The Five Organ Sonatas of Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924)

August 3, 2016

Stephanie Burgoyne obtained her ARCT in piano performance in 1990 from the Royal Conservatory of Toronto. She holds the associateship in organ performance from Western Conservatory (now Conservatory Canada), the A.R.C.C.O. from the Royal Canadian College of Organists, and earned an artist diploma in organ performance from Western University, while at the same time obtaining a Ph.D. in mathematics. 

She has served as organist and minister of music at St. Jude’s Anglican Church, Brantford, Ontario, where she instituted both a semi-annual concert series and an organ recital series. In 2011, she became music director and organist at St. Paul’s United Church in Paris, Ontario, where she also began a concert series. She performs recitals both as a soloist and with William Vandertuin. Burgoyne teaches mathematics at Laurier University.

Although much has been written about Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, it is still difficult to understand why (apart from his church music) so little of his output of over 200 compositions is often performed—in particular, his organ works, which include the Six Occasional Preludes (op. 182), Three Preludes and Fugues (op. 193), Six Short Preludes and Postludes (op. 101, op. 105) and his organ sonatas (opp. 149, 151–153, 159). A review of recordings and writings about his organ music revealed a need to further explore Stanford’s five sonatas for organ. This article presents my own personal experience with them, in the hope of inspiring others to explore these neglected works. 

Charles Stanford (Dublin 1852–London 1924) was born into a musical family. His father, a lawyer in Dublin, was an amateur cellist and a noted bass singer, good enough to be chosen to sing the title role in Mendelssohn’s Elijah at its Irish premiere in 1847. His mother, an accomplished pianist, played the solo parts in concertos at various concerts in Dublin. Stanford’s parents encouraged their son, providing instruction in violin, piano, organ, and composition. Nevertheless, they felt it beneficial that he pursue a university education as well, leading towards a degree in law. Yet Stanford not only pursued music study in Britain but early on started travelling to the Continent every year to further increase his musical knowledge. (It is worth noting, in view of his study in Leipzig and Berlin, that his interest for study in Germany might have originated with his early teachers, three of whom had been students of Ignaz Moscheles, a Bohemian pianist of German parents, who spent a number of years in Britain. Moscheles returned to Germany in 1846, to serve as professor of piano at the Leipzig Conservatory.)

Stanford studied with Karl Reinecke in Leipzig and Friedrich Keil in Berlin. He was appointed professor of composition at the Royal College of Music in London in 1883 and professor of music at Cambridge in 1887. As a teacher, conductor, and composer, he exerted a strong influence over future generations of composers and musicians. His former student Ralph Vaughan Williams is reported to have said that Stanford could adopt the technique of any composer he chose. Stanford is mostly recognized for his choral music, which includes several settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and a number of Communion services. He also composed works for solo voice, piano, and organ, as well as orchestral works, including seven symphonies and five Irish rhapsodies.

An examination of Stanford’s organ sonatas reveals that he frequently utilizes many chorale-like phrases. Except for those melodies clearly identified and labeled by Stanford himself, I have decided not to identify any others. 

Sonata No. 1 in F, op. 149

Dated May 1917, it is dedicated to “my old friend Alan Gray” (1855–1935); without subtitle.

I. Allegro molto moderato

The first movement, in common time, opens in F major and is in sonata form. It has some stylistic affinity with the organ sonatas of Josef Rheinberger (1839–1901), who in addition to the usual concluding fugue in most of his organ sonatas would also periodically include a fugal section in the first movement. The principal theme is a two-measure chorale-like phrase in quarter notes; it is restated once, with slight modification (Example 1). Part of this motive is then used for a number of measures, ending with a C-major chord. (The same two-measure theme returns in the final movement, giving this sonata a cyclical structure.)

Stanford then develops this material for thirty-three measures (with the addition of a “trumpet call” on another manual). The exposition section uses very soft dynamics while it serves as a modulating bridge, preparing for the second theme in the tonic minor. The second theme consists of a two-measure fugato subject in sixteenth notes ending in several quarter notes, with the countersubject entering before the subject is complete (Example 2). The opening sixteenth-note portion of the fugato subject continues to appear frequently in different voices, and there is interplay between it and the principal theme, with episodes based on both. Part of the countersubject in augmentation serves as preparation for the recapitulation (in which one can almost hear shades of Stanford’s choral writing). A final restatement of part of the main and secondary themes signals the recapitulation proper, and with the inversion of the “secondary theme” adding further interest, the movement ends very quietly with an octave E-flat. 

