Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Sonata no.2 in D minor, Op.39, for violoncello and piano [1889]


Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s Second Cello Sonata Op.39 was dedicated to probably the greatest cellist of his generation, Alfredo Piatti, and written at the cellist's villa by Lake Como. The piano writing is notably rich and chordally flourishing, blockier, less Mendelssohnian than the 1st sonata. As often as not the piano is primus inter pares in the Allegretto 1st mvt and the sense of Sturm und Drang quite powerfully developed, as are also those moments of yielding lyric introspection. One of the most remarkable moments is the passage for cello pizzicato that is almost operatic, certainly explicitly vocalised and irresistibly beautiful - and all the more touching in retrospect by virtue of the close of the movement, one not untouched by doubt. There's noble dignity in the slow movement with its two scherzi - and despite the levity there's always that Stanfordian admixture of pain, and some expressive plangency. If the piano seemed to lead in the earlier movement it's very definitely the cello that commands the field here, notwithstanding the rich writing for the piano. There's an arresting fugato start to the finale and some terpsichorean incident, even if Stanford hasn't really solved the finale problem; after the tempestuous writing earlier it's a slight let down. Compared to Liddle’s, Stanford’s well-known sonata is more intimate and staid (apart from the final movement), and possesses the poised self-assurance of a veteran composer. The student plays his trump cards immediately, while Stanford invites the listener to return several times to discover the secrets in the details.


Stanford and Ashton were fellow students at the Leipzig Conservatorium during the late 1870s (Ashton was there with his mother). In fact, up to the turn of the century Ashton, although seven years Stanford’s junior, was the more prolific composer, albeit not as adventurous in the exploration of larger genres like opera and oratorio. Later in life they became fellow instructors at the RCM and both harboured similar presumptions as to their lofty ideas and ideals, and their degree of importance in the international arena of contemporary composition.
Born and raised in Dublin, Stanford’s genius for classical musical forms gained him admission to Cambridge University where he quickly established a commanding reputation, and was appointed organist of Trinity College while still an undergraduate. Afterward he studied with Reinecke in Leipzig, and with Kiel in Berlin.


Often dismissed in this century as a German imitator even a cursory investigation of Stanford’s output reveals his intense individuality and Celtic roots. This integrated idiom of German and Celtic traditions was instrumental in establishing an English style upon which the next generation of British composer built. Though little of his popularity survived him, his influence on the British music scene of his day was substantial. In 1883 he was appointed professor of composition at the Royal College of Music and combined that role with that of Professor of Music at Cambridge four years later. Among his notable students were Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bridge, Butterworth, Moeran, Bliss and Grainger.

"One of the fathers of the English renaissance, Stanford was so highly acclaimed as teacher of composition that his fame in this field overshadowed his greatness as a composer."
Music and Musicians

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