Monday, 17 October 2011

Stanford's Irish Symphony: A New York Performance, 1917.

Of all the symphonies by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford his Irish Symphony has just managed to retain a place in the repertoire of orchestras. Understandably, this work was heard many times towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. It largely disappeared from the concert lists until it was rediscovered in the 1980’s. Even before the two major cycles of his symphonies on Chandos and Naxos there was a recording of the ‘Irish’ by Norman Del Mar and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta on EMI ASD 4221 dating from 1982. This symphony, which dates from Stanford’s early period, is considered to be one of the ‘most characteristic and beautiful compositions by its composer.’
I found a review in the Musical Times for the work’s performance in New York. It bears presenting here for the strong views on the works Irish inspiration.

‘It is interesting to note the opinion expressed by Mr. H. E. Krehbiel, the distinguished American critic, upon a recent performance of the Symphony under Mr. Walter Damrosch [1] in New York. He says: ‘Quite unexpectedly, even to those who had previously scanned its programme, the concert turned out to be one in which the spirit of racialism [2], if not nationalism, was celebrated from beginning to end. To start with, there was the overture Fingal's Cave [3] which is Gaelic in so far as it perpetuates the musical impression made upon the imagination of Mendelssohn by his first visit to the Hebrides, though the music was developed later in Italy.
Then came Sir Charles Villiers Stanford's Irish Symphony, of which Mr. Damrosch gave its first American hearing at a concert of the Symphony Society exactly twenty-nine years ago come next Sunday [4] We have heard it frequently since and with ever-growing admiration. In it a native Irishman who is one of the most scholarly of British musicians pays tribute to the folk-music of his native isle, and in its slow movement especially raises what we are disposed to consider the finest monument to the spirit of Celtic folk-song which artistic music has produced. The jollity of the hop-jig and the splendid pride of Irish chivalry speak out in the second and last movements, but these elements count as little compared with the pathos of the ancient lament which lies at the base of the slow movement and which so admirably expresses what Dr. Norman McLeod [5] once characterized as ‘the thoughts that lie too deep for tears-the music of an oppressed, conquered, but deeply feeling, impressible, fanciful and generous people'; the music appropriate to the harp in Tara's halls. That harp prelude is the introduction to the movement, and is heard again with its mournfully beautiful wail, toward the end. It is well that the Symphony is kept alive; it speaks a message the significance of which will be plainer to the world when the end of the present awful cataclysm permits the racial voice of music to speak out in clearer tones than it has yet done in the artistic music of the world.’
The Musical Times March 1 1917 [with minor edits]

The 'Irish Symphony' was first performed under Richter in London on June 27, 1887.
[1] Mr. Walter Damrosch (1862-1950). German born composer and conductor who latterly lived in the United States. He is perhaps best remembered as director of the New York Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the world premiere performances of George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto on F (1925) and his American in Paris (1928).
[2] Racialism does not have negative connotations here – it simply means that this work exhibits traits deemed to be appropriate to people of a Celtic descent.
[3] The Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave written by Felix Mendelssohn after his visit to the Western Islands of Scotland in 1829.
[4] Walter Damrosch performed Stanford’s Irish Symphony with the New York Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in November 1887.
[5] Dr. Norman McLeod was a Scottish divine and miscellaneous writer. He lived from 1812-1872.

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