II. Tempo di Menuetto

The second movement, in A-flat major, is one of Stanford’s most light-hearted movements for organ. The opening, shown in Example 3, features a dancelike motive in three-quarter time. This motive is stated sequentially twice and is extended by a two-measure eighth-note passage in tenths. Stanford then continues to develop both parts of the subject separately as well as combining them so that the main theme is never far away. The development section utilizes such techniques as inversion, imitation, and modulation. Duplet is changed to triplet motion and added to soprano, alto, and/or pedal parts in turn. After a number of repetitions of the main thematic material, the movement concludes quietly with a restatement of the opening motive. 

III. Allegro maestoso

The third and final movement, in common time and in F minor, is an introduction and fugue (as one finds in many Rheinberger sonatas). The introduction uses the same chorale-like phrase as the first movement. Whereas the first movement starts in F major and ends in F minor, this movement does the reverse (beginning with the bridge passage introducing the fugue subject).

In contrast to the first movement, where the quarter-note chorale-like phrase repeats a number of times without interruption, here each statement alternates with passage runs in triplets and sixteenths (some of which are derived from the countersubject of the first movement’s fugato). After two solo reed additions, the section concludes with a modulation to F major that introduces the key for the fugue subject (which is related to the chorale by using the same three-note opening). The fugue begins with a fairly strict exposition, with a real answer and a “dotted rhythm” countersubject (Example 4). Parts of both themes then are used to create episodes. An imitative passage based on the opening quarter-note motive leads to the fugue’s dotted-rhythm countersubject over a final restatement of the fugue subject in augmentation in the pedal. The recapitulation is prepared for by a repeated appearance of the three-note opening motive and is then established by the chorale-like subject beginning at the final “Maestoso.” After the addition of a solo reed, the sequential three-note chorale subject opening appears a number of times before the movement ends on full organ.


Sonata Eroica No. 2, op. 151

Dated August 1917 and dedicated to “Charles Marie Widor and the great country to which he belongs,” the first and third movements of this sonata refer to two specific battlegrounds where French troops faced very fierce and costly battles during the World War I. Even though Stanford does not quote the French national anthem in its entirety anywhere in the three movements, it does appear in various guises throughout.

I. Allegro moderato

The first movement, in G minor and three-four time, is subtitled “Rheims.” The main theme quotes the hymn O Filii et Filiae, whose text denotes new life and resurrection (Example 5). Stanford may have chosen this tune to relate it to the history of the great cathedral at Rheims, which was burned during World War I. 

The first line presents the main theme in octaves; this theme recurs regularly throughout the movement in various voices. After the first line, Stanford uses sixteenth-note passagework (relating it to some of Widor’s symphonies for organ), which frequently uses the Marseillaise’s melodic rhythms. The themes alternate between extreme agitation (suggesting the hostility of war) and quiet reflection during periods of rest.

Stanford continues to add new material in the middle section, visiting a number of keys (E minor, A-flat major) during development. This section briefly returns to G minor; nevertheless, the movement concludes with a stately reminder of the main theme in G major. 

II. Adagio molto 

The second movement, in E-flat major in common time, presents two distinctly different themes. Might Stanford have intended this as part of a “Requiem Mass” setting (to recall the many deaths on the battlefields)? If so, the first meditative theme might function as the Introit, “Requiem aeternam” (Example 6), while the second theme, with its extensive agitated dotted-rhythm motive depicting the horrific reality of the conflict, might be considered the Sequence, “Dies irae” (Example 7). 

In the loud and boisterous second section, Stanford uses punctuating chords supported by sixteenth notes in the pedal. This is followed immediately by a four-measure imitative polyphonic counterpoint and a restatement of the dotted half-note section, this time in A-flat major. From here on, the chorale tune enters (in part) now and then, prepared for by polyphonic imitation and periodically interrupted by the dotted half-note motive, sometimes in diminution. Toward the end there is a complete mood change through the use of the same four-note motive again. The movement ends as it began.

III. Allegro moderato

The third movement is subtitled “Verdun.” The battle for Verdun was one of the fiercest and costliest battles between the French and German armies during the First World War, and cost an estimated one million lives, without gaining any advantages on either side. This movement quotes the French national anthem melodically and rhythmically more strongly than any of the other movements. It opens with a few loud chords, followed immediately by agitated two-part scale-like passages in sixteenths (Example 8). The chordal sections continue to alternate with fast-moving, sixteenth-note episodes that include parts of the Marseillaise (Example 9). Stanford then develops the themes using modulation, sequence, and imitation. Although this movement contains many quiet sections, it is generally loud, and the sonata ends with the complete first line of the Marseillaise (beginning with a solo trumpet).


