Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Charles Villiers Stanford: An Appreciation by George Dyson

At the time of Stanford’s death in 1924 a number of his friends and pupils set down their thoughts in Music & Letters. In fact George Dyson became director of the RCM in 1938: he was the first director to have studied there. His appreciation of Stanford is very honest: he presents a picture that includes the less appealing side of the great man.

I was a pupil of Stanford for four years. I have more to thank him for than I can attempt to catalogue. But of his particular approach to the art of teaching, the subject with which I am here to deal, it is not easy to write. I remember a good many of his characteristic explosions. I happened once to bring into his room a book or a paper in which he came upon a photograph of Gladstone. He leapt at it. “Look at his face, my boy! Sinister, sinister in every line. Ugh!" Thus Stanford the Orangeman. Another day I heard part of a lesson given to a student who has since become famous. ‘Blank,’ he said, ‘your music comes from hell. From hell, my boy; H E double L.’ Thus Stanford the purist. Once he suddenly observed that my nose was obstructed. He took particular pains to have me examined gratis by a Harley Street specialist: and I know he did the like for others, too, who seemed to be ailing or disabled in any way. From another angle he once said to me: ‘I want to talk to you, my boy. Don't spend too much time with So-and-so. He'll do you no good. I'd rather see you with a painted lady.’

All his judgments were of this uncompromising type. When we were preparing Tod und Verklärung, he remarked: ‘If it's to be Richard, I prefer Wagner. If Strauss, then give me Johann.’ And after the performance at Queen's Hall of a famous work which to him seemed to smack too much of the hot-house, he is said to have relieved his discomfort in the artist's room by playing scales of C major. He once gave me a similar douche in a terminal report. ‘Has a bad fit of chromatics. Hope he will soon grow healthy and diatonic.’ At the end of my time with him I became Mendelssohn scholar. ‘What are you going to do with it?’ he asked me when next we met. My ideas were vague, but I said something about Leipzig. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘you've had four years here. That's enough. You don't want any more of that sort of thing. Go to Italy, my boy, and sit in the sun.’

I have set down these disjointed memories thus at random, because to me they represent him as no carefully chosen adjectives could do. This done, there comes the main question. Was Stanford a great teacher?

In the sense in which it is customary to understand the term, I think Stanford's teaching had most of the major defects that teachers are usually counselled to avoid. The careful exposition of principles, the weighing and collating of detail, the conscientious or laboured endeavour to understand or appreciate an alien or repellent point of view; these faculties had no sure place within his temperament. He could give first-rate technical advice. ‘Keep the double-basses up.’ ‘Percussion is effective inversely in proportion to the amount of it.’ ‘You don't make more noise by scrubbing at a fiddle than by bowing it normally.’ Remarks of this kind came frequently, and were invariably sound. But in matters more elusive, in questions of personal expression, of poetic or dramatic mood, of all the more modern devices of emphasis or atmosphere, he seemed to some of us to be a bundle of prejudices. His judgments in these things were so impatient, brusque and final. If he disagreed with a student's choice of a poem, he was not likely to find much sense in the setting of it. Sometimes his distaste was strong enough to defeat itself. The pupil might become sullen and the teacher bitter.

Something of this feeling of unresolved conflict seemed to lie behind the disappointment which in later years he occasionally confessed. He had aspired to be the acknowledged fount of a school of composers. In his own judgment he had largely failed. And this in spite of the patent fact that an overwhelming majority of contemporary English composers of distinction were his pupils. In proportion as these men developed a novel or personal speech, Stanford seemed to think that they were abjuring just those ideals which he had tried to instill. The ultimate products baffled or distressed him. His mature idol had been Brahms. To his pupils it too often seemed that what he wanted from them was Brahms and water. And hardly any of his most talented students could abide the mixture. It is said that some of them occasionally concocted a deliberate imitation in order to please him. Some certainly wrote in the knowledge that they would be condemned from the first bar. In a certain sense the very rebellion he fought was the most obvious fruit of his methods. And in view of what some of these rebels have since achieved, one is tempted to wonder whether there is really anything better a teacher can do for his pupils, than drive them into various forms of revolution.

Stanford's real and abiding influence lay in qualities of mind and character of which he was probably never even conscious. His fundamental reactions were fierce and intuitive. There were some things to him so elemental that they rarely required to be expressed, much less argued about. And on this plane he carried most of his pupils with him, without their being in the least alive as to what was actually happening. Vagueness, shallowness, sentimentality, froth, and a score of other temptations to which every talent, young or old, is subject, were simply outside his orbit. They could not exist in his presence, and men left them outside his door like a coat or a hat. This was the real infection. His direct judgment, his tightness of speech, his fury of integrity, these were what he gave to those who could digest them. It was an influence as indirect as was the breadth and scholarship of Parry. One did not have to know Parry. He had only to sit in the Director's room at the Royal College, and it was impossible for slack or superficial work to feel at home there. How could an institution be aimless that had Parry at its head? How could a composition be meaningless vapour that had Stanford at its heels?

His passion it was for the artistic faith of his maturity which was the outstanding feature of his work. Something of this he had to pass on, and he did not fail. There is not, to my knowledge, a single one of his pupils who, having talent to do better, has chosen the easy path. To the ablest of them the facile, the imitative, the popular, the best-seller, are completely unknown. Not a few have been content to dig hard and long, to mould with not a little of Stanford's own ruggedness, such metal as they were able to find in themselves. Stanford had an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and this alone was a notable experience to those who came in contact with it. He had also been in close touch with all the finest traditions and all the most gifted exponents of his time. And he was, as I have already shown, something of a true father to us all. But above all he had within him a refining fire, hidden it may be, but never quenched. As was lately said of a great headmaster whose outward manner was difficult: ‘When all is done and said, the man cared.’ Stanford cared, and cared passionately, for the art in which he lived. And if any of us, his pupils, have even a spark of that same fire, then, whether we know it or not, we burn it in his honour. George Dyson in Music & Letters July 1924

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