John Quinn discusses Stanford’s Mass Via Victrix, Op.173 with Adrian Partington
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford wrote a significant body of music for the Anglican liturgy. Though opportunities to hear live performances of his orchestral or chamber music are nowadays disappointingly infrequent, much of his fine liturgical music still features regularly in the repertoires of the UK’s cathedral and collegiate choirs. Stanford composed large-scale settings of the Requiem Mass and the Stabat Mater but both of these significant compositions, setting texts firmly associated with the Roman Catholic Church, were concert works. Thus, it came as a surprise to me a few years ago when I learned of the existence of a Mass setting. How did it come to be that Stanford, so strongly identified with the music of the Anglican church, composed not just a Mass but a setting, moreover, specifically intended for liturgical use?
All was revealed when I heard the recording of the Mass in G, Op.46. The Mass was written in response to a commission from Thomas Wingham (1846-1893), the organist and choirmaster at the prominent London Roman Catholic church, the Brompton Oratory. Stanford wrote the Mass, which he scored for SATB soloists and choir, organ and orchestra between 1891 and 1892. It was performed liturgically at the Oratory in 1893 (shortly after Wingham’s death) and in 1894 Stanford himself conducted a further performance in London at a Bach Choir concert. Thereafter the work seems to have fallen into complete neglect until George de Voil and the Choir of Exeter College, Oxford made a welcome recording of it in 2014 (review).
If the discovery of the Mass in G was a surprise I was even more astonished to learn recently of the existence of another and much later Mass setting by Stanford. This is his Mass Via Victrix, Op.173. This was composed at the end of the First World War. The vocal score gives the title of the work as ‘Mass Via Victrix 1914-1918’ and at the end of the vocal score the date December 1919 appears. The vocal score also bears a Latin inscription, which is significant, as we shall see.
It appears to be a pretty substantial composition for SATB soloists and choir with orchestra, playing probably for some 50 minutes. Yet, amazingly, the Mass has never received a complete performance. At last, however, a full performance is to take place in October when the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales will give the belated premiere in Cardiff. As I’m an admirer of Stanford’s music I’m looking forward greatly to the opportunity to hear this unknown major score. Keen to know more about the work, I met up with Adrian Partington, Artistic Director of the BBC National Chorus of Wales since 1999, who will be conducting this important premiere.
The obvious first question was: where has this score been all these years? Adrian explained that the full score has been in the British Library, virtually unknown to anyone. He commented that even the comprehensive biography by the leading Stanford scholar, Jeremy Dibble, Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician (2002), doesn’t go into any detail about the work. A vocal score was published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1920 and this includes a note that a full score and orchestral parts will be available on hire from the publishers but it does not seem that Boosey’s ever made good on this promise. The full score which Adrian will be using for the performance – and from which the orchestral parts have been derived – has been painstakingly transcribed from the manuscript full score into Sibelius by Jeremy Dibble. The vocal score was available and so, Adrian says, the work has been known about ‘but nobody’s ever done it’.
I asked Adrian what was known about the composition of the Mass. He says that the composition was done in 1919 – the date December 1919 appears at the end of the vocal score – though some sketches may have been undertaken in 1918. ‘We don’t know why he wrote it. It’s one of those masterpieces – I use the word advisedly – that has a slightly mysterious provenance, and nobody knows why it was written.’
He believes the Mass was a very personal expression of feeling on Stanford’s part; his offering to those who fell in the Great War. ‘Like everybody of that generation, Stanford was seriously affected by the War. He’d lost pupils; he’d lost friends. Everybody’s way of life, particularly in the arts, was turned upside down. So, I think that, unusually for him, so far as I know, this is simply a work that is a personal expression of what he felt at the time. It’s dedicated to servicemen – dead servicemen – just because of the Latin legend that appears in small type just under the title, Mass Via Victrix.’ This inscription reads: ‘Transiverunt per ignem et aquam et eduxsisti in refrigerium’. I believe this translates as ‘They passed through fire and water and you brought them to a place of refreshment.’ (Psalm 66, verse 12) Adrian says that the use of a verse from a psalm would be very typical of Stanford: he knew them all and had set quite a few of them. Jeremy Dibble has provided an alternative translation that is more of a precis: ‘For those who passed through fire and water into heaven.’.
