Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: Love’s White Flame, Songs Vol. 1


  • Artist(s): Christopher Howell, Elisabetta Paglia
  • Composer(s): Sir Charles Villiers Stanford
  • EAN Code: 7.46160911342
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Vocal
  • Instrumentation: Mezzo-Soprano, Piano
  • Period: Romantic
  • Publication year: 2020
  • Sound Engineer: Paolo Guerini
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Stanford rarely provided autobiographical clues to his works. In the case of the Five Sonnets from The Triumph of Love op.82, however, external pointers are strong. The cycle was published in 1903, the year of his 25th wedding anniversary, and the poet, Edmond Holmes, was a longstanding friend and a cousin by marriage who had played an unusual role in Stanford’s own marriage. The composer’s father had initially opposed the match with Jennie Wetton, an English girl his son had met in Germany. He decreed that the two were neither to meet nor to correspond for a year. If they were still of the same mind at the end of the year, they could marry. Plunket Greene adds: ‘[Holmes] carried no messages, but he saw to it that each had happy news of the other’s well-being of mind and body, and helped the black months to pass. [Stanford] never forgot it, and when the occasion arose, as many years later it did, fought for him like a tiger.’ (Harry Plunket Greene: Charles Villiers Stanford, 1935).
The cycle was performed by Marie Brema, with Stanford at the piano, in St. James’s Hall on 8.1.1903, rather in advance of the actual anniversary date of 6 April. Moreover, Holmes’s cycle of 63 sonnets was published, like Stanford’s song cycle, in 1903, so Stanford must have received a pre-publication copy, or seen them in manuscript. As well as celebrating Stanford’s wedding anniversary, therefore, the cycle, and its performance, offered a strong launch for Holmes’s new book of poems.
Stanford, or Holmes himself, made an astute selection, setting 37, 48, 63, 5 and 22 in the published sequence to provide a progression in which passion, in itself liable to be burnt out, is given form and permanence by “love’s self-control”. Stanford responded with music of grandeur and, at times, mystic power. Nevertheless, Holmes had quite another agenda. Uneasy with orthodox Christianity, he had come round to a belief in reincarnation. In “The Creed of Christ” (1905), “The Creed of the Buddha” (1908) and a series of works culminating in “The Headquarters of Reality: A Challenge to Western Thought” (1933), he worked out a personal philosophical system from elements of Christianity and Buddhism. In his sonnet sequences “The Silence of Love” (1899) and “The Triumph of Love” (1903), ideally read in conjunction with his autobiography “In Quest of an Ideal” (1920), Holmes attempted to fit love into his scheme of things, concluding that human passion was the enemy of love and that genuine spiritual love, able to live on in our future reincarnated forms, was attainable only in the absence of – or rejection by – the loved one. “The Triumph of Love”, in Holmes’s full sequence, starts from a love apparently born in a previous incarnation and which triumphs over passion to live on beyond death. Whether or not Stanford was fully aware of the way his friend’s thoughts were tending, he could hardly have set his poetry with greater eloquence and conviction.
Orchestral versions were made of the last three. The last two were sung at a Promenade Concert on 23.10.1909 by Olga Mikhailov, Henry Wood’s wife – her last appearance in public.
While still a student in Germany, Stanford had set 12 of Heine’s shorter lyrics to music (opp.4 and 7, 1874 and 1877). The more ambitious “Tragödie”, op.14/5, followed in 1880. Stanford’s final Heine setting, “Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar”, op.72, was written in November 1898 for the French mezzo Blanche Marchesi. It is not clear whether Marchesi sang it in its original piano version, but she presented it at a Manchester Hallé concert under Richter on 23.1.1902. Attempts to include it in a Philharmonic Society concert in London later in the year and in 1903 aborted and the orchestral score has not survived.
The story tells of a mother who takes her son, pining away after the death of his sweetheart, on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Madonna at Kevlaar to heal his wounded heart. Each pilgrim must bring a wax model of the sick part of their body, so the mother prepares a wax heart for her son. The son makes an impassioned plea to the Madonna. That night, the mother has a vision in her sleep of the Virgin who enters, bends over her son and touches him tenderly. When the mother wakes, she finds her son is dead but, far from being disappointed, she realizes her son’s wound could be healed only by death and praises the Madonna all the more. Staunch protestant though he was, Stanford set this Marian legend with a show of complete empathy. Unity is obtained by concluding each song with the same phrase, “Gelobt seist du, Marie” – first an expression of hope, then an impassioned prayer and, lastly, a tender whisper by the bereaved mother. The processional music opening the first song returns towards the end of the third.
