Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Sometimes described as ‘Brahms with an Irish accent’, Charles Villiers Stanford was born in Dublin in 1852, where, as a boy, he sang in the choir of St Patrick’s Cathedral, and received instruction in the piano, violin and organ. The young Stanford was given a conventional education at a private day school in Dublin which concentrated on the classics to the exclusion of all other subjects. Stanford's parents encouraged the boy's precocious musical talent, and employed a succession of teachers for violin, piano, organ and composition, including his godmother, of whom Stanford recalled: ‘She taught me, before I was twelve years old, to read at sight. She made me play every day at the end of my lesson a Mazurka of Chopin, never letting me stop for a mistake. By the time I had played through the whole fifty-two Mazurkas, I could read most music of the calibre my fingers could tackle with comparative ease.’ Stanford’s father, a lawyer and keen amateur singer, had intended for his son to follow the family tradition and enter the legal profession. On Stanford’s gaining of a choral scholarship to Queen’s College Cambridge, however, it became clear that music was to be his life’s work. In 1873, aged just 21, and after just three years’ study at Cambridge, Stanford was appointed organist and Director of Music at Trinity College, working in the shadow of the mighty chapel at King’s. He was held in such regard that, after just a year’s work at Trinity, the college authorities granted him a sabbatical of 2 years, during which he travelled extensively throughout Europe, receiving tuition in composition from Brahms, Offenbach and Saint-Saëns amongst others. Returning to Cambridge, Stanford took over as conductor of Cambridge University Musical Society. In 1876, under his baton, the Society presented one of the first performances in Britain of Brahms’ Requiem, and in 1877 the Society came to national attention when it presented the first British performance of Brahms' first symphony. As well as conducting, composition and teaching consumed his life, and works for the stage, the church and the concert hall followed thick and fast, as well as a prolific output of songs, part songs and chamber music. His church music, with its rich, continental harmonic language, full of free flowing modulations and fine melodic invention, was immediately popular, and recognised as being infinitely superior to the rather bland and unchallenging works of many of his Victorian predecessors and contemporaries. When the Royal College of Music was opened by Royal Charter in 1883, at the initiation of Sir George Grove, Stanford was the first choice as Professor of Composition. In 1883 he was also made Professor of Composition at the University of Cambridge, and he held these posts concurrently until his death in 1924. From 1885 until 1902 he was Musical Director of the London Bach Choir. Stanford’s influence as a composer was immense. Regarded as the paramount British composer of his day, unlike the largely self-taught and reclusive Elgar, Stanford had, during his time in London and Cambridge, a list of pupils which included, amongst others, Constant Lambert, Charles Wood, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Coleridge Taylor, Ireland, Bridge, Bliss, Harris, Howells, and Arthur Benjamin. Honorary doctorates from Durham and Cambridge and a knighthood were some of the many decorations he collected along the way. It is interesting and perhaps symbolic that, amongst musicians, his ashes were the first to be interred in Westminster Abbey since those of Purcell, 229 years earlier, beside which they now lie.

This Te Deum, written for choir and organ in 1879, and orchestrated by Stanford in 1910, is part of a whole service in the key of B flat, consisting of a Te Deum, Jubilate, Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and a complete communion service. It has been a favourite of cathedral and parish church choirs since its composition. It is relentlessly cheerful, almost entirely homophonic and contains almost no changes in texture being for all 4 parts of the choir and organ nearly all of the time.