Stanford’s Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’ Op. 173
A guest post by Professor Jeremy Dibble
Born in Dublin in 1852, Charles Villiers Stanford was born into a community of brilliant Anglo-Irishmen in the mid-nineteenth century. A student of classics and an organ scholar at Cambridge, he was mentored by Sterndale Bennett and Joseph Joachim which led to further musical training in Leipzig and Berlin. An apprenticeship in the organ lofts of St Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals in Dublin were also formatively important for his appointment as organist of Trinity College, Cambridge, a position he held from 1873 until 1892.
Stanford’s great originality as a composer of church music undoubtedly owes much to this time. But by the time he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music in 1883, he was already the accomplished author of an opera performed in Hannover, two symphonies, chamber music, choral music and songs, and by 1888, when he became Professor of Music at Cambridge, he had composed two further operas, his ‘Irish’ Symphony Op. 28 (much admired by Hans Richter) and an oratorio for the 1885 Birmingham Festival.
After resigning from Trinity in 1892 he was able to concentrate on his commitments as a teacher and conductor. In London he directed the Bach Choir, and later, in Leeds, the Philharmonic Society. From 1901 until 1910 he was the artistic director of the Leeds Festival for which he wrote many of his best choral works including the Songs of the Sea Op. 91 (1904), the Stabat Mater Op. 96 (1907) and the Songs of the Fleet Op. 117 (1910).
Although we tend to associate Stanford with choral music, and particularly with works written for the Anglican liturgy, he was an extraordinarily versatile composer across a wide range of musical genres – indeed, his greatest aspiration was to be a successful composer of opera, though, beset with disappointments, this hope largely eluded him.
During the First World War Stanford found himself in straitened financial circumstances and this situation did not improve after the war was over. In need of work and royalties, he gained some income from the composition of anthems, and music for the piano and organ. His large-scale works were, however, turned down by publishers who were more receptive to a new generation of British composers. Among these items were two fine string quartets, the tone poem A Song of Agincourt Op. 168 , the Violin Concerto No. 2 Op. 162, the Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 171, the Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra Op. 181 and the Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’ Op. 173.
I have known of the Mass ‘Via Victrix’ for many years and became familiar with its pages while carrying out research for my book on Stanford (published in 2002). Boosey published the vocal score; this was part of the normal process for choral works. The publishers would reap their profits from the sale of multiple vocal scores, but the full score, far too expensive to publish, would be available usually in a copyist’s hand.
One of the major obstacles which prevented the performance of the Mass in the past is that no orchestral parts existed. Stanford directed a performance of the ‘Gloria’ movement of the Mass at a concert in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge on 15 June 1920 in a concert of music by Cambridge composers (which included music by Cyril Rootham, Vaughan Williams, Charles Wood, Alan Gray, Hubert Parry (on whom was conferred an Hon. Mus.D in 1883), E. W. Naylor, in honour of the newly-installed Chancellor and music-lover, Arthur Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour. The concert was also attended by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Lord Robert Cecil, one of the architects of the League of Nations. The performance of the ‘Gloria’ may have had an auspicious audience, but it was only with organ.
|Stanford around 1887|
When this was agreed with the BBC, I undertook the making up of a modern performing edition, using both the manuscript and the published vocal score, ironing out inconsistencies and variants, mistranspositions, missing accidentals, as well as artistic details which changed between the orchestration of the work and the publication of the vocal score – a change of harmony here, an alteration in underlay there.
Over the years I have become familiar with many of Stanford’s autographs and, as one becomes accustomed to the style of handwriting and notation, one feels carried along by the hand of genius, a brilliant architect and orchestrator - a master of his craft. Stanford produced a substantial corpus of choral works of varying proportions and across a range of choral genres. We have still to acquaint ourselves with his two major oratorios for Birmingham – The Three Holy Children Op. 22 (1885) and Eden Op. 40 (1891) and there are still works such as the Elegiac Ode Op. 21 (1884), The Voyage of Maeldune Op. 34 (1889) and the Choral Overture Ave Atque Vale Op. 114 (1908) which I am sure will reveal new seams of gold in Stanford’s remarkable imagination when it comes to the setting of voices.
