Charles Stanford (1852-1924) has been called the most important single factor in the renaissance of English music during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; indeed, even if one were to overlook Stanford’s own vast catalog of compositions, it would be impossible to ignore the pronounced effect Stanford’s nearly 40-year teaching career had on several generations of British composers. Born in 1852 to a prominent Irish lawyer and amateur musician, Stanford manifested his musical talents early in life. Whether the stories that he was actively composing songs by age of four and giving full-length recitals by age nine are true or not, Stanford was certainly the recipient of a thorough musical and academic education, studying at Henry Tilney Bassett’s school in Dublin and taking private lessons in piano, organ and composition from a number of trained musicians (including Arthur O’Leary).
At age 18 Stanford entered Queens’ College, Cambridge to pursue more serious studies in music. In 1874 he earned a B.A. in music, having already been appointed both organist at Trinity College (a post he filled with distinction for almost 20 years) and conductor of a number of University choral societies. After graduating from Queen’s College, Stanford traveled to the continent for further studies, working with composer Carl Heinrich Reinecke in Leipzig for almost two years and later (having met and impressed Joseph Joachim) with Joachim’s associate Friedrich Kiel in Berlin. By the time of Stanford’s return to London in the late 1870s his reputation as one of the leading British composers of the day was secure, and a number of his large compositions (such as the Second Symphony, 1882) were premiered during the following 10 years.
Stanford was appointed to the faculty of the new Royal College of Music in 1882, and further honored when he was made a professor at Cambridge University in 1887. He was knighted in 1902, and remained a prominent feature of the musical landscape of Great Britain until his death in 1924. Stanford’s lifelong service to British music earned his ashes a place of distinction next to Henry Purcell’s in Westminster Abbey.
Although accounts of Stanford’s life have tended to focus on his impact as a teacher (understandably, with such notables as Vaughan Williams, Holst, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, John Ireland, Frank Bridge, and Arthur Bliss among his many pupils), his merit as a composer deserve as much mention. He is, without a doubt, the greatest British composer of sacred music since Henry Purcell: Morning, Communion, and Evening Services in B flat, Op.10 is almost symphonic in scope, and Stanford’s many cantatas and oratorios are the pre-eminent British entries in the genres. His orchestral output includes seven symphonies and three piano concertos, and, although only one of his operas (Shamus O’Brien, 1896) achieved any kind of success, Stanford’s interest in a new kind of British opera cleared a path for one of that country’s most notable twentieth century composers, Benjamin Britten