Sir Charles Villiers Stanford
Piano Quartet No.1 in F Major, Op.15
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) was born in Dublin. He had a good all-round education not only studying music but also classics at Cambridge University. Following this, Stanford went to Germany where he studied composition with Carl Reinecke in Leipzig and then with Friedrich Kiel in Berlin. While abroad, Stanford met Brahms and became an admirer. He was a prolific composer who worked in nearly every genre. Stanford was knighted in 1901 for the tremendous contribution he made to British music.
The once high reputation that he enjoyed all but disappeared by the end of his life with critics writing him off as nothing more than a German “copycat” and another Brahms imitator. This criticism is both unfair and wide of the mark. While it is to some extent true his early works show a German influence (sometimes Mendelssohn, sometimes Schumann, and sometimes Brahms), this should really come as no surprise for two reasons. First, during the last part of the 19th century, the British, unlike the French and the Russians, had yet to develop anything that could be called a national style. Second, one must not forget that in the 1870's, Stanford studied with two world-famous German teachers and composers. Since the time of Mozart, the leading composers of Austria and Germany were held up as the models to follow: Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann showed the way. Later, men like Reinecke and Kiel, (who were admirers of Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn) transmitted this influence to their many students, a prodigious amount of whom, like Stanford, became famous in their own right. It should be noted that very few who studied in Germany escaped or wanted to escape this German influence. Men from such disparate backgrounds as Borodin, Busoni, Respighi, Grieg and the American George Chadwick, to name but a few, are examples. As such, it seems particularly unjust to Stanford to complain that some of his early works show German influence, especially in view of the fact that he ultimately went on to help found an English style and contributed to the renaissance of British music. This was particularly true in the realm of chamber music where Stanford almost single-handedly jump-started the British repertoire. Among his many students were Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, Frank Bridge, Ernst Moeran, Arthur Bliss, and Percy Grainger.
One only has to listen to the opening measures of his Piano Quartet No.1 to immediately realize that Stanford was a gifted composer who was capable of writing compositions of the first rank. Dating from 1879, it is a youthful work, written only a few years after his return from Germany, yet it is unquestionably a superb work. The buoyant opening theme of the first movement, Allegro con brio, is truly full of brio. The rich scoring and masterful part-writing show the lessons Stanford received from Kiel and Reinecke were well absorbed. One can hear their influence but not that of Brahms. This is a powerful movement full of luxuriant melodies and excitement. Next there is a Scherzo. Not so lively as one might expect, the mood is more of a relaxed but rhythmic intermezzo. The trio section is a soft chorale for the strings alone. The Poco adagio which follows, once it gets going, sports some very lovely string writing. Perhaps there is a trace of Brahms, here and there. The Finale, also Allegro con brio, begins in a triumphal style, its main theme harking back to Schubert and Schumann. A brisk pace is kept up from the start to the exciting finish (our sound-bite is of these final thrilling measures).
If the composer of this work had been German, no one would have hesitated, even today, to proclaim it a masterpiece every bit as good as the best piano quartets of the day. That fact that a Briton had written it led to a different result. We are pleased to make it available after more than a century of being out of print. It belongs in the concert hall and will be a joy to amateurs.