Preludophilia: Stanford's 24 Preludes Op. 163

Around 1918, composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, 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 the grounds of stylistic conservatism/anachronism. 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 what may be the first prelude set in the Chopin tradition composed in the British Isles. (Ireland's William Vincent Wallace [1812–1865] wrote Twenty-four Preludes and Scales [1855] which are just as their name implies and are more in line with flashy opening gestures à la Cramer.)

 Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) wearing (and pulling it off) a brilliant pair of  pince nez  on a string. 

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) wearing (and pulling it off) a brilliant pair of pince nez on a string. 

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 picturesque 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; it is a noteworthy sprinkling of well-worn if not cliched titles in a collection of short, carefully crafted character pieces. The recording by Peter Jacobs (Priory Records 1996) takes just about fifty minutes.

 Men's fashion in England around 1900. Hats are in!

Men's fashion in England around 1900. Hats are in!

I would describe this music as having "sensuous yet restrainéd grandeur." Texturally the opening C Major number has that clear, triadic, Bach-like character: a straightforward opening piece built of a texture of strong, pillar-like gestures. But by its layout and form we clearly see Stanford's lush, almost oozy harmony (lots of unexpected bVIs, unprepared modulations to far-off F#, and plenty of 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, hardly 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 (as well as every accomplished lady pianist in Victorian Britain) 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. Prelude 4 in C-sharp minor, one of my favorites, also has that capricious character, wreaking Puckish havoc on a 6/8 time signature, although with marked restraint. It reminds me of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words, and I am reminded that Mendelssohn held a special place in the hearts of Britain for quite a while. In that vein, I see and hear an inversion of the upward figuration of Mendelssohn's Prelude 1 in E minor Op. 35 (1837) in Stanford's stormy closing number, Prelude 24 in B minorPrelude 19 in A Major embroiders a slow and arrestingly simple hymn texture with florid arpeggios in a way that again recalls Mendelssohn (perhaps Song without Words Op. 38 No. 4, also in A).

I find these pieces to be a mixed bag. There seem to be clashes between a Mendelssohn-like conservatism and a complex harmonic language that do not always make for a rounded composition. This sort of dissonance is an opportunity to think about states of imperfection. It becomes easy to think of Victorianism: its social strictures, moral failures, imperialistic anxieties, and crumbling façades. Certainly that's just one way to hear it with cultural ears, but in many ways it makes sense and gives reason to some of Stanford's more "uneven" passages.

I leave you with a recording of Prelude 6 in D minor by Christopher Howell.