Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony No.1


Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) remains one of Ireland’s most popular composers. After studying at the University of Cambridge, Stanford went to Leipzig in Germany to pursue his musical studies. In 1882, when Stanford was just 29 years old, he became one of the founding professors of the Royal College of Music. Stanford taught composition at the RCM until his death in 1924. Some of Stanford’s successful pupils included Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Rebecca Clarke, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Frank Bridge. 

As well as professor of composition, Stanford was also a keen organist and conductor, holding posts at Trinity College Cambridge, Bach Choir and Leeds Triennial Music Festival.  Stanford’s lasting legacy can be seen within his huge catalogue of works. Over 200 works in total, including 40 choral works, 7 symphonies and 9 operas. Sadly, after Stanford’s death in 1924, and the rise of popularity in composers such as Holst and Elgar, lots of his music went off the radar. What is positive is that lots of Stanford’s music has been recorded, so his music is performed and heard every so often. 


The Music

The First Symphony was composed in 1876, and was written for a competition at the Alexandra Palace. The symphony came second out of 46 entrants, and Stanford received a £5 prize. Dedicated to the tenor and friend of Stanford, Arthur Duke Coleridge, the First Symphony premiered in 1879 at The Crystal Palace. After the premiere, the symphony was never performed or published again in Stanford’s lifetime. Stanford biographers have commented that this symphony is influenced by the orchestral stylings of Brahms and Schumann. 


Set into four movements, the First Symphony takes c.49 minutes to perform in its entirety. 


Movement I – Larghetto – Allegro vivace

The broad and spacious opening movement is the longest of the whole symphony and was the longest instrumental movement composed by a British composer until Elgar composed his First Symphony. The opening theme played by the celli and basses is decorated by stopped horns before the upper strings take control of the melody. Stanford’s Romantic style of writing is prevalent through the rich textures and colourful harmonies. The slow introduction is drawn out, with the Allegro vivace section not starting until over 3 minutes into the movement. The bold and powerful main theme is clear cut and paired with Stanford’s rich harmonic language creates a delectable musical palate throughout. 

The changes between lyrical sections and those with more bombast create a swing of character within the music. These clear changes keep the music interesting and ever-developing. Stanford’s handling of the brass throughout shows his effective orchestration skills as the climaxes are based on the sound of the heavy brass. The opening movement comes to its conclusion as the main melody is heard once more, this time with more energy and with the distinct presence of the upper brass.


Movement II – Scherzo: Ländler tempo

Set as a 3/4 time Austrian Ländler, the light touch of the second movement offers a different side to Stanford’s style. The woodwinds are utilised much more in this movement, with dedicated woodwind interludes shadowing the chief string themes. The quick scherzo tempo keeps the music light and moving along, with this movement being the shortest of the four. The lyrical trio sections are split into two halves, with Stanford calling upon some soloists within the string and woodwind sections. The horns once again play a vital part in the orchestration, with their fragments of the theme bolstering the texture effectively. After a woodwind interlude, the chirpy second movement concludes quietly.


Movement III – Andante tranquillo

As the performance direction suggests, the character of the third movement is tranquil and solemn. Rich textures from the strings and woodwind open the movement, with Stanford once again looking to soloists within the orchestra to develop and grow the melodies into fruition. Stanford’s pen is very light throughout the movement, with small fluctuations in dynamics creating new dimensions within the music. A sweet central section changes the character somewhat, before a solo violin moves the orchestra back to the opening theme. The movement concludes with a much-needed resolution.


Movement IV – Finale

The fiery finale opens with a big statement supported by the whole brass and percussion section. The quick tempo requires lots of energy from the orchestra, which carries the themes through. Bursting with excitement, the finale is perhaps the most musically impactful of the four movements. Stanford uses all sections to create small interludes within the texture. This is the first movement that Stanford does this for the brass, and the warm timbre breathes some new life into the music. Even during the slight atmosphere change in the central section, the music always stays bright and quick. The finale concludes this ground-breaking symphony off with energy, passion and excitement as the orchestra unite for the final sequence of chords. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Ruth Gipps: Symphony No.4


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