Monday, 2 November 2009

Charles Villiers Stanford: Piano Sonata in D minor

I recently reviewed a CD of piano music by Stanford and was impressed by virtually every piece. At that time I recall wondering if he had written a Piano Sonata. I suppose only laziness stopped me checking it out. I was perusing Lisa Hardy’s The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 the other day and to my delight discovered that Stanford had indeed composed a Sonata for that intrument. However my excitement soon went – it is a work that is lost. Hardy notes that Grove mentions a Piano Sonata in D flat Op. 20 which was unpublished. She explained how she had corresponded with the author of the dictionary entry, Dr. Frederick Hudson, however he had been unable to trace the manuscript after thirty years of searching.

The Sonata was performed by Fuller Maitland at a Cambridge University Music Society Pop concert on 25 February 1885. This seems to have been its last appearance. However it had been previously performed at a concert in the St James’s Hall in London on 4 February 1884 and again at a second recital some five days later. It was given a positive review in the March 1884 edition of The Musical Times. Hardy further notes that the pianist Miss Agnes Zimmerman was “a noted interpreter of British piano sonatas".
Jeremy Dibble explained that Stanford was included in a list of ‘ten original piano sonatas’ which had been advertised by Henry Carte. However the project was never completed. Dibble suggests that Sonata was probably completed in late 1883.
Paul Rodmell adds little to this, but quotes a review in the Cambridge Review 12 March 1884 that suggest the Sonata “would certainly add to his [Stanford’s] reputation.” Yet when it was performed the following year, Rodmell suggests that the reception was ‘lukewarm and the Sonata was referred to a not possessing ‘enough continuity, repose or distinctive style.’

It was perhaps this last review that caused the composer not to allow publication? However, I hope that one day the manuscript will reappear and that an enterprising pianist such as Christopher Howell or Mark Bebbinton will see fit to record it. Meanwhile I have printed the contemporary review from The Musical Times:-
"Amateurs should have mustered in strong force on Monday 4 March for the programme contained a new pianoforte Sonata by Mr. Villiers Stanford, but as a matter of fact they severally stayed away. This indifference on the part of the public to the claims of native art is not only irritating, but it is fast becoming ridiculous. We have three or four young composers whose collective ability is at least equal tot hat of the same number of leading German living musicians, whose utterances always awake interest and expectation. Mr. Villiers Stanford is gaining honour abroad, but he is not without it at home for in his orchestral Serenade in G and his Elegiac Symphony – to a name but two of his works – qualities have been recognized far more valuable that mere musicianship, even of the highest class.
These qualities are also present in his new Sonata, which is in the unusual key of D flat. Some listeners have professed to perceive in the work a deliberate intention to violate the established laws of form, but we confess that to us no such design is apparent. In matters of detail, Mr. Stanford shows himself an independent thinker, but in all essentials his newest work is as classical in outline as could possibly be desired. The opening adagio is exceedingly impressive, and the succeeding allegro moderato is worked out with splendid mastery of the subject matter, the general effect being that of a lofty design carried into execution by a thoroughly experienced hand. The succeeding allegro grazioso, a modified kind of scherzo, is vigorous, and the final allegro commodo with its excellent first subject, seems scarcely less important than the first movement, though for some mysterious reason no analysis was vouchsafed of this portion of the work...
…we have no hesitation in characterising it as one of the most important compositions for piano solo produced within the present generation. It was very finely played by Miss Zimmermann, and composer and executant were called to the platform and loudly cheered…

The Sonata was repeated by Miss Zimmermann on the following Saturday, and again favourably received, its merits more conspicuous on second hearing.
The Musical Times 1 March 1884 [with minor edits]

Dibble, Jeremy, Charles Villiers Stanford: The Man and his Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002)
Hardy, Lisa, The British Piano Sonata 1870-1945 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press 2001)
Rodmell, Paul, Charles Villiers Stanford (Aldershot: Ashgate 2002)

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