Sonata Britannica No. 3 in D Minor, op. 152 

Dated November 1917, it is dedicated to Sir Walter Parratt (English organist and composer, 1841–1924). This sonata contains the most recognizable melodies; the first movement is based on the hymn tune St. Mary and the third movement is built on the tune Hanover. 

I. Allegro non troppo ma con fuoco

The first movement, in D minor, opens with dotted half-note accumulating chords in 12/8 time (Example 10). Even though there are a number of different texts for the St. Mary tune, based on the forte dotted half-note opening section (which repeats in various ways throughout the movement), it is hard to imagine any other text fitting the music except that composed by Cardinal John Henry Newman, the first verse of this hymn beginning with the creedal statement, “Firmly I believe and truly, God is Three and God is One.” Thus Stanford keeps quoting selected phrases of the St. Mary tune in different voices and maintains interest by alternating loud and soft sections using both themes. There is a short section in the key of D major before returning to D minor, and the movement concludes with some wonderfully quiet melodic sections using the St. Mary tune.

II. (Benedictus), Larghetto

The second movement, “Benedictus,” in B-flat major, emerges from an opening melody in common time (Example 11). In the sixth measure, Stanford adds what might be perceived as an interlude (or comment) on this melody (Example 12). This alternating pattern continues until the piu mosso designation in D-flat major where the manual parts make a “hesitating” octave jump before the opening melody continues and the pedal adds to the hesitancy with off-beat eighth notes. Following this, we hear a section characterized by upward chordal octave skips where Stanford asks for reed stops to be added to the ensemble. One can imagine that these bold, ascending chords paint the text “Hosanna in the highest” of the Benedictus (Example 13). There then follows a development utilizing all the previous themes. The movement ends quietly with the opening melody. 

III. Allegro molto e ritmico

The third movement, in 3/4 time and overall in D major, is based on the tune Hanover, and although it is sixteen pages long, presents little in new or innovative ideas. It variously quotes parts of the tune and uses these for further development. There are many short imitative lines, loud emphatic chordal statements, as well as equally short melodic lines with varied accompaniment. The movement ends with a setting of Hanover in its entirety and a repeat of the last line, which adds an energetic close to this sonata.

Sonata Celtica No. 4, op. 153 

Composed 1918–1920, this sonata was dedicated “To my friend Harold Darke” (English organist-composer, 1888–1976). 

I. Allegro molto moderato

The first movement, in C minor and 3/4 time, shows the most Germanic influence of all of Stanford’s compositions; its contrapuntal nature brings to mind the first sonata by Josef Rheinberger (which in turn is related to the style of Bach). This reminds us that no composer lives in isolation or is ignorant of historical models.

After introducing the principal theme (Example 14), Stanford presents a simple melody in various voices, which alternates with the main subject (or parts thereof). This continues until the addition of modified thematic material in an eighth-note pattern leading to another setting of the melody. Following a key change to C major the melody is then enhanced by a running sixteenths pattern in the tenor (Example 15). After reiterating parts of the main theme, Stanford concludes the movement with a number of repeated chords over off-beat pedal notes, reinforcing the C-major ending. In just a few measures Stanford quickly moves from Germanic counterpoint (as in Rheinberger) to an English choral music style. 

II. Tema con variazioni

The second movement, in A-flat major and common time, is a set of variations, sometimes based on melody and other times on harmony. The written-out lower mordent in single notes, which opens the movement, is a motive that appears fairly often (Example 16). At the second variation, there is a time signature change to 6/4 with much use of the imitative lower-mordent motive. In the third variation (in common time), we hear a short reminder of the first movement, with Stanford inverting part of the opening subject (Example 17). This section also features the lower-mordent motive in diminution in the pedal. The movement then returns to material based on excerpts of the original theme at “Tempo della thema” of the fourth variation, which closes the movement quietly.

