Profile of Patric Standford, 1985

by: 

Leslie East

Date: 

1985

There have perhaps been three major influences on the compositions of Patric Standford — his upbringing, his career-long involvement in education and an increasing awareness of musics from outside the Western classical tradition. Interwoven with, and inspired by, those major influences are concerns and attitudes that mark Standford's works as distinctive and original. Foremost among these attitudes are an open mindedness and practicality evidenced in the way wide-ranging sources of inspiration are used with such individuality all the way through his output.

The roots of Standford’s individuality were undoubtedly in his early life. Born in Barnsley in 1939, he was forced to be independent from an early age. His mother died when he was four: his father was away on war service; ‘adoption’ by a cultured Halifax spinster and attendance at a Quaker boarding school at Ackworth encouraged both independence and inquisitiveness. Prolific composition began at school, with little effort it would seem, though equally there was little or no guidance save for a chemistry master's enthusiasm for Berg (Der Wain was an ‘eye-opener’ apparently) and the loan of the Krenek counterpoint textbook. Yet it never occurred to Standford that music might be his profession. Work in solicitors’ and accountants’ offices after leaving school and while waiting for National  Service, went hand in hand with self-tuition, composing without lessons, studying scores and listening avidly to the radio.

It was while in the RAF that Standford decided music had to be his career, ironically at a time when it was virtually impossible to compose. If anything, literature was more immediate (there is even a novel extant from this period) and a tremendous concern for and sensitivity to words and poetry date from this time. National Service had another influence: membership of the RAF Medical Corps exacted high standards of conduct and developed a humane and caring attitude.

Studies at the Guildhall School from the age of 22 began with a year of ‘technical’ composition from Raymond Jones, which was balanced by Edmund Rubbra's extension of horizons in absolute music in Standford's second year. Playing the violin and viola and attending conducting seminars provided invaluable practical experience and insights of lasting benefit to his compositions. After a year of teaching in a Wiltshire private school, the Mendelssohn Scholarship took Standford to ltaly in 1964 for studies with Gianfrancesco Maliplero. Standford vividly remembers the day Iong lessons Malipiero gave him and the emphasis on clarity of texture that the senior Italian composer made. The First String Quartet, dedicated to his teacher, is a fitting testimony to Malipiero's influence, just as the second (1973) is a glowing tribute to his memory.

An encounter with Lutoslawski at the Dartington Summer School then led to a visit to Poland and a study of the extraordinary Polish School of the mid-sixties. Later, Standford drew on the techniques and sound-worlds of the scores he studied and the works he heard while in Poland, but as always with Standford the influence is completely absorbed, the techniques filtered through material that is distinctively the composer's own. 

On his return to London in 1965 there were three significant developments. Novello's undertook to publish some works, Standford was invited to join the professorial staff at the Guildhall School and he also got involved with the formation and organisation of the New Cantata Orchestra with James Stobart. These sound like encouraging landmarks in a young composer’s career, but significantly Standford regards this as a difficult phase of his life. It was awkward learning to deal with audience and critical reaction; the understandable caution of his publisher was frustrating; close involvement with an orchestra did not work out. Nevertheless, significant pieces received a good press, teaching provided a creative stimulus as well as a financial base, and Standford's reputation was enhanced by a run of important prizes in the early 1970s, including second prize for his First Symphony in the Premio Citta di Trieste international, 1972.

Again, the long-standing independent streak in Standford led to significant involvement in the affairs of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, including the Chairmanship between 1977 and 1979, where he took a great interest in the promotion of composers’ rights. His understanding of aspects of music production, publishing and promotion always featured in his teaching of composition and led him to consider self-publication as a viable proposal.

There was also an expansion of interests in other directions. Standford’s concern for music education in all its forms was recognised in a series of reviews of educational music for major publications such as The Musical Times. Reading these articles again one is struck by the intensely practical outlook that underlines every judgement and assessment, in addition to reviews of music and books, Standford also contributed reports of major overseas competitions and festivals, which were a direct result of contacts with Eastern Europe dating from the time of the Christus Requiem (1973). The interest in this work on the part of a visiting professor from the Liszt Academy in Budapest led to an invitation to Standford to become a juror at an international choral festival in Hungary. The festival was devoted entirely to contemporary and folk law based music, and to Standford it was revelatory. From this stems an abiding absorption with folk and non-western classical music idioms, and an impressive integration of these idioms into his own music. Foremost among the compositions that demonstrate this integration are the Symphony No. 4: Taikyoku for two pianos and six percussion players (1975-76) and Dialogues for cimbalom and orchestra (1981). In Taikyoku it is the work’s shaping, derived from the Japanese Togaltu pieces, rather than its sound flavour, which is influenced by foreign sources, in Dialogues (commissioned by a Hungarian chamber orchestra) it is the sound of the cimbalom, and the sort of East European ensembles in which it is found, that flavours the character of the work. Standford has always embraced a variety of sources, but at all times (with the exception of the Christus Requiem, which is a unique case) his technique and craftsmanship have ensured a totally convincing integration of diverse inspirations.

