Archive for April, 2012

Stanford Sonata for Clarinet Op. 129

Charles Villiers Stanford

Charles Villiers Stanford

In May, I will be performing the second movement of C. V. Stanford’s opus 129 sonata for clarinet and piano, as part of a mixed chamber and orchestral concert in Hertfordshire.

Although Stanford’s sonata is not well known, the second movement (Caoine, pronounced ‘keen’) is a real gem. Jack Brymer describes it as “pleasant and absorbing to play” and “not presented as often as it should be”. The outer movements are characteristically Brahmsian, but in the Caoine Stanford once again reveals his Irish heart in a free interpretation of a traditional lament. This music is Irish in spirit, however, and not particularly in it’s thematic material and harmonies, which remain firmly rooted in the late romantic idiom.

Charles Villiers Stanford was born in Dublin in 1852, and was an influential teacher in addition to being a prolific composer. In 1870, he gained an organ scholarship at Queen’s College, Cambridge and subsequently became organist at Trinity College. During his tenure at Trinity, Stanford was able to spend considerable time in Leipzig, where he absorbed the new music of Brahms and Wagner while studying composition with Reinecke. It is also noteworthy that Stanford was known to Joachim, who had visited Stanford’s family in Dublin and later recommended Stanford to study in Berlin with Friedrich Kiel. In 1883 he joined the staff of the Royal College of Music as its first professor of composition. It was at the the RCM that Stanford came to have significant influence over a generation of young composers such as Bridge, Howells, Ireland and Vaughan-Williams. Stanford died in 1924.

The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano was completed in 1911, and dedicated to the clarinetists Oscar Street and Charles Draper. Oscar Street was a talented amateur and former student of George Clinton, and Charles Draper a noted professional clarinetist and teacher at the RCM, Trinity College of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Draper had been the soloist in the première of Stanford’s clarinet concerto in 1903, and he also gave the first performance of the sonata in 1916. Coming as it does at the start of a golden age in British clarinet playing, as well as a period when English music was at long last finding a distinctive voice, this sonata would seem to deserve a wider audience.

The sonata is in F major, but for the Caoine Stanford turns to the relative minor (D minor), with a contrasting middle section in D major. Cast in ternary form with a modified return of the A section (ABA’), Stanford creates masterful light and shade throughout this movement; however, it is in the opening and closing sections that the clarinet is made to ‘keen’ expressively. The piano has several passages where it evokes the sound of an Irish harp, echoed by the clarinet’s gentle wails, although careful writing ensures that this presents no difficulty in ensemble. Rising and falling runs and turns, some in irregular groupings of 5, 7 or even 10 demisemiquavers, require careful reading to ensure expressive but controlled performance. Indeed, this piece calls for sensitive rubato throughout along with careful shaping of the beautiful melodic lines. The laments die away in sighs of dotted quavers, and the piece concludes with a whisper-thin upper register f in the clarinet, played ppp, fading to e and dying away as the reverberations of the piano’s arpeggiated D minor chord dissipate.

The middle section is brighter in nature, like a wistful reminiscence of happier times. Although there is no indication in the score, many performers will feel the need to give a little more animation to the melody here. The sun shines only briefly, however, before more painful thoughts are ushered in as the minor key returns in an accelerando passage leading to the return of the opening themes.

Although not overly demanding technically (this piece has been set at grade 7 by Trinity Guildhall), a truly engaging performance must bring out the deeply emotional character of this movement. Judicious use of vibrato can be effective – remember, Brahms’ favoured clarinettist Richard Műhlfeld was reported to have a wider and more expressive vibrato than Joachim himself – but must come from the diaphragm, not the embouchure, and must not be overdone. The clarinet should truly sing in this movement. A lament of this kind, after all, is above all vocal in nature. Stanford’s combination of Irish spirit and Edwardian restraint should combine in that uniquely English way. However, the upper lip may be permitted to tremble on occasions!

The printed score is published by Stainer and Bell, and is available from most sheet music retailers. However, I find Chappell of Bond Street to be competitive, with the added advantage of free first class delivery in the UK.

The piano score and a re-typed clarinet part can be downloaded here from IMSLP. Don’t worry, this music is out of copyright in most countries.


1 Brymer, J., Clarinet, (London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1976)

2 Dibble, Jeremy, “Stanford, Sir Charles Villiers.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 31 Mar. 2012 <>