Stanford is born into a well-off and highly musical family, the only son of John James Stanford, a prominent Dublin lawyer, Examiner to the Court of Chancery in Ireland and Clerk of the Crown for County Meath, and his second wife, Mary, née Henn. He is educated at the University of Cambridge before studying music in Leipzig and Berlin. He is instrumental in raising the status of the Cambridge University Musical Society, attracting international stars to perform with it.
While still an undergraduate, Stanford is appointed organist of Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1882, at the age of 29, he is one of the founding professors of the Royal College of Music, where he teaches composition for the rest of his life. From 1887 he is also Professor of Music at Cambridge. As a teacher, he is skeptical about modernism, and bases his instruction chiefly on classical principles as exemplified in the music of Johannes Brahms. Among his pupils are rising composers whose fame go on to surpass his own, such as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. As a conductor, he holds posts with the Bach Choir and the Leeds Triennial Music Festival.
Stanford composes a substantial number of concert works, including seven symphonies, but his best-remembered pieces are his choral works for church performance, chiefly composed in the Anglican tradition. He is a dedicated composer of opera, but none of his nine completed operas has endured in the general repertory. Some critics regard him, together with Hubert Parry and Alexander Mackenzie, as responsible for a renaissance in music from the British Isles. However, after his conspicuous success as a composer in the last two decades of the 19th century, his music is eclipsed in the 20th century by that of Edward Elgar as well as former pupils.
In September 1922, Stanford completes the sixth Irish Rhapsody, his final work. Two weeks later he celebrates his 70th birthday and thereafter his health declines. On March 17, 1924 he suffers a stroke and dies on March 29 at his home in London, survived by his wife and children. He is cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on April 2 and his ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey the following day.
Stanford’s last opera, The Travelling Companion, composed during World War I, is premiered by amateur performers at the David Lewis Theatre, Liverpool in 1925 with a reduced orchestra. The work is given complete at Bristol in 1928 and at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, in 1935.
Stanford receives many honours, including honorary doctorates from University of Oxford (1883), University of Cambridge (1888), Durham University (1894), University of Leeds (1904), and Trinity College, Dublin (1921). He is knighted in 1902 and in 1904 is elected a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts, Berlin.