Like his contemporary Parry, Stanford is best remembered for his church music and the symphonic dimensions he brought to the liturgical texts. However, like Parry, his greatest achievements probably lay in his teaching roles at Cambridge and the Royal College of Music, and his legacy resides in the generation of British composers he helped influence (Benjamin, Frank Bridge, Butterworth, Howells, Ireland and Vaughan Williams).
Born in Dublin on 30 September 1852, Stanford grew up in a stimulating cultural and intellectual environment. Joseph Joachim, the violinist and great friend of Brahms, was, among notable others, a guest at the Stanford house. Having shown early musical promise, he became a composition pupil of Arthur O'Leary in London, and in 1870 won an organ scholarship to Queens' College, Cambridge, gaining a classical scholarship the following year.
While at Cambridge, Stanford became conductor of Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS), a post he would hold until 1893, and brought the society to prominence with first English performances of Brahms' works, including the First Symphony. He also became organist of Trinity College, Cambridge, allowing him to continue composition studies in Leipzig and Berlin with Reinecke and Friedrich Kiel.
By 1877, his elevated position in British music was assured. His First Symphony had won second prize in the Alexandra Palace competition of 1876 and several piano works had been published. In 1883 he joined the staff of the newly formed Royal College of Music as professor of composition and conductor of the orchestra.
In 1887, at the age of 35, he became professor of music at Cambridge and witnessed the conferment of honorary doctorates on Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Boito and Bruch. He continued his conducting activities with the Bach Choir and the Leeds Philharmonic Society, and received numerous honours including honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Leeds. He was knighted in 1902 and died in 1924.
Stanford's most popular works are probably the large choral pieces like the Requiem, but his greatest skills are evident in the smaller scale Elegiac Ode (1884), the Songs of the Sea (1904) and Songs of the Fleet (1910). His Symphony No. 3 'Irish' was championed by Richter, Bülow and Mahler, and was chosen for the opening concert of Amsterdam's new Concertgebouw in 1888. His works display a sophisticated but diatonic harmonic language, and sound quite traditional to modern ears.