Thursday, 28 January 2016

Ivor Gurney: An Appreciation of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford

Charles Villiers Stanford (Wikipedia)
Charles Villiers Stanford, commenting on his many pupils including Hebert Howells, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Arthur Bliss and Frank Bridge, once suggested that Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was ‘potentially the greatest of the all’ but that he was ‘unteachable.’  The passage of time has proved that the emphasis was on the word ‘potentially.’ Circumstances including mental illness, poverty and war wounds, made Gurney into a fine composer, but not the greatest, as a glance of the names above will suggest. He is remembered and well appreciated today for his poetry and his songs which include some of the finest settings of English poetry in the repertoire.

[Charles Villiers Stanford] was a stiff master, though a very kind man; difficult to please, and most glad to be pleased. England will bury many in the Abbey of Westminster [1] much lesser than he. By him the German influence was defeated, and yet had well learnt of it [qv]. He was a born poet, but had to overcome foreign form and influence. He wrote oratorio instead of string quartet, violin sonata, and such. [2] When England is less foolish she will think more of him. [3] Had he been wiser, he would have talked of Elizabethans at his lessons instead of the lesser string quartets of Beethoven, or the yet deader things that industry and not conscience got out of the German masters. As for his work in Irish folksong arrangements, so admirable, and his autobiographical books, stiff yet charming, the first will last long, the second not long, but will amuse worthily. Only the fools will deny that he brought to them that Irish music, the best in the world, then, of known folksongs.  Ivor Bertie Gurney
Music & Letters July 1924

[1] Charles Villiers Stanford died on 29 March 1924 and was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 2 April. The following day his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey.
[2] Stanford composed music for virtually every medium and in all forms. Gurney is disingenuous to suggest that he ‘wrote oratorio instead of string quartet, violin sonata, and such…’ There is much fine chamber music. In recent years record companies have enabled the interested listener to explore a large part of Stanford’s achievement that ranges way beyond oratorio. In fact, the oratorios have been largely ignored, with one of two notable exceptions.  Gurney is correct, however in acknowledging Stanford’s remarkable contribution to Irish folksong. I am not sure that the ‘Germanic’ influence on Stanford was necessarily a bad thing. Subject for a thesis! 
[3] Stanford still languishes on the hierarchy of ‘successful’ British composers. He has never lost the enthusiasm of choirs and organists but I reckon his stock has risen with the general listener with the advent of the vast majority of his orchestral music available on CD. I would swap a lot of music by ‘greater’ composers to retain Stanford’s symphonies, concertos and Irish Rhapsodies. And then there are his parts songs…

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