Charles Villiers Stanford: Fantasia and Toccata


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

Fantasia and Toccata in D minor was completed in the summer of 1894, although it was not published until 1902. Dedicated to Stanford’s colleague and Professor of Organ at the RCM, Sir Walter Parratt, Fantasia and Toccata is influenced by the likes of J.S. Bach and George Frideric Handel. As the title suggests, Fantasia and Toccata is presented in two movements to represent the two different styles.


Movement I – Fantasia

Opening with a big flourish that runs across the organ, the music is initially reflective of J.S. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (BWV542). However, the subtle dissonances at the end of phrases indicate Stanford’s Romantic inspiration. The quiet first theme showcases Stanford’s melodic writing, along with his attention to detail when it comes to textures and timbres within the organ. The powerful climaxes are rich and sonorous, with the organ standing its ground as a dominant instrument. Rich with chromatic harmony, the themes that Stanford runs through are colourful and add a lot to the overall atmosphere that the Fantasia is trying to create. The opening flourish returns at the end of the movement, but this time in D major. The delicate musical conversation between the hands at the end closes this bold fantasia.


Movement II – Toccata

Set in ‘free form’, the Toccata has an air of improvisation within it. Although seemingly a loose form, this merely masks the complex writing underneath. Fast finger work highlights Stanford’s sophisticated structure and layering of themes. The constant flow of melody makes this an exciting rhythmic toccata that takes the listener on quite the journey. Always expanding and developing, the main theme of the toccata extends Stanford’s harmonic language, which ends with a big tonic pedal. The grandiose of the ending of this magnificent work is built up over the course of c1.5 minutes. Huge chordal exclamations lead the way as Fantasia and Toccata concludes on a welcome resolution.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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