III. St. Patrick’s Breastplate

The third movement is mostly based on a hymn to the Trinity, a text ascribed to St. Patrick (372–466), translated by Cecil Frances Alexander, set to an ancient Irish hymn melody (St. Patrick) in an arrangement by Stanford. There are also references to the tune Gartan (known to many in North America as “Love came down at Christmas”). The movement begins with forte octaves sounding the first five notes of the hymn, then chordal support ending on a whole-note D-major chord (Example 18). This repeats sequentially a third higher and modifies the opening material, ending in C minor where it introduces the passacaglia unison theme in the pedal (Example 19). The accompaniment to the passacaglia subject appears three times, each time increasing in volume and number of voices. The melody then moves to the soprano, supported by chords and imitative counterpoint, slowly eliminating some voices to a quiet reduction to three-part harmony. Here Stanford introduces the tune Gartan (Example 20).  

Part of this new theme is then developed until the poco piu lento in 6/4 time, when we hear again a reminder of the passacaglia theme. This is accompanied by an accumulative two-note upward chordal leap, emphasizing the beginning of the chorale on the manual, which eventually is supported by rhythmic pedal in octaves. This section gradually becomes softer, utilizing a two-part passage in sixths leading to another passacaglia section, slightly modified (Example 21), which is repeated a number of times with different accompaniment. The following section leads to manuals and pedal imitating and reinforcing each other. After a pedal solo is the final statement of fragments of Gartan and the main theme, which get stronger in preparation for the final entry of the St. Patrick tune. 


Sonata No. 5, op. 159, Quasi una fantasia 

Dated May 1918 with a first printing in 1921, the whole of this sonata is based on Stanford’s own tune Engelberg, written in 1904, when he was in Switzerland. In contrast to the other four, this sonata is not in three distinct movements, but in cyclical form. All three of its sections are based on the same thematic material. 

The first section (Allegro moderato), in A major and common time, opens with the first line of the hymn in octaves (Example 22). It is followed immediately by similar statements using actual note values as well as diminution of the opening three notes of the tune in four parts. This continues with arpeggiated chords in sixteenths (again based on the first three notes) followed by a short chordal section finishing on the dominant. Here Stanford introduces a dotted-rhythm accompaniment (Example 23), which adds to and alternates with previous material until we hear the first line of the hymn as a solo line over triplet accompaniment. It then returns to chordal sections with the solo first line interspersed and modulated until it is stated hymn-like in homophonic style. Stanford then uses parts of the previous thematic material to prepare for the second section.

The second section (Allegretto non troppo mosso), in F# minor, is in 9/8 time and is based on the opening notes of the hymn in diminution (Example 24). A gentle, unison eighth-note passage leads to and serves as the accompaniment for a melody based on the (modified) second line of the hymn on the Swell manual. These different parts continue to interact with each other until the key change to G-flat major, where Stanford returns to the first line of the hymn in 3/4 time. The main subject then continues in the alto-tenor part with a new countersubject in the soprano. When the main theme returns to the soprano, it is undergirded by an eighth-note passage in the pedal before returning to F# minor and 9/8 time. Whereas in the opening section, the (modified) melodic fragment was in the tenor, accompanied by triplet eighths, the roles are here reversed, the melody being in the soprano with triplet eighths in the tenor. A chromatic rise in the soprano is followed by a reiteration of part of the second measure of the hymn-tune and with one last ascending chromatic scale following a descending scale in the pedal, concludes this second section on an A-major dominant-seventh chord.

The third section (Allegro), in 2/4 time and in A major, is a fugal treatment of the last two measures of the hymn tune (Example 25). Although this motive alternates with reminders of other parts of the hymn tune, it returns regularly, either in the tenor or soprano, and it is periodically accompanied by sixteenth-note passages. A modulatory bridge, which features the fugato motive in the pedal, leads to the first complete statement of the hymn melody in quarter notes in A-flat major, supported by staccato pedal eighth notes. After a return to A major, Stanford continues to develop the fugato motive sequentially and imitatively with interludes based on other parts of the tune. This development prepares for the entry of the “Allegro Moderato, ma più largamente” indication of the Engelberg tune in its entirety. The movement concludes after a number of repetitions of the last three notes of the tune, and after a climbing pedal passage, ends gloriously on the complete last line of the hymn, triple forte in A major. 


Some final thoughts

It appears from the foregoing analysis that sonatas one and five treat thematic material differently than do sonatas two through four. In sonata one, Stanford uses the same thematic material throughout the three movements; sonata five comprises one complete movement with three separate sections based on the same theme. Sonatas two through four consist of three separate movements, each with its own theme. In addition, their second movements are derived from a sacred Latin text or from a model from the Middle Ages.

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