A move away from London in May 1980 to become Head of Music at the Leeds University, Bretton Hall College of Higher Education inevitably meant a reassessment of Standford’s compositional style and approach. The administration of a college department, with its essential but time consuming extracurricular activities, circumscribed his composing but, again quite typically, there was a positive outcome. Without abandoning the production of individual works he has concentrated in his spare time on a longstanding  operatic project on the subject of the 15th-century poet, Villon. Such a project has obviously suited the time he has had to spare, as his Introduction to the published Libretto (May 1982) makes clear. Villon is totally Standford's own. ‘Though based on the facts of Villon's life, the story has been fashioned to suit a stage presentation — it is not so much ‘a historical drama’ as ‘something of a fantasy’ — while the libretto has been subjected to repeated re-writing over a long period of years ‘in order to find the right words’ for vocal use. This is the result of a major reassessment of why an opera should be sung, at what pace it should sound (and here the influence and effect of film and TV was important), and how words and meanings could be communicated successfully. We do not yet know the musical results of this reassessment and can only guess at the dramatic potential, but what is clear just from the libretto is that the central themes of the opera - the turbulent relationship between church and state, sacred and secular, and the rare character of Villon himself, capable, despite his common origins, of interpreting life on the highest poetical and intellectual plane — come over directly and forcibly. 

Standford's compositions represent an important and underrated contribution to contemporary British music. He is intensely practical: he writes fluently for conventional  orchestral forces and has composed major pieces in all the traditional forms, including three significant concertos, six useful contributions to the chamber music repertory and a variety of very accessible instrumental pieces. At the same time his music has an outlook which is far from convention and tradition as we know it; a factor that gives it distinction, character and life.

It is not possible, within this short survey, to provide a comprehensive analysis of Standford's output. The most important aspects of his style, however, have already been identified, and it is now the intention to catalogue and expand upon those aspects. Reference will be made to key works in Standford's development but it should be clarified here that certain major pieces will not be touched on. One of these is the opera, Villon, which deserves an article on its own and will surely get one when someone is brave enough to perform it. Another is Standford's Symphony No. 5 completed in February 1985. 

There are, nevertheless, seminal works which will, through specific attention, help us to understand Standford's style, and the effectiveness and success of his compositional approach, if one was asked to cite a handful of works in which the composer’s development was enshrined, it would be necessary to recommend the following: the First String Quartet (I964), Antitheses (1971), Symphony No. 1: ‘The Seasons’ (1971/72). Christus Requiem (1971/72), Cello Concerto (1974), and Symphony No. 3: ‘Toward Paradise’ (begun 1973. completed l982). Of these Christus Requiem — referred to now by Standford as Symphony No. 2 although originally Toward Paradise bore that number — is, because of its very nature, a crucial indicator of the composer’s natural means of expression. Yet in one essential aspect is is untypical in that this hybrid ‘symphonic oratorio' (Standford’s term) eschews the type of purely musical unification processes that are evident in all of Standford's other major works. The latter we shall come to, but for the moment it will be useful to dwell on the aspects of Christus Requiem which are typical of the composer.

The work is a combination of Passion (Part I) and Requiem Mass (Part II). It draws on an extraordinary variety of texts to illuminate its message and demands singing in seven languages (including Russian and Czech). As Gerald Larner pointed out in an article introducing the work before its premiere in St. Paul's Cathedral (28 March 1973), it is boldly eclectic and depends for unification on poetic and dramatic continuity. There is a certain sense of progression of tonal centres through the piece, but it operates on such a large scale that any sense of unity from this device is possibly coincidental and probably minimal for the listener. It does no harm that excursions into the world of ‘sacred drama’ (for want of a better term) by Britten (Church ParablesWar Requiem) and Bernstein (Mass) are evoked at several points, who could resist the spine tingling effect of a professional children’s choir in the St. Paul’s acoustic? And in any case, Standford’s borrowings here are acoustical and structural rather than intrinsically musical, apart from what must have been an unconscious melodic crib from the Celebrant’s first Hymn in Bernstein’s Mass.

