The reputation of Charles Villiers Stanford today rests principally on the enduring popularity of his music for the Anglican liturgy. He was, however, a highly accomplished symphonist and songwriter, and ultimately aspired to be successful in the theatre, though of his nine completed operas, only the Irish opéra-comique, Shamus O’Brien, enjoyed public acclaim. Born into the Protestant “professional aristocracy” of Dublin in 1852, during the Irish antiquarian revival, Stanford grew up admiring and cherishing the folk-song tradition of Ireland, and this veneration for the ethnic repertoire found utterance not only in numerous collections of folk-song arrangements but also in choral works, songs, the six Irish Rhapsodies, and in the most famous of his symphonies, the “Irish” Symphony. His third essay (of seven) in the genre, Stanford began work on the “Irish” Symphony in May 1886 shortly after hearing Hans Richter conduct the English premiere of Brahms’s new Fourth Symphony in London on May 10. In all likelihood, Brahms’s masterpiece provided a major incentive for the Irishman to produce a work of a similar epic nature. The need to complete other commissions meant that Stanford was not able to resume work on the symphony until February 1887, and the final two movements were written during the Easter vacation. Richter was delighted with the work and conducted it at St. James’s Hall on June 27. It was an immediate success and its promulgation was greatly assisted by its publication in full score by Novello as well as in an arrangement by Charles Wood for piano duet. Requests for Stanford to conduct it at the Norwich and Leeds Festivals and the Novello concerts quickly followed; Richter, who took the symphony to Vienna, also promised to program it in London again the following season. Hans von Bülow, whose gifts as a conductor Stanford admired even more than Richter’s, directed it in Hamburg and Berlin; Walter Damrosch produced it in New York; and Willem Kes, the Dutch conductor and violinist, included it in the first concert of the newly-formed Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam on November 3, 1888 (it was the first of at least a dozen performances which Kes, Willem Mengelberg and Cornelis Dopper directed in the Dutch capital). It was also taken up by Mahler, who conducted two performances with the New York Philharmonic in 1911.
The first movement of the “Irish” Symphony confirmed unequivocally Stanford’s belief in Brahmsian organicism, a process already essayed with some thoroughness in the corresponding movement of his earlier and no less ambitious Piano Quintet, Op. 25. Here, however, the composer makes much play on the opening cell C–D-flat–F, which is ubiquitous throughout the first group, development, and coda (where its inversion is especially prevalent). The scherzo, perhaps the most engaging movement of the four (as well as the most technically demanding) with its modal flavour and compelling élan, is a pseudo-Irish “hop jig” where the metrical fluctuation of traditional meter and hemiola forms a central feature of the outer sections (in 9/8) and the central trio (in 3/2). At the head of his score Stanford placed the motto (originally in Latin) “Look with favour and mercy on the country and on the country’s bard, Phoebus, who yourself sing with crowned lyre,” which seems to evoke the nostalgic lyricism of the slow movement’s opening pastoral landscape.
Among the expansive thematic ideas inspired by the contours of the Irish folk-song is a fragment which Stanford claimed to be derived from a portion of the old Irish “Lament of the Sons of Usnacht” in Petrie’s manuscripts. (“The Lament of the Sons of Usnacht” may in fact be connected with the “Old Lament” at the end of “O where’s the slave” which appears as No. 62 in Stanford’s Moore’s Melodies Restored.) The prominence of this fragment at the climax of the slow movement had, as Stanford acknowledged, a marked similarity to the slow movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony—so much so that some critics thought it might even be a quotation. Stanford adamantly claimed in his autobiography, Pages from an Unwritten Diary, that it was nothing more than a remarkable coincidence and that both works had been “written simultaneously.” This claim was not entirely true, for Brahms’s symphony had in fact been written some time before, and Stanford had almost certainly attended Richter’s premiere before he had embarked on his own work. Yet whether this is concrete evidence for an “unconscious quotation” is still open to debate. Of the three principal thematic ideas of the finale, two were Irish folk-songs. The first, thoroughly modal in character, is the air “Molly McAlpin” (“Remember the glories of Brian the Brave”). This melody, repeated three times with increasingly generous orchestration, constitutes the first group of the movement’s sonata form, and sounds disarmingly prophetic of similar folk-song arrangements of Vaughan Williams (who, as a young man, knew Stanford’s work well through Wood’s duet arrangement) and Holst. A sonorous, overtly Brahmsian theme in the violins’ lowest register occupies the second group in A flat, while a further Irish air, “The Little Red Fox” (“Let Erin remember the days of old”) is introduced in the more distant key of A major as a central focus of the development. All three ideas are restated in the recapitulation, “The Little Red Fox,” acting as a peroration to the movement and to the work as a whole.