I had wondered in advance of discussing the Mass with Adrian if it was, in a way, Stanford’s War Requiem – though it’s not the text of the Requiem Mass that he sets in this work. Adrian’s response surprised me slightly. He feels it’s definitely Stanford’s offering to those who fell in the war. However, he went on to say that the score is ‘a mixture of the solemn and the thoughtful with the positively jubilant. Its’s like a celebration of the end of the war whilst remembering those who gave their lives at the same time’. He tells me that the score is full of marches – quick and slow. There are fanfares too, and often the music is underpinned by ostinatos which, to him, sometimes suggest the tramping of boots. Having studied the score for several months, he feels it’s often military in tone, rather than striking any note of regret, still less pacifism – though that’s not to say that the music is devoid of reflective episodes. Hearing him say this, it seems to me to explain why the title of the Mass is Via Victrix, which can be translated as ‘The Way of Victory’. Adrian commented that he feels that above all Stanford was celebrating the achievements of the fallen – rather than mourning them. This is a work of patriotism and pride. That said, as I discovered a few minutes later when Adrian played through some of the music at the piano, Via Victrix is not informed by bombast; this is no jingoistic composition. He confirmed my suspicion that the tone of the work is very different from, say, Elgar’s The Spirit of England. ‘It feels like a military piece. I don’t hear pacifism or regret. I feel he was writing something because he was pleased that his side had won.’ Adrian reminded me that in the immediate aftermath of the Great War many British people were proud of what the country had achieved and didn’t view the deaths as a waste. Consequently, he finds definite patriotism – and pride – in Stanford’s score.
I was still intrigued, though, that Stanford, who was so identified with the Anglican church, had elected to set the Roman Catholic Mass in what was clearly a work of great personal significance. Adrian has a fascinating theory. He believes that Stanford ‘was consciously trying to be international.’ He reminded me that Stanford spent a lot of time in Germany – he studied there, for a start – and was very pro-German, though he reacted very strongly on the outbreak of war and expressed violently anti-German views.
Since the Mass was completed it has languished in almost complete obscurity. I learned from Adrian that Jeremy Dibble believes there is a possibility that the Gloria from Via Victrix may have been performed at a Stanford memorial concert in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge sometime after the composer’s death in 1924, though that’s not certain. I wondered how it was that a substantial late work by an eminent composer didn’t achieve a performance even in his lifetime. Was it a ‘confessional’ work which he deemed too personal and which he shut away, rather as Howells did with Hymnus Paradisi? Adrian doesn’t believe that was the case – after all, a vocal score was published – and suspects that the neglect is down to more prosaic reasons. Stanford, he believes, was in declining health in the last few years of his life and may well have lacked the energy to promote the Mass. More significantly, the tide of public taste had turned against the old romantic style of music, as epitomised by Elgar, Parry and Stanford. In Europe composers such as Weill, Krenek and Stravinsky were taking music in new directions, as were composers such as Bliss and Walton in Britain. Furthermore, many of the pieces that were getting attention were fairly small in scale. By comparison, a full-scale Mass by Stanford would have seemed very old-fashioned. Towards the end of his life Stanford was chronically short of cash, Adrian pointed out, and wrote music such as the modest Anglican service known as Stanford in D expressly for parish use, in the hope that people would buy it. All the more remarkable, then, that he should devote time and energy to writing a large-scale Mass. As Adrian put it, ‘He had this piece in him and he just had to write it.’
I asked Adrian what can listeners expect to hear when Mass Via Victrix is finally unveiled in October? His answer was unequivocal: ‘a full-blown, late-Romantic Mass setting with a German flavour, ironically. It’s a big piece in every way – even the Kyrie runs to nearly 10 minutes – and, as I’ve said before, it has lots and lots of ostinatos which suggest to me the tramping of boots.’ A lot of the music is quick and some of it – for example the end of the Gloria and the conclusion of the Credo – is ‘thrillingly exciting’. I wondered about the scoring. Adrian told me that ‘the orchestra is of medium size: double woodwind, four horns, three trumpets and so on; there is a particularly important timpani part; lots of brass fanfares, many beautiful woodwind ensembles, (Benedictus) and some virtuosic string writing.’ As for the vocal parts, I learned that the soloists ‘are mostly used as a unit, as a kind of secondary chorus (Sanctus); but there are notable solos for each of the four, spread through the work.’. The writing for the chorus, I’m assured, is ‘straightforward and satisfying, mostly in four parts, but with thrilling divisi at some climaxes.’ It all sounds very appetising to me.