The Four Songs op.125 were completed in 1911 for Dame Clara Butt and her husband, the baritone Kennerley Rumford. Each of them got a setting from Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” and a contrasted song. The subject matter is too female in the one case and too masculine in the other to contemplate performance by a single singer, so only the Clara Butt songs are recorded here. “A Song of Asia” is rich in gracious but unpredictable melody, while “John Kelly” introduces an Irish poet, Winifred M. Letts, who was to figure largely in Stanford’s work – he set 17 of her poems. Letts, in her early days, would go cycling through the Irish country lanes and return home to write poetic sketches of people she met along the way. She was, as she says at the end, 28 when she met this little boy who offered her a bunch of cowslips and showed her his “cabin”. Stanford interprets the scene with a deep nostalgia that the poet presumably did not intend – it all seems to have happened so long ago in the song – but gently elevates it to a work of art.
The exact number of Stanford’s solo songs depends on what you agree to include. Suffice to say there are getting on for 200 and, of these, around 75 are without opus numbers. To these may be added approximately 300 folk-song settings, most of Irish melodies, but including four French tunes and the tiny German piece included here.
Stanford tended not to attach opus numbers to small, separate works. Many were rapid responses to specific requests. A few were gratefully seized upon by singers – “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, “A Japanese Lullaby” and, in its day, “A Corsican Dirge”. Most were forgotten and not listed in catalogues of the composer’s works until fairly recently. Yet Stanford was seemingly incapable of writing an unattractive song, and the sequence here shows that he was as likely to strike gold here as anywhere.
Exploration of Stanford’s operas is finally beginning. It was always evident from his songs, however, that he had at least one fundamental quality of the natural opera composer. Time and again, he brings vividly before us the person actually singing the song. In the examples here we have the light-hearted trusting Scottish lass whose only thoughts are for her Dainty Davie, the near-demented Corsican girl whose father has been slain by local bandits, the petulant, self-centred voice of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the timorous, shy Robert Bridges, so anxious to pass on to the reader the scene he has witnessed, and the flighty Irish colleen who would have her mother empty their savings rather than go to the fair in a calico dress.
Stanford’s sole Burns setting, “Dainty Davie”, was published in 1905. “A Corsican Dirge”, an anonymous Corsican poem translated by Alma Strettell, was completed in November 1892 and performed at the Cambridge University Musical Society on 2.3.1893 by Marie Brema, with Stanford at the piano. In 1887, Stanford had heard Verdi’s “Otello” for the first time in Parma and was profoundly impressed. Some reminiscences of Desdemona’s final scene seem to have strayed into this rather operatic piece. “May’s Love”, to words by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was published in in the Christmas number of “Harmony Magazine”, issued by the Musical Reform Association. The British Library suggests a date of 1884. The BL also holds a proof copy of an Augener edition, dated 1893, but if Augener actually issued it, no copy seems to survive.
Eugene Field (1850-1896) was an American writer of children’s poetry. “A Japanese Lullaby” was also set by Arthur Somervell (1892). Stanford’s version was first issued by Edward Arnold in 1918 as a unison song and subsequently as a solo song by Cramer. Both Somervell and Stanford omit Field’s more dramatic fourth verse. Stanford had earlier used the plaintive wood pigeon motif in his opera “Much Ado About Nothing” (1900). He reproduces very precisely the bird’s irritating habit of stopping abruptly mid-phrase.
The magazine “The Vocalist” announced, for its September 1902 issue” a setting by Stanford of Moira O’Neill’s “Sea Wrack”. At the last moment it was replaced by this version of Robert Bridges’ “The Linnet”, “Sea Wrack” being withheld to form part of a new cycle. The new cycle never materialized, but “Sea Wrack” was issued in 1912. Stanford seemingly made some attempt to reproduce the linnet’s typical melody while in “Der Kukkuk”, a German melody arranged for Harry Plunket Greene, he made commendably sparing use of the cuckoo’s call.
The setting of Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, the earliest work here, was first heard at the Cambridge University Musical Society on 20.10.1877, sung by Herbert Thorndike. Despite the obvious parallels in subject matter with “Erlkönig”, Stanford strikes a path of his own, with a notable harmonic progression near the end.
George H. Jessop (1852-1915) was the librettist of Stanford’s opera “Shamus O’Brien” (1895). “The Calico Dress” was presumably a spin-off from their collaboration, though the original singer of “The Calico Dress”, Evangeline Florence, was not part of the “Shamus” cast.
To the best of our knowledge, and at the time of writing, tracks 1-13 and 15 are first recordings.

