Preludophilia: Stanford's Preludes Op. 163

Around 1918, composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924), aged seventy, was overcome by a profound case of preludophilia. Hailed as a member of the "English Renaissance" (he was Irish), his lengthy public career included honorary degrees from numerous institutions, international conducting repute, training such pupils as Holst, Vaughan Williams, Ireland, and Coleridge-Taylor, and almost two hundred opus numbers, consisting mostly of symphonies, concertos, vocal works, and chamber works. But during the last six years of his life, he wrote preludes for the piano, two sets appearing in 1919 and 1921. Perhaps he recalled his early training in Chopin. Or maybe he felt some influence from the recently combined set of Rachmaninov, a composer often compared with him on stylistically conservative grounds. Either way, the first set, Op. 163 (thank you IMSLP) forms the topic of today's post and provides us with an opportunity to explore the first prelude set in the Chopin tradition composed in the British Isles. (Sorry Ireland's William Vincent Wallace [1812–1865]. Your Twenty-four Preludes and Scales [1855] are woefully behind the times and more akin to Cramer or Kessler.)

Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 163 was published in 1919 in three series:
  • Series I - C,c,Db,c#,D,d,Eb,eb
  • Series II - E,e,F,f,Gb,f#,G,g
  • Series III - Ab,g#,A,a,Bb,bb,B,b

The use of Bach Order is somewhat unique at this time (the few instances of it before him are mostly German organists, Glière, and Bach himself) and could point to Stanford's German training. Seven of the pieces have characteristic titles including "In the Woodland" Prelude 13 in G-flat Major, "Carillons" Prelude 21 in B-flat Major, and "In Memoriam. M.G." Prelude 22 in B-flat minor; nevertheless the music functions as absolute music, crafted little pieces in the Chopin tradition. To listen the recording by Peter Jacobs (Priory Records 1996) takes just about fifty minutes.

I would describe this music as "sensuous yet restrainéd grandeur." Texturally the opening C Major number has that clear, triadic, Bachian character, strong, grounded pillars of the preludial entrance chamber. But by its layout and form we clearly see Stanford's lush, almost oozy harmony (lots of unexpected bVIs, unprepared modulations to F#, and Gr +6s). The uniform blocks of sound become almost like bars keeping the Wagnerian superfluity at bay. Prelude 6 in D minor barely keeps itself together, barely unified by a devious false recapitulation (in E-flat... that slips into D-flat before being mastered back into d by sheer willpower!). It could very well end anywhere and the final cadence feels a little forced, like a social formality. The last three measures of this piece do recall an important figure from Prelude 1 in C Major and could point to some sort of intermotivic relationship at work throughout the piece.

Apparently Stanford grew up on a steady diet of Chopin Mazurkas, a fact that informs an appreciation of the Tempo di Valse Prelude 10 in E minor. Capricious changes of rhythm and metric emphasis, dramatic but simple melodies, and tempo fluctuations all recall the older tradition. This piece is ultimately playful, reminiscent of a salon or even a nursery tradition, lacking that Polish, wintery soul that makes Chopin so dynamic. Prelude 4 in C-sharp minor, one of my favorites, also has that capricious character, wreaking Puckish havoc on a 6/8 time signature. Ultimately it recalls the excitement but conservative spirit of Mendelssohn, a restraint. Similarly, an inverse of Mendelssohn's Prelude 1 in E minor suggests the stormy Prelude 24 in B minor. Even a little impressionism shows itself in the etherial tempi of Prelude 13 in G-flat Major "In the Woodland" and Prelude 19 in A Major — the former complete with trills and birdcalls, the later with Aeolian harp arpeggios. 

I've struggled with my appreciation of this music. On the one hand, my enthusiasm for the new, for the reappropriation or reinvention of a(n) historic genre in a unique culture and time fills me with wonder. On the other hand, I can't help but work within the framework of Victorian England, its disillusionment, its power, its hope, its shame. After much playing and considering, I do enjoy this music. It undeniably has puffery, a sort of adolescence and self-importance, but it speaks, it works well in the hands, and is totally unexpected. It deserves more study.

I leave you with a recording of Prelude 6 in D minor. Enjoy your week!

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