Apart, then, from the eclecticism and diversity of materials that distinguishes Christus Requiem, what are the purely musical elements in the work that we can detect elsewhere? Stated in simple form these elements can be catalogued as follows: (a) melodic movement predominantly between adjacent notes; resulting in (b) ‘fan-like’ harmonies leading to clusters; (c) the use of the tritone as a ‘dominant’; (d) the use of strong tonal ‘sign-posts’ in an otherwise atonal environment; (e) the emphasis of key notes through the extended use of monotone: and pedal ostinati: and, as a direct corollary to this, (f) the deliberate contrast of key centres a semitone apart, particularly before the final resolution of a work; (g) a penchant for extended single-line writing; (h) scoring in blocks of sound, often using ad libitum techniques to produce intense, dense textures.

There are two further characteristics of Standford's music which Christus Requiem does not reveal. One is an ability to reconcile freedom and organisation in a single structure. The other is a gift for writing convincing, genuinely fast music, as evidenced in several successful scherzo type movements in major works.

To begin at the end of the catalogue (but at the beginning of Standford's output), we can see in String Quartet No. 1 an extensive compound time Presto sandwiched between two parts of an intense Lento. The Presto rhythm never lapses, with the solo cello establishing the movement’s character immediately (Ex.1), but there are some telling contrasts of texture, notably a ghostly tranquillo passage (E.x.2), and a striking example of Standford's use of tonal ‘sign-posts’, a borrowing that is both unprecedented and unrepeated (E.x.3). The main idea of the Lento sections is a strongly—defined tonal centre, a dominant seventh that expands and contracts chromatically but constantly returns as a beacon in the texture; then in the Presto at the conclusion of the work, it can be heard to resolve on E flat major (Ex.4).

Such important tonal ‘sign-posts’ in later works become less blatantly harmonic and more and more defined by the emphasis of single key notes. This in part came about because of Standford’s studies with Lutoslawski and his acquaintance with the techniques of the Polish composer's younger compatriots. Nocturne (1961) and Notte (1968) both show Standford's most extreme adoption of semi-improvisation and the sound-worlds of glissandi and random pitches. At the end of the 1960s he began to introduce stricter organisation of these techniques so that their effectiveness is reconciled with other important traits in his music.

In this respect, Antitheses for 15 strings is a key work. Written as a tribute to the memory of Sir John Barbirolli, it achieves its impressive strength partly through the prominence of Sir John's own instrument, the cello. An arching melody on three cellos opens the piece, defining the elegiac mood of the Lento and establishing the cello's lowest open note as a key centre. The melodic units of this melody are then expanded in fan-like harmonies, using the individual strings in blocks. A rather jumpy Vivace follows with intense swift moving clusters taking us away from the key note of C to a new one of E flat. With this the texture disintegrates. Elements of the Vivace and suggestions of the opening cello theme are evoked but constantly unsettled as a panoply of random techniques is brought into play. Yet significantly, at the height of anarchy, where even the reassuring E flat has been displaced, the cello theme returns majestically in unison and fortissimo, reinforced by the double bass. The Vivace is restored and so, logical, is the mood of the beginning and the key note of C, though characteristically, that C is emphasised not by being there at the resolution of the work but by being denied.

Thus, of the ten elements of Standlford's style identified earlier, eight are present in Antitheses. It is a fitting title for a work that so successfully reconciles such extremes. Smaller works from the same period (1969-1971) show similar concerns, though not always so successfully. The Piano Trio (1970) for instance opens with a unison theme of ambitious length which is miraculously transformed into a contrapuntal texture at a point when it would seem embarrassing to attempt it. Yet the subsequent elegiac strain outstays its welcome. The Piano Variations (1969) are more successful, quickly realising the contrapuntal potential of the single-line theme and providing structural strength by making groups of contrasted variations correspond to a sonata form.

A similar device can be seen on a larger scale in the First Symphony. The fourth movement, ‘Winter’, is a set of variations on a strong melodic line presented virtually unaccompanied at the outset. Other familiar features include a strong tonal centre (E flat) which faces forceful opposition from another, emphasised centre a semitone away (E natural): an evocative Scherzo for ‘Autumn’; and an effective use of clusters to suggest the heat of ‘Summer’ in the second movement. Standford called the First Symphony ‘a self-imposed challenge in symphonic organisation'. It is almost too tightly organised for its own good, particularly in the first movement. Yet the freer atmosphere of the scherzo and the daring bareness of texture in ‘Sumner’, plus the convincing aural logic of the finale’s conclusion make the award of the Trieste prize for this work in 1972 an understandable accolade.

