Charles Villiers Stanford: String Quartet No.8


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 1919, Stanford’s Eighth String Quartet was one of his last completed chamber works. Recordings of this quartet have only surfaced recently, led by the Dante Quartet, and this is largely due to the music remaining officially unpublished. Set initially in E minor, this dark-edged quartet shows Stanford’s fully-formed chamber style.


Movement I – Allegro moderato

The opening movement is light and showcases all four voices uniquely. The intricate call and response motifs float through the voices to create well-structured musical dialogue that is both interesting and musically-sound. The rich textures created by Stanford are chiefly led by the strong foundation laid by the cello. The short cello interlude in the central section leads to the big climax of this movement as the top violin reaches its top range as the other three voices unite to create a driving accompaniment. After a reprise of previous material, this exciting opening movement concludes with a pizzicato flourish before an arco resolve.


Movement II – Allegretto

The light-hearted second movement opens with a memorable melody that is initially led by the violins. Once again, Stanford’s intricate writing lays at the heart of this movement, with quick pulsating rhythms running throughout the veins of the music. Bold unison writing creates big sounds when the dynamics are raised. The impact of these sections makes for such thrilling listening as the four voices create quite the impact. The sweet opening melody is heard one last time before the movement ends quietly.


Movement III – Canzona – Adagio

The slower third movement is led by the violin and viola at the start. The long and drawn-out melody is emphatic, but sensitive to the style of the movement. Rich harmony sweeps over this movement, with Stanford playing with dissonance during important corners of the music. Stanford using solo voices throughout to create different effects, all four instruments get solo lines in this movement, all of which are based on the opening theme. As the instruments begin to unite again, the conclusion to this movement is drawn out over many minutes until the solo line fades into silence.


Movement IV – Finale 

The energy-filled Finale shows a high level of invention  as it blasts away any feelings of introspection. Thrilling unison scale movements create excitement between the voices. The music falls into a lyrical theme which is carried into the central section. Rich with Stanford’s classical style, the finale is full of twists and turns that keep both the performers and listeners on the edge of their seats. A drawn-out reprise of the opening material leads to a sudden climax and break in the music. When they re-enter, the quartet are thrust back into the dark key of E minor and the opening theme from the first movement. This leads to the quiet conclusion of this complex quartet.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Michael Tippett: String Quartet No.1


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