Any consideration of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Seventh Symphony could do worse than begin with Charles Porte’s summary in his book about the composer’s music. Porte introduces a number of facets of this symphony which are to dominate any future discussion of the work.
He describes is as ‘a singularly bright, compact and lucid work’ but immediately qualifies this by suggesting that it has not ‘a claim to be regarded as great spiritual music’. He considers that this is not a particular problem. Porte regards it as a welcome change to have a work that ‘the storm and stress of conflicting idealism and realism’ which is a well-used ‘plot’ for many symphonies and looks to its ‘fresh and contented spirit that becomes quite lovable on acquaintance’. He concludes his introduction by stating that ‘if the symphony has no portentous claims to greatness, it must surely be given a place as a really musical work, every bar of it being fresh and natural, and free from any forced emotionalism. It is an inspired creation, but it is the inspiration of almost unruffled serenity and contentment, and full of the personal pure thought and individuality of the composer’. No better praise could be given.
Interestingly, Jeremy Dibble quotes Hubert Parry as rather facetiously describing Stanford’s Symphony as ‘mild, conventional [and] Mendelssohnic – But not as interesting as Mendelssohn’. This is a view that is to dominate many critiques of this work down to the present time. Lewis Foreman is quoted by John Quinn (MusicWeb International) as saying that the Seventh Symphony is ‘essentially a nineteenth-century work, a summation rather than a departure’. Richard Whitehouse (Naxos liner notes) has noted the ‘Mendelssohnian lightness’ of this symphony, which was ‘decidedly out of step with an era drawn to Strauss, Debussy and even Stravinsky’.
The Seventh Symphony, Op.124 was, like Parry’s Fifth, composed as a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society’s centenary. As the work was supposed to last about twenty minutes (both David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos and Vernon Handley on Chandos take just over 28 minutes) there was a need for a concentration of material that compressed the traditional four-movement symphonic form into three movements. Jeremy Dibble, in his biography of the composer, has pointed out that although this symphony was ‘by no means his (Stanford’s) most virile symphonic utterance, nevertheless evidenced his most intricate organic thought, a feature which escaped commentators of the time who were beguiled by the Mozartian simplicity of its thematic material’.
The Symphony was duly premiered on 22 February 1912 at the Queen’s Hall with the composer conducting.
The critic in the Musical Times (Apr 1912) was impressed. He suggested that the ‘in some respects the character of the Symphony was a surprise because so simple and straightforward a composition was hardly expected in these times, when a new orchestral work is so often a melancholy psychological problem’. He made the connection with the classical milieu when suggesting that ‘whilst listening to Sir Charles Stanford's music one could imagine Mozart benignly approving’. He concludes by wrongly assuming that ‘as the Symphony is practicable for ordinary resources it will no doubt be often heard’. Well, it was played a number of times in the aftermath of its premiere, but was duly forgotten until its revival in 1990 by Vernon Handley.
The reviewer in The Observer (Feb 24 1912) wrote that symphony has ‘many noteworthy features’ which include being scored for a small orchestra, lasting only half an hour, not having a slow movement, the second movement being partly a minuet, partly a scherzo and lastly the finale may be considered as a set of variations, as is the case in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio. But once again the critic states that the symphony ‘deliberately refrains from dealing with the deeper or more harrowing emotions,’ however on the other hand there is nothing in the work that is ‘flippant or unworthy’. The underlying ethos of this music is ‘a smiling philosophy’. The critic considers that ‘such music is rare among British musicians of the day and this makes it the more welcome’. No doubt the reviewer was thinking about the symphonies of Elgar and (although not British!) Mahler.
The final word must go to Aaron C. Keebaugh who wrote in his thesis Victorian and Musician: Charles Villiers Stanford’s Symphonies in Context (2004) that ‘this work displays Stanford’s skill as a masterful craftsman, [and] a musical architect of the first order.’ He concludes by suggesting that Stanford appears to be ‘a Victorian musician caught within the proverbial lost world of modernism. While his contemporaries stood before the dawn of Neo-classicism, Stanford stood firmly in conventional classicism, rooted in the traditional values of balance, clarity, and formal unity’.
Charles Villiers Stanford's Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 124 can be heard on YouTube