Standford has written three essays in concerto form: the Cello Concerto of 1974 was followed by one for violin in 1975 and for piano in 1979. Of these three it is the Cello Concerto that has, for me, the greatest significance. That significance stems primarily from Standford’s first explicit use of borrowed material as a structural feature. The borrowings are from Brahms’: German Requiem, and the real significance of this source lies not in what the source is but which parts of the Requiem were chosen. For Brahms’: fifth movement provides Standford with just the sort of searing melodic line and tonal ‘sign-posts‘ he might have alighted upon for himself (Ex.5), and the pulsating tonic pedal note that suffuses the Concerto’s outer movements derives directly from Brahms’ opening. 

But the real impact of Standford's borrowing lies in the fashion in which the source is only revealed in its purest form in the third and final movement. He has called the Concerto ‘a Theme and Variations in reverse’, and the striking way in which unadulterated Brahms filters through the finale, like ‘shafts of light through clouds’, illuminates so much of what has gone before: the melodic character of the cello's opening theme, the triadic motifs of the woodwind, the chromatic harmonic shifts that are suggested by one key progression in the Brahms, these are merely the most prominent. The finale in its sensitive handling of its material, achieves a serenity and force akin to Berg's treatment of Bach in his Violin Concerto — the comparison does Berg no harm. 

The central scherzo movement of the Cello Concerto is another of Standford’s convincing fast inventions — swift and light, with luminous and economic scoring allowing the solo instrument to be heard throughout its range. There is the same economy of means, but more overt display, in the Violin Concerto, where the scherzo, again central in position, is altogether more propulsive and generates a startlingly virtuosic cadenza which in turn is dissolved with remarkable ease into the tranquillo mood of the opening material. 

Subsequent works are to some extent overshadowed by Standford’s preoccupation with the opera, Villon, though new horizons and experiences were being reflected in concert pieces, as noticed earlier. At the same time, however, another major work was occupying the composer's time and taking a long time to gestate and come to fruition.

The Third Symphony, begun in 1973, is closely tied to Christus Requiem: both draw their motivation from Dante's Divine Comedy, and the musical links between them are obvious. ‘Toward Paradise’ is a choral symphony, the second and fourth movements being settings of Libera eas and In Paradisum. The third movement is a shattering orchestral Dies Irae on which many of the characteristic features of Standford’s style are brought to hear. The most crucial to mention are the combination of genuinely fast scherzando writing with block scoring (particularly and appropriately for the brass) and random repeated melodic figures and glissandi for the full string section (treated as soloists) to generate the terror and chaos of the ‘day of wrath’.

Like the Cello Concerto, Symphony No. 3 makes use of a borrowing. But in this case the borrowing — Gerhardt's chorale, O Haupt, voll Blut’ und Wunden — is not employed like Brahms in the Concerto, or even like the Bach chorale in Berg’s concerto, but rather as a focus for the introduction of the symphony's choral element and for the source of its melodic and harmonic contours. Standford places the chorale, a capeIla, at the close of an opening orchestral Lento. This in itself is an amalgam of orchestral choral: and ritual prelude with long-held pedal notes, gongs and drums, and melodic suggestions of the Dies Irae plainsong. Gerhardt's chorale, starkly harmonised with tritone and chromatic movement prominent, serves the same function as its appearance in Christus Requiem, except this time it is tonal ‘sign-post’ and thematic material in one. The familiar choral fan harmonies and cluster in the two choral movements are not only heard as Standford’s fingerprints but also as harmonic extensions of the chorale setting.

In many ways the Third Symphony represents a summary of Standiford’s output in the 1970s. It was probably important for the composer to write a work that encompassed the ideals and some of the ideas of Christus Requiem, but at the same time to write a more readily-performable concert piece. Recognition of its success has come with the award of the 1983 Ernest Ansermet Prize and the scheduling of a performance in Geneva for June 1986. We are likely to see that Villon, when it achieves a performance, reflects different concerns, whereas the Fifth Symphony will signal new departures. But in these, as in all Standford’s output, the mark of a fluent, original composer will be obvious.

© Composer Magazine, 1985