Patric Standford, 1984


Denys Corrigan


1984 February

To aim to arrive at a just estimate of the work of any contemporary composer is, in almost every way, to attempt the impossible. The history of music is full of instances of such judgments, often by immensely perceptive and gifted men, which seem to us today so utterly misguided and wrong headed that we can only marvel how they were arrived at.

The difficulties are exacerbated if one happens to be a personal friend of the composer, not so much because one is reluctant to offend or upset him - though this must inevitably be a factor - but because one is aware of a whole complex of individual characteristics, quirks, attitudes and aspirations which one is tempted to read into works in which they have not been expressed.....or have been expressed in ways discernible only to people with the same degree of personal knowledge as oneself. In other words, there is a risk of judging the music on grounds that are, to a considerable extent, non-musical.

For me to write about the work of Patric Standford, whom I have known well for more than a quarter of a century, is to court such a danger in full measure. Not that I stand in fear of overvaluing his output from the musical standpoint: it has made its mark upon men of a greater eminence than lies within my reach, and I am sufficiently aware of my own limitations to know that I am more likely to fall short of full appreciation than to err in the opposite direction. But I may well be unduly influenced by my regard for a man of great integrity and a friend of extraordinary generosity, though I shall try hard not to be.

In a creative career spanning no more than 20 years since the completion of his formal musical education at the Guildhall School of Music (of which he was elected a Fellow in 1972), his achievement has been formidable. Almost immediately he won a Mendelssohn Scholarship, enabling him to travel and study with Malipiero and Lutoslawski; his first three symphonies have won international awards; he has established himself as a lucid writer and broadcaster on music, an international adjudicator, and a teacher of wide experience, at the Guildhall School, London University, Chetham's School in Manchester and Bretton Hall College University of Leeds, where he is currently the Director of Music; as well as completing a substantial musical oeuvre.

To listen to anything like a representative selection of his music is to feel conscious of a remarkable, if largely illusory, diversity. Almost any one of his works ill prepares the listener for the remainder. Yet, there is undoubtedly an underlying unity of purpose. A work of popular appeal such as the Christmas Carol Symphony may seem to belong to a very different world from, say, the Taikyoku Symphony or Ancient Verses, but closer acquaintance will reveal the same hand at work.

I was present at the first performance of his ballet Celestial Fire at the 1968 Stafford Festival (where it was voted the outstanding event) and at a performance of a string quartet (no longer extant) which had been entered for a BBC competition at York University the same year, and two things struck me about these very different compositions: the appropriateness of the material (quintessential music) and the mastery of writing for the highly distinctive media. The omnipresence of these qualities, in such of the rest of his output as I have heard, lies at the heart of the unity I mentioned.

The music is music, not mere manufactured sound, and the technique applied to a wide range of musical forms is consistently sure. Yet, it is by no means hidebound or simply academically correct. The sustained parallel lines in the opening section of the Piano Trio of 1970 are a case in point. This is not orthodox chamber music writing, but it works - and leaves a profound impression. The four movements of the ‘Seasons’ Symphony [Symphony No. 1 ‘The Seasons’] do not present us with the four seasons in their obvious, traditional guise, but they reflect feelings about them that many of us must have shared.....and, again, the medium is imaginatively and tellingly employed.

Although the technique is always assured, however, we are never faced with a predominantly technical undertaking, even in such a piece as the Sonata for Solo Violin, written for the 1974 Karl Flesch Competition. This is a substantial composition, profound and searching, and even if the essentially musical interest slackens somewhat in the cadenza—like finale, presumably in deference to the demands of the commission, the piece remains a satisfying whole, especially as played by Yfrah Neaman, to whom it is inscribed.

Listening to Patric Standford's orchestral music, from early to late, one becomes aware of a particular sensitivity to percussion, and it begins to look inevitable that a work such as the Taikyoku Symphony (No 4), for two pianos and percussion, should eventually emerge. Inspired by an interest in oriental music, but by no means a conscious attempt to bridge the gulf between their culture and ours, this is one of the composer's more difficult assignments for the listener, although by the standards of today it is by no means way out. The comparative strangeness of its sonorities and the almost turbulent intensity of its early and middle sections call for a degree of adjustment unusual with his music, unusual but not excessive. The relative calm of the concluding pages is beautifully judged, in degree and duration, and although I am less sure of my grasp of this than of most other works in the canon, I am conscious that it possesses a significance in its own right and a logical relationship to those other works.

