Charles Villiers Stanford: Clarinet Concerto


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

Composed in 1902, Stanford’s Clarinet Concerto was premiered at Queen’s Hall in London in June of 1904 by clarinettist Charles Draper and the Philharmonic Society. Although quite evidently in three movements, the concerto is often known as the ‘Concerto in One Movement’. The first and second movements are linked by a short modulation, with the second and third linked by a developed version of the opening theme. The piece is usually performed in one continuous performance that lasts c.22 minutes.


Movement I – Allegro Molto

The opening movement opens with a march theme played by the whole orchestra. The clarinet enters and a dialogue is set up between the two voices. The orchestra plays a more strident, clear-cut theme, whereas the clarinet leans on triplet movement and a more lyrical style. Here we hear the first exclamation of the main theme. As the lyrical clarinet theme plays out, Stanford creates a call and response theme that is threaded throughout the whole concerto. This leads to the second theme which is much more peaceful than the bold opening segment. The opening march-like theme returns in a new form near the end of this movement as the clarinet sets up the modulation into the second movement. 


Movement II – Andante con moto

The lyrical second movement opens with a rich chorale led by the strings and horns. This wistful movement is given lots of time to develop, which shows Stanford’s control over the voices. The woodwind take over the opening chorale theme which adds depth to the texture. The main melodic theme is a rising figure first played by the soloist, but is also led by the lower strings at points during the movement. The orchestra performs a lot of the development in this movement, with the soloist playing peaceful interludes above. Stanford’s orchestration mastery sings out in this movement, with each voice being handled with the utmost care. As this movement comes to its peaceful conclusion, the fiery finale movement bursts into action.


Movement III – Allegro moderato

The rondo finale is full of energy and excitement as the opening horn feature sets the scene for the soloist to enter. The clarinet part is virtuosic throughout this movement, with big scalic runs, jumping intervals and shifts in character creating a sense of drama. The high energy is threaded throughout this whole movement until the very end of the concerto. Stanford’s big changes in dynamic once again lead in the drama of the music, with the deathly quiet sections highlighting the skill of the soloist. Rich textures from the orchestra support the quick-moving soloist as the main theme returns to close the concerto off in style. A final flourish from the soloist unites the orchestra for the final resolution chord.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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