Professor who happened to be engaged on the same floor and insist upon the poor unoffending Professor hearing the work through from beginning to end-and many a conscientious Professor has had to work "over-time" in consequence!
He would take pride and infinite pains in rehearsing such works, and very many are the composers who have received practical encouragement that led, through Stanford's effort, to their recognition by the world at large.
It is impossible to over-estimate the value of Stanford's services to the College and to music in general. The greatest tribute to his genius as a trainer of composers is to be found in the works of the many now dis­tinguished pupils who once passed through his hands. If these were but pale reflections of his ideas his teaching might well be condemned. But it is not so. They bear eloquent testimony, in their technical efficiency, to the wisdom of his guidance, and in their developed variety and independence, to the breadth of his sympathies.
Thomas Dunhill RCM Magazine Volume 2- No.2

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