Entertainment Music Jealous and tuneless? History's not been kind to Stanford...

Jealous and tuneless? History's not been kind to Stanford – but his Songs of the Sea are a real treat


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Parry’s responsibilities at the RCM, of which he became director in 1895, severely limited the amount of composition he could do. Stanford notched up around 200 works. He was the most prolific British-based composer of opera of his age, turning out nine. The critics disliked most of his operas, and none, again, is widely known today. A perception that Stanford was poor at writing tunes (against which one cites in evidence his rousing Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet) was often levied against these works, which seemed to many to have all the lack of substance of Gilbert and Sullivan but little of the wit.

By the time his most successful pupils were becoming famous, in the years before the Great War, Stanford was acutely aware that he was becoming a back number, and hated it. He fell out badly with the acclaimed Elgar, whom he had sought to help earlier in his career, and of whom he became deeply jealous. He disliked aspects of how Parry ran the RCM, and may also have resented his enormous popularity with the students – but then Parry had charm and nobility beyond Stanford’s dreams.

For those wanting to explore the composer, a new edition of Jeremy Dibble’s stunning biography of him is published this week (Boydell, £70). For the music, start with the three Somm discs of his string music by the Dante Quartet, then David Lloyd-Jones’s recordings of the Symphonies on Naxos. Stanford’s most popular opera, Shamus O’Brien, has just had a superb recording on Retrospect, conducted by David Parry; and for a real treat, try Richard Hickox’s Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet, with Gerald Finley, on Chandos. Stanford may have been problematical, but he deserves his day in the sun.


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