Percussion also figures prominently in Ancient Verses, a setting of Latin poetry for chorus and a formidable battery of percussion instruments which are used with tremendous, but never overwhelming effect, offsetting the startlingly stark and primitive lines of the vocal writing to produce an emotional impact little short of shattering. This piece, together with the Three Motets in memoriam Benjamin Britten, are shortly to appear on disc - but, alas for us, in the Soviet Union. When I wonder, will our record companies recognise Standford’s sales potential?

In very different vein is the Cello Concerto of 1974, one of the few works I have been able to hear in live performance, and study subsequently; it is a lovely, warm-hearted homage to Brahms (it quotes from the German Requiem), with a grateful part for the soloist, and could well become a popular favourite, given a reasonable amount of exposure. The Suite for Small Orchestra (1966), despite the modesty of its scale, in both duration and the forces employed, has a Bartokian power (though no direct Bartokian influence) that seems to belie that modesty. Splendidly compact, it is, again, beautifully written for the medium.

Bartok, especially the Bartok of the 'night music', inevitably comes to mind in listening to the two short orchestral pieces Nocturne and Notte, in both of which the composer introduces aleatory elements to an extent which allows flexibility in performance without the danger of disturbing the essence of the conception. In both, as elsewhere, there is little one could call superfluous, and one gets the impression that the spirit of Webern, or at least Sibelius, has secured a firm hold on the approach to composition. It is an impression that is reinforced as one listens to the Piano Variations (1969) and Six Preludes for piano (1970) and compressed, saying what they have to say, then finishing. 

Given the choice which lack of regular performances and recordings regrettably denies us, an admirable introduction to Patric Standford’s music would be the orchestral piece Saracinesco first offered to the world as Sinfonia III in the early sixties and revised some five or six years later. Sinfonia I and II were either lost of never finished. It is a thoroughly characteristic work, in many ways prophetic of subsequent developments; scored for large orchestra, including piano, the forces are used with typical restraint and clarity, and it makes absorbing (and enjoyable) listening.

The composer's most extended work to date, pending the completion of the opera Villon, is the Christus Requiem (1973 ), which had its premiere in St Paul’s Cathedral. Commissioned by the Guildhall School, and performed by them under John Alldis, it aroused considerable interest and enthusiasm, but sadly not enough of either to ensure that the resources demanded could be assembled for further performances - at least to date.

Described as an Oratorio—masque on the Crucifixion, it is an intensely dramatic work, full of exciting and imaginative ideas. It combines Passion and Requiem Mass, and its selection of texts - in addition to the traditional Latin and English, there are also German, Russian, Czech and Hebrew settings, signifying the universality of the subject - is particularly interesting (the composer’s choice of texts for his vocal music as a whole is highly individual) and is integrated with great skill and sensitivity.

The music is powerful, stark, sombre, tender and transcendental by turns, much of it thoroughly characteristic, some unexpected as in the prominence of the brass. The deployment of the trumpets in the Dies Irae (which is, in the fullest sense, a tour de force) and of the trombones passim are just two instances of the latter. Other striking features are the stabbing ‘Hosannas’ against the serene treble voices in the opening Alleluia, the extraordinarily beautiful effect of the solo soprano at the close of the Stabat Mater, the solo violin in the 'Lux Aeterna’ and the other-worldly 'Amen', which probably owes nothing to Gustav Holst, but does seem to have a kinship with ’Neptune the Mystic’.

As one who often finds he has taken too much on, I can well understand the complaint that this remarkable man never has enough time for composition. Nevertheless, I have to say that, for one who is still only 45, he seems to me to have an impressively substantial body of major works to his credit; and, in addition, there has been no small quantity of lighter music, and even work with a pop group. I have just been listening to the ballet suite Reflections, delicate, charming and tuneful, as is the music of the earlier ballet Celestial Fire. This is no ‘ivory tower' creative artist, but an all-rounder with a ”Mendelssohnian dedication to the art of music as a whole.....aptly so for a Mendelssohn Scholarship man.

We have, in the output of Patric Standford, a wide range of forms of musical expression which may or may not suggest, on the superficial plane, too great a diversity and a lack of direction, but which, on a more comprehensive acquaintance, is found to be the product of an individual, distinctive and questing personality, not unlike that of Stravinsky. Perhaps its apparent diversity has worked against more frequent hearings than has been its lot, just as Stravinsky's "changes of style" hindered widespread acceptance for a time; but those of us who have had the good fortune to become familiar with Standford’s work can only hope that time will effect the desirable redress.

© Denys Corrigan Estate