Charles Villiers Stanford’s part-song ‘The Blue Bird’ is one of my all-time favourite pieces of choral music; it is definitely one of my 'Desert Island Discs' along with the same composer’s Second Piano Concerto. There is still a residual school of thought that decries Stanford’s name. He is accused of being as 'dry as dust' (along with his near-contemporary Hubert Parry), he is charged with being unoriginal - Brahms with an Irish accent and he is accused of lacking inspiration. Not every composer breaks new ground and not every composition is free from derivation. It is a very different thing to use an existing musical languages than to deliberately indulge in pastiche. As for inspiration, one cannot but recall the old adage about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Stanford did compose much music. Some of it is probably best left to the specialist; it was music of its time. However, the more I hear of this great man's music the more I appreciate it. We have two excellent cycles of the seven symphonies (Naxos & Chandos), the three piano concertos, the Requiem and many songs and choral pieces. All of these works reveal hidden depths and suggest that they may well be lost (or misplaced) treasures.
But no work by Stanford, I believe, is more perfect than his setting of Mary Coleridge's (1861-1907) verse the ‘Blue Bird’. I give the words here:-
The lake lay blue below the hill,
O'er it as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.
The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught its image as it flew.
Literary critics may classify this as second-rate verse: I do concede that it does not attain to the heights of English Poetry. But there is something compelling about these words. Perhaps some of the effect is explained by later imagery. The Americanism, if such it be, of being 'blue' and the wartime song so beloved of a generation, ‘There'll be ‘Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover,' has tinged these words with a feeling that was not present in its original. There is a creation of colour and effect in these words - it is a 'blue' study. I can never decide if it is warmth I feel on reading these words or a chill. A blue-sky possibly means a warm day - but ice is also blue. And the lover's heart can be chilled by his beloved passing over the seas into the blue yonder?
This poem is taken by Stanford and is turned into a glorious miniature - a perfect fusion of words and music. He creates an unbelievable atmosphere. Few other pieces of music have this feeling, this magic, this power to move. There is a combination of coolness and warmth - of sunlight and cloud.
'The Blue Bird' was one of eight settings included in Op. 119; the other seven are no longer well-known. If this was the only work that we remembered Charles Villiers Stanford for, he would be well-worth recalling.
There is a lovely version (amongst others) of Stanford’s 'The Blue Bird' on YouTube