Among the pillars of his output, however, are undoubtedly the Requiem Op. 63 which he wrote for Birmingham in 1897 (which Stanford played privately for Elgar when the two were friends in Malvern) and the Te Deum Op. 66 of 1898 which he wrote for the Leeds Festival. Both use forces of four soloists and combine Stanford’s flair for symphonic music with his love and instinct for the theatre.
Deploying these same forces, and with even greater operatic verve, Stanford composed his Stabat Mater for the Leeds Festival in 1907, a work of extraordinary theatrical vividness in which the theology and emotions of the Christian faith are shaped into a compelling opera-manchée. Perhaps aware of the awesome worldly challenge of writing a work to commemorate the end of the First World War, Stanford turned to the immutable text of the five movements of the ordinary of the mass as a means of expressing a range of universal emotions – the thanksgiving for victory, relief for those who had been spared, the sense of sacrifice, and the memory of those who had died (as articulated in the mass’s dedication ‘Transiuerunt per ignem et aquam et eduxisti in refrigerium’ [here Stanford was probably quoting from Psalm 66 v. 12 [KJV] - “We went through fire and water, but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.”)
Each movement was conceived on a symphonic scale using the same forces as the Requiem, Te Deum and Stabat Mater. The Kyrie is deeply melancholy, in the manner of a funeral cortège. The two most extended movements – the Gloria and the Credo – are highly dramatic in their changes of mood and tempo while the Sanctus (a slow movement) is a tripartite structure with the Benedictus at its centre.
The Agnus Dei, a solemn tribute to those who sacrificed their lives, builds on the drama of the Requiem in that it is essentially a Funeral March. At the beginning of the movement, the music of the Kyrie is recalled, but the original cortège music is replaced by a moving threnody for solo soprano with viola obbligato. This forms the outer sections of a ternary form whose dramatic funeral march for orchestra alone constitutes the ‘trio’. The closing ‘Dona nobis pacem’ incorporates an allusion to the final bars of the ‘Gloria’, though, before the celestial coda – a translucent suffusion of F major – the soprano soloist’s dramatic reiteration of ‘Agnus Dei’ on the Neapolitan (again in the manner of opera) comes as a fervent supplication to the world in the name of peace.
|The BBCNOW and chorus in Hoddinott Hall|
Photo: Kirsten McTernan
The Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’ occupies a unique place in Stanford’s output in that it makes conscious reference to an earlier work. Not one normally given to the quotation of his own music, he evidently felt that the powerful sense of redemption expressed in the mass’s dedication and in his Stabat Mater justified the quotation of the ‘redemption’ theme from the latter (the ‘redemption’ theme is first presented as the second subject of the overture) in both the Credo (at the point of Christ’s burial) and the Benedictus (where it functions as a cantus firmus in a contemporary interpretation of the eighteenth-century chorale prelude). Stanford’s Mass, along with his Requiem, are in fact rare examples of British concert masses (in contradistinction to liturgical settings by Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Darke, Howells and others).
Ethel Smyth’s somewhat elongated Mass in D of 1891 lies at the vanguard of the few settings there are in the repertoire, but Stanford’s Mass ‘Via Victrix’ is surely one of the finest indigenous examples couched in the tradition of the nineteenth-century symphonic genre (comparable with those of Beethoven, Hummel, Rossini, Puccini, Bruckner, and Dvořák).
However, as a ‘war’ mass, it occupies an even rarer position in British music of the twentieth century and predates the hybrid works of John Fould’s A War Requiem (1919-1921) and Benjamin Britten’s A War Requiem (1961-2) which use the text of the Requiem Mass together with poetry from other sources.
And what of the future for Stanford’s mass? Though it is undoubtedly a personal response to the First World War, there is no reason, given the neutral and more universal nature of the genre, why it could not serve as a piece for other solemn occasions, particularly at the time of the Armistice. Moreover, as a symphonic concert mass, it contains music of a high order which could easily stand alone on its own musical terms.
My hope is also, that, with the prospect of a commercial recording on the Lyrita label for release in 2019, the mass will take on a new life after a century of neglect and that it will contribute yet further to our fuller comprehension and appreciation of one of this country’s most brilliant and versatile composers.
© Jeremy Dibble 2018
BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform the first complete performance of Stanford’s Mass Via Victrix on 27 October at BBC Hoddinott Hall, conducted by Adrian Partington. It will also be recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in early November. Booking here.