Christopher Howell © 2020


Christopher Howell: He was born in London. After picking up a few rudiments from his grandfather, a piano tuner whose father had published a couple of marches in his youth, he had his first piano lessons from the resident teacher of the Caldecott Community, Betty Rayment. He conducted a composition of his own at the age of 14 and gave his first piano recital before leaving school. He also played the organ in the school chapel and has maintained an interest in the organ. Subsequent teachers included two professors of the Royal Academy of Music, Alexander Kelly and Else Cross. He obtained the L.R.A.M. and a B.Mus. with honours at Edinburgh University, where he studied piano with Colin Kingsley and composition with Kenneth Leighton and Edward Harper. In this period he appeared as soloist and chamber musician and formed and directed a small choir. He won a scholarship to complete his piano studies in Milan with Ilonka Deckers-Küszler and gave recitals in Italy and the UK. He has also appeared in Germany (Munich) and France (Nice). In 1993 he recorded a CD of piano music by Cyril Scott. He later recorded a CD of music by Harold Craxton and, with the cellist Alison Moncrieff Kelly, the cello sonatas of C.V. Stanford on Meridian. His compositions have been performed in Milan, Magenta, Turin and Munich. In 2009, at the Spazio Tadini, he collaborated in a homage to Gianandrea Gavazzeni, in which works for voice and piano by the maestro were interpreted by Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni.
Christopher Howell has recorded extensively for Sheva Collection including, with the leading Italian violinist Alberto Bologni, the complete music for violin and piano by C.V. Stanford. His recording of the complete works for solo piano by Stanford, in three double-CD volumes, has been widely acclaimed. His recording of the complete works for solo piano by Mackenzie, on three single-CD albums, has recently been issued, as has a CD containing five sonatas by Haydn.

Elisabetta Paglia: After obtaining a diploma in singing at the Conservatorio “Gesualdo da Venosa” of Potenza with prof. Pina Buono, Elisabetta Paglia followed post-diploma courses in Milan with Sylvia Rhys-Thomas, Enrico Fissore, Vincenzo Manno, Francesca Scaini, Marco Munari and Gabriella Sborgi. In 1998 she sang the role of Maria in Respighi’s Lauda per la Natività del Signore at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Other solo appearances have included Vivaldi’s Gloria, Stabat Mater and Nisi Dominus, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Haydn’s Nelsonmesse, Mozart’s Vesperae solennes de confessore, Rossini’s Petite Messe solennelle, Brahms’s Liebeslieder and the roles of Eugenia in Il Filosofo di Campagna (Galuppi), Cherubino and Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro, Dorabella in Così fan Tutte, Siébel in Faust (Gounod), the Third Lady in Die Zauberflöte and Tisbe in La Cenerentola (Rossini). She has collaborated as soloist with various choirs and instrumental groups under conductors including M. Beltrami, M. Benaglia, M. Valsecchi, E. Breda, A. Iannarone, Xiang Zhang, A. Ceccato, H. Rilling, Jader Bignamini, Ruben Jais, Erina Gambarini, Claus Peter Flor, Shi-Hung Young. She is a founder member of “Le tenere armonie”, a quartet which organizes themed concerts embracing chamber music, opera, operetta, Neapolitan and American song, as well as solo arias and duets. She has a wide repertoire ranging from the 18th century to the present day and has appeared with numerous concert organizations in Milan, Turin, Brescia, Lecco, Roma, Florence, Aosta, Massa Carrara, Munich, Vienna, Wittenberg and Salzburg. She has appeared on RAI and LA7 television. She has recorded 3 CDs for Sheva Collection: “Passé”, dedicated to romantic song in Italy, “My Heart is like Singing Bird”, settings of Christina Rossetti by British composers, mostly from the early 20th century, and “Sweet Evenings Come and Go, Love”, a recital of songs by F.H. Cowen. The present Stanford disc is the first of two.


Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (b Dublin, 30 Sept 1852; d London, 29 March 1924). British composer, teacher and conductor. A prodigiously gifted musician of great versatility, he, along with Parry and Mackenzie, did much to forge the new standards of the so-called ‘renaissance’ in British music at the end of the 19th century. As a composer he brought a technical brilliance to almost all genres, though success in opera, in which he aspired to excel, generally eluded him until the end of his life. In spite of his stature as a composer (particularly in the province of church music), he is perhaps best known as a teacher of sveral generations of British composers who passed through his hands at the RCM and Cambridge University.

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