“The Stanford Centenary” BBC talk by Vaughan Williams

Letter No.: 
Recorded: 13.8.52

AS BROADCAST:                                                                       Producer: Kay Fuller,
Recorded: 13.8.52. in Mixer 2.                                                                      Room 314,
DOX 79505                                                                                                      Langham.
Duration: without announcement: 11"44"                                           Direction: O.T.M.


                                    “THE STANFORD CENTENARY”


                                  Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams. O.M.


G.O.S.  Tuesday, 30th September,  1952.  1515 GMT
G.O.S.  Friday,      3rd  October,     1952.  2330 GMT
G.O.S.  Saturday   4th October,     1952.  0715 GMT

ANNOUNCER: “The Stanford Centenary”.  This week we are celebrating the centenary of the composer, Sir Charles Stanford, who was born in Dublin on 30th September, 1852.  Many of his vocal and instrumental works are being broadcast during the week and two eminent contemporary musicians Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland, pay tribute to Stanford in broadcast talks.  Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams was a pupil of Stanford, and here are his impressions of him.

It is an honour and a pleasure to be given the opportunity to talk about my teacher, Charles Villiers Stanford, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate this year.
Stanford was a great composer, a great teacher, a skilled conductor, and as befits a true Irishman, a lovable, quarrelsome and generous man.
He has written some of the most beautiful music that has come from these islands.  He realised that all art which is worth while must spring from its own soil.  He made an exhaustive study of his own Irish folk music; some of his arrangements, notably those known to British hearers as The Arbutus Tree and Father O’Flynn, are household words.  Stanford dedicated his collection of arrangements to Brahms, and presumably sent him a copy.  The last movement of Brahms’ piano-forte quintet contains a phrase out of one of those Irish melodies … I am not sure enough of my dates to say whether the egg or the hen came first, but the co-incidence is striking.
Of course in Stanford’s enormous output there is bound to be a certain amount of dull music; but after all, so there is in Beethoven and Bach.  At times his very facility led him astray.  He could at will use the technique of any composer and often use it better than the original, as in “The Middle Watch” where he beats Delius at his own game. Sometimes he could not resist adding a clever touch which marred the purity of his inspiration, as in the sophisticated repetition of the words “lead the line” at the end of that otherwise beautiful song “Sailing at Dawn”.
The bright young things of the younger generation do not seem to know much about Stanford, and not having had the advantage of his teaching are inclined to ignore both what he did and what he taught.  But I believe that he will return again.  With the next generation the inevitable reaction will set in and Stanford will come into his own.  His smaller works are still known and loved by our choral societies and I cannot but believe that such splendid music as the Stabat Mater, Te Deum and Songs of the Fleet will not strike home as soon as opportunity is given to hear them.  It is up to our concert societies, in this centenary year to give us those works as well as the Irish Symphony and Rhapsodies, and his many fine songs.  Cannot the BBC give us a whole series of Stanford programes1  Will not Sadlers Wells receive “Shamus O’Brien”?  And Covent Garden put on “Much Ado”?  It is a scandal that these delightful stage works can only be heard in occasional performances by amateurs and students, good as they often are.
Many of Stanford’s songs were written for that fine, but very individual singer, Plunket Greene.  It is difficult, therefore, to recapture their quality, but the printed line remains for any singer who will take the trouble to read the old spirit into the notes.
The belittling of Stanford’s work was encouraged by one who ought to have known better.  The late Mr. Bernard Shaw in the first number of “Music and Letters” used Elgar as a stick to beat what he called “the Academic Clique” forgetting, or pretending to forget, that it was the acknowledged head of this “clique”, Hubert Parry who was instrumental in obtaining the first performance of Elgar’s variations.  Mr. Shaw was rather proud of having called Stanford a “gentleman amateur” since he repeated the expression more than once.  Apparently the word “gentleman” was to Shaw a form of abuse, and as to “amateur” – but who could have been more professional in his methods than Stanford?  Indeed it was this very technical expertness that was an occasional snare to him.
Stanford had none of the clumsiness of his contemporaries.  Though a great admirer of Brahms he did not imitate his awkward execution.  Stanford’s orchestration, though perhaps unadventurous, is a model of clarity; every stroke tells.  It was the fashion, as I have said, among a certain class of journalists about fifty years ago, to describe Parry and Stanford and others who ruled at the Royal College of Music as “academic”, which apparently meant that they founded the emotion of their music on knowledge and not on mere sensation.  To those critics, admiration of Brahms was equivalent to dry-as-dust pedantry.  If they are still alive they must feel rather foolish when the see Brahms filling the house at a Promenade Concert.
Stanford was a great teacher, and like all great teachers, he was narrow minded.  A broad minded teacher is useless; to say that he was strict was to put it mildly. Everything he disapproved of had no quarter.  It was “damnably ugly”, and that was the end of it.   Once, when I was his pupil, I showed him what I considered to be a world-shaking masterpiece; he looked at it, and then said curtly, “All rot me Bhoy”. He was quite right.  It was.  But it took me some time to discover it.  The work is now, happily, lost.  The only way to get good out of a teacher is to divest yourself entirely of your own personality and do what your teacher wants; only in that way can you get any good out of him.  I was hopelessly obstinate.  In order to secure a lighter touch in my work he once told me to write a waltz.  At that time I was obsessed with modes.  I wrote him a modal waltz!
Stanford as a conductor had no truck with the temperamental orchestral director, his object was to present faithfully what the composer intended.  For that reason the silly journalists who labelled him “academic” complained that he lacked imaginative fancy.  Against this let me set the opinion of Eugene Goossens who told me that he was the finest interpreter of Brahms that he had ever heard.
Stanfords misunderstanding with Elgar was unfortunate for both men, but in spite of this, in spite of the fact that he was temperamentally allergic to “Gerontius” he urged, though in vain, that it be performed in Leeds.  He was also instrumental in obtaining for his supposed enemy an honorary Doctorate at Cambridge University.
Stanford’s career, after his childhood and youth in Dublin may be divided into two periods.  The first dates from his appointment, as organist at Trinity College Cambridge, and afterwards as professor in the University; that was in the seventies when critics were still talking about the unhealthy influence of Wagner and Brahms.  Stanford, fresh from Leipsic, astonished his audience by playing the Overture to the “Meistersinger” from the full score, on the organ.  It was this, I suppose that made the Master of Trinity introduce him to a friend as “Mr. Stanford whose playing always charms us, and occasionally astonishes, and I may add that the less he astonishes the more he charms.”
Stanford’s second period begins when he left Cambridge about 1893 and lived in London.  He was already conductor of the London Bach Choir, and later became Conductor of the Leeds Festival. Still continuing his immense output of music, often inspired, sometimes less inspired, but keeping always within the bounds of classical beauty.  An artist cannot always control his inspiration, but Stanford saw to it that his tools were bright and sharp, and fashioned of tempered steel.  His music is always educated music, founded on the great traditions by one who was determined to uphold the nobility of his art.
CLOSING ANNOUNCEMENT: You have been listening to Dr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, O.M. talking about the musician, Sir Charles Stanford, whose centenary we are celebrating this week.2

1. sic. 
2. This talk formed the nucleus of VW’s piece on Stanford published in Some thoughts on Beethoven’s Choral Symphony with writings on other musical subjects (London, Oxford University Press, 1953).


Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
Midland Region Composer Files, M25/1129, RVW Talks File 1
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