As I hoped would be the case, Adrian needed little encouragement to sit down at the piano and play through some passages from the work. He began with some substantial excerpts from the Agnus Dei. This is a remarkable movement. It starts in a very reflective vein, the orchestral introduction evidencing echoes of Brahms. I was much taken with the passage for solo soprano that follows and some of Stanford’s harmonies are fantastic. Adrian had mentioned, as he started to play, that there are some similarities with the same movement in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and I was astonished at the way in which at times Stanford seems to have taken his cure from Beethoven, (It’s surely not stretching the parallel too much to reflect that both Stanford’s and Beethoven’s Mass settings were composed in the aftermath of cathartic wars in Europe.) For example, there are short recitative-like passages for some members of the solo quartet, just as we find in the Beethoven. Even more remarkably, Stanford follows Beethoven’s precedent by including an extended and turbulent passage for orchestra. Stanford’s music is radically different from Beethoven’s of course – his episode is a quick march – but the structural parallel is striking. Eventually Stanford brings his Agnus Dei – and the Mass as a whole – to a pacific ending.
Then Adrian gave me a quick tour d’horizon of the Credo. This is the most substantial movement. It incorporates elements of sonata form and in Adrian’s view it’s the most masterly section of Stanford’s Mass. The movement opens strongly, with vigorous fanfare-like material. I agreed with Adrian’s assessment that it’s ‘quite an arresting opening.’ Later, the ‘Et incarnatus est’ is much more lyrical; this section was one of several in which Stanford goes in and out of different keys very rapidly. The ‘Crucifixus’ is suitably dramatic; hereabouts Stanford indulges in a good deal of effective word-painting. Exuberant music announces the Resurrection and the music that follows is full of energy. As Adrian says, this movement is ‘marvellous’.
It was fascinating and exciting to listen to these extracts from two of the movements. It was also a strange feeling to realise that I was among the first people to hear music that had been written nearly 100 years ago. What I heard in Adrian Partington’s music room has whetted even further my appetite to hear the full work.
Adrian told me that he has been working on the score for several months; the music is now very much under his skin. He’s evidently very excited by it. He believes that the Mass Via Victrix stands up very well in comparison to the best of Stanford’s output. This is a notable work, not least in terms of its level of inspiration. As he put it, ‘I don’t think there’s a bar that’s merely workmanlike.’
I was curious to learn what other music will be programmed alongside the Stanford premiere in October. The choices, all of them orchestral works, are interesting. Elegy, In Memoriam Rupert Brooke for harp and strings (1915) by the Australian-born Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916) fits extraordinarily well into a concert which is being given under the title ’Music for the Fallen’. The orchestral part of the programme will be completed by a French composition, Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel. The inclusion of this work seems just as fitting since each of its movements is a tribute by the composer to one of his friends slain in the war.
I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Adrian regards it as a great privilege – and a thrill – that he’ll be able to give the first performance of a major work by an important British composer nearly 100 years after the piece was written. He was generous in his praise of Tim Thorne, the former Chief Producer of Music for BBC Wales, who conceived the idea for this concert to commemorate the Armistice. He says he’s equally grateful to Meurig Bowen, who is now the Head of Artistic Planning for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who subsequently took the project on with great enthusiasm. Based on what I’ve already heard, I think that lovers of British music, and Stanford devotees in particular, are going to be very thankful that this long-neglected major work will at last be heard. Meurig Bowen, Jeremy Dibble, Adrian Partington, Tim Thorne and, of course, the BBC will deserve our gratitude.
To my great regret another, unavoidable commitment will prevent me from attending the performance in October so it’s particularly welcome that the BBC is promoting this event so it will be heard as a broadcast by a larger audience than can be accommodated in the BBC Hoddinott Hall. Of course, the best thing of all would be a commercial recording to give the work the widest possible circulation. I asked Adrian if there was any chance of this. ‘I hope so. I shall certainly do my best’ was his encouraging response. He clearly believes the Mass Via Victrix deserves a wide audience. ‘It contains music of the highest quality and it’s also an interesting historical document; the culmination of Stanford’s career.’ The commemoration of the Great War has been the occasