Ballet is one of the few genres that Charles Villiers Stanford did not contribute to. However, the Scènes de Ballet, op.150 dating from 1917 give the listener some clue as to what he may have come up with. Yet not is all that it seems.
The score includes a ‘Tempo di Polka’, a ‘Pas de Deux’, the ‘Valse Chromatique’, a ‘Pas de Fascination’, a ‘Mazurka’ and concluding with a ‘Tourbillon.’ This latter could appear to represent a Scottish country dance, although Francois Couperin also made use of the dance in one of his harpsichord suites. The word is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as being a ‘whirlwind, whirling storm.’ The piece is marked to be played ‘Tempo di Galop.’ Howell reminded me that there are examples of this title composed by Joseph Lanner and Joseph Siegmund Bachman which exploit this ‘galloping’ mood. Stanford recorded in his Pages from an Unwritten Diary that he heard dances played by Strauss and Lanner during his student years in Germany. I am not sure that Stanford precisely captures the mood of any definition or exemplar.
Scènes de Ballet had been used as a title by several composers, including Stanford’s friend Alexander Glazunov, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Igor Stravinsky. At this time, ‘the spirit of parody’ was a prominent feature in much music. Howell has further suggested the Suite is an exploration of ‘light music’ of the kind that Stanford’s one-time pupil Coleridge-Taylor may have come up with. To this end, he wittily suggests that this ‘Scene du Ballet’ could also have been given the Ravelian title ‘Le Tombeau de Coleridge Taylor’ such is the stylistic referencing in this music. This is a delightful score, that showcases enjoyable music. Yet, there is sometimes a harder edge, harmonically, to these pieces implying that Stanford was responding to Continental developments in musical style. After all, it was composed four years after Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring!
One of the earliest numbers is the short ‘March’ dating from 1860 when the composer had reached the grand old age of eight years. Hardly a masterpiece, but is worth hearing simply because, anecdotally, it was the Stanford’s opus 1. The work was supposedly performed during Puss in Boots at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. Howell suggests that the young composer may well have been inspired by Meyerbeer’s ‘March’ from Le Prophète. Whatever the facts and opinions, it is good to have such an early piece from Stanford on CD.
The Romance – ‘Un Fleur de Mai’ was composed some four years later, circa 1864. This is quaint little piece that owes much to Balfe and possibly John Field. Certainly, this little flower was spotted in Ireland and not France. What it lacks in structure, it makes up in charm.
The Three Nocturnes were completed in 1921. Unfortunately, the first is missing. This title is typically given to short character pieces written for piano in a quiet and lyrical style. It was introduced by the Irish composer John Field and perfected by Chopin. Stanford’s ‘night pieces’ echo the mood of his native land. Howell has noted that they both have a ‘disjointed feel, almost like [a] mosaic’. Certainly, they show the composer looking towards Debussy rather than Chopin. The first performance of these two Nocturnes was given by the present pianist at the Villa Bossi, Bodio Lomnago, Varese in Italy. It is incredible that such imaginative and beautiful pieces had to wait so long to be heard.
The vibrant Toccata in C major dates from just after the Great War. It is a strong work that has echoes of Brahms and Richard Strauss’ Burlesque, although Howell points out that Stanford would not have relished the latter comparison.
The final three pieces on this CD are the Three Dante Rhapsodies, op.92, which were written in 1904. J.A. Fuller-Maitland defines these pieces as ‘the most ambitious of Stanford’s pianoforte compositions’ but are also ‘strangely lacking in inspiration.’ Charles Porte considers that despite the ‘Dante’ theme ‘they are rather dull as musical works.’
I feel that what we have here is the nearest thing to a piano sonata to survive from Stanford’s pen. Certainly, I find interest, strength, beauty and technical prowess at every turn of these three beautiful pieces. I disagree with Fuller-Maitland that the first two movements, ‘Francesca’ and ‘Beatrice’ do not move the listener: I think they are gorgeous expressions of love and loss.
‘Francesca’ majors on that lady’s illicit love affair with Paolo, for which she remained ‘unrepentant.’ The second ‘movement’ is entitled ‘Beatrice’. I always associate this music with the stunning painting by Henry Holliday(one of my all-time favourites) in the Liverpool Walker Art Gallery. Stanford’s music is concurrently romantic, melancholy and strangely positive. The final piece is ‘Capaneo’ who, according to Dante, is found amongst the ‘blasphemers’ in the ‘seventh circle of hell’ under fire from Zeus’ thunderbolts because he dared to defy the gods. Interestingly, the closing pages are signed ‘nobilmente’ a term normally associated with Edward Elgar. It is a strong, virile piece that may not rise to the heights of inspiration, but is nevertheless effective and convincing. The Three Rhapsodies were dedicated to Percy Grainger.
It seems superfluous to praise Christopher Howell’s liner notes for this CD. He is always meticulous in his scholarship and has a huge ability to communicate his passion for music. The text is supported by endnotes. Taking all three ‘volumes’ together, these ‘notes’ present an almost dissertation-length study of Stanford’s piano music. Added to this, are detailed ‘catalogue’ entries of each work in the track-listings, an introduction to ‘Stanford the Pianist’ and an overview of the piano music in general. A short bio of Christopher Howell is included.
I enjoyed every piece on these two CDs. They are played with huge skill and obvious enthusiasm. The sound recording, which is excellent, adds enormously to the value of this music. The entire package, three volumes, six CDs, the essential liner notes, the historical research, the preparation of scores and other material has been a major triumph. It is a massive contribution to the recorded legacy of one of the British Isles’ greatest composers. Everything on this present volume and the entire cycle in general, dispels the myth that Charles Villiers Stanford wrote music that was ‘as dry as dust.’
Scènes de Ballet, op.150 (1917) [24:15]
March (1860) [01:48]
Un Fleur de Mai: Romance (c.1864) [04:20]
Three Nocturnes, op184, (1921) No.2 B flat major [07:01] No.3 F major [07:47] n.b. No.1 is missing
Toccata in C major (1919) [04:35]
Three Dante Rhapsodies, op.92 (1904) [26:00]
Christopher Howell (piano)
Rec. Studios of Griffa and Figli, Milan, Italy, 29 October 2013; 6 May & 9 September 2014, 20 October 2015 & 11 February 2016.