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Celebrating Stanford

It is with great pleasure that we announce the release of two choral collections by Charles Villiers Stanford, not only to mark 2024 as the hundredth anniversary of his death, but also to recognise the great enjoyment choirs have had over the years in singing his beautifully crafted music.

We are especially delighted to reunite the Eight Partsongs, Op. 127 under one cover, as for too long only a small number were available as individual titles, with others disappearing from the catalogue altogether some decades ago. It is hard to comprehend why such fine settings of Mary Coleridge’s lyrical poems should have fallen out of favour. In his biography of Stanford, the eminent singer Harry Plunket Greene recalls receiving a letter from the composer written while on holiday in the north of Scotland. Stanford commented that ‘As I have not fished much I have perpetrated eight more (and I think better) Mary Coleridge partsongs’, quite a statement when, as Greene noted in an aside, it is remembered that the previous collection (Op. 119) includes the incomparable ‘Blue Bird’, much beloved by choirs across the world. It may be that it is the fame of this one song that has obscured the excellence of the other Coleridge settings. As Jeremy Dibble writes in his introduction to the new edition of the Op. 127 collection: ‘Both sets represent a high-water mark not only for Stanford but also of the genre of the English partsong in general in terms of sophistication, expressive power and technical brilliance.’

The Nine Irish Folksongs for SATB are published for the first time, and the collection’s editor, Jeremy Dibble, hypothesises from the evidence of Stanford’s handwriting and notation in the manuscript that these choral arrangements belong to the later years of the composer’s life. If so, there may have been a degree of expediency in producing them; Stanford had become financially stretched, and turned to writing a variety of short pieces in a bid to supplement his income with royalties from their publication. Yet irrespective of this possible imperative, these folksongs are presented in beautiful and imaginative choral settings, full of variety and, as ever with Stanford’s writing, perfectly calculated to appeal to amateur choral singers through their liberal offering of lyrical lines across all the voice parts, making the music consistently engaging and rewarding to perform.

Considerable thought was clearly given to the selection of songs for this collection. As well as seeking variety of tempo and character in the music, Stanford chose those that range widely in subject matter, where familiar tropes of love and loss are related in the context of romantic legend, conflict and even politics. Four of the songs are set to words by Thomas Moore (1779–1852), the famous Irish poet and lyricist who enjoyed widespread popularity across Europe and North America, with the other five featuring poems by the Dublin-born writer Alfred Perceval Graves (1846–1931). The songs – both the words and music – stand on their own terms and come across extremely well, but they undoubtedly have an added power and poignancy when the stories that inspired them are understood; with this in mind, we have included notes on the texts in the new edition which choirs are welcome to reproduce in concert programmes. To give just two examples:

She is far from the land (Moore) tells of the grief of Sarah Curran, fiancée of the Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet who helped to organise the Irish rebellion of 1803. Emmet led a small group that marched on Dublin Castle, killing the Lord Chief Justice on the way. In the aftermath of the failed insurrection, Emmet went into hiding, and might have escaped capture and execution had he left the country instead of moving to be close to Sarah. She went on to marry Captain Henry Sturgeon in 1805, and lived with him in Sicily until her early death from tuberculosis aged 26.

Moore and Emmet had been fellow students and friends at Trinity College, Dublin. Although Moore was not involved in any conspiracy, he noted that Emmet was a powerful and persuasive speaker, reflecting that ‘I have heard little since that appeared to me of a loftier, or, what is a far more rare quality in Irish eloquence, purer character.’

St Mary’s Bells (Graves). Sometime between 1380 and 1390, a wealthy benefactor, John Budston, presented four bells to St Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick. However, a local legend tells of how the bells had been stolen from Italy soon after they had been made and how their maker had travelled the world in search of them. Apparently, he at last heard his bells ringing while on a boat sailing up the River Shannon, but he was so overcome with joy that he died on the spot.

The story probably had a special attraction for Graves as his father, the Rt Revd Charles Graves, was the Lord Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe from 1866 to his death in 1899. His son’s text refers to ‘Cratla’s dells’, but this is more likely a reference to Cratloe Woods, a historic location just seven miles from Limerick.

Stanford’s skill and mastery in creating choral settings is evident throughout these folksongs – where lesser composers in this genre struggle for variety of expression and rely on a limited selection of compositional devices, Stanford has a seemingly endless palette of options to deploy that not only captures the precise mood of the tale he is telling but also allows each voice part to take its own individual role in the story.

With this combination of great tales from history and legend, told in the words of poets whose style has stood the test of time, and set to music by a composer with an innate understanding of choral writing, we are honoured to bring this music to light more than 100 years after it was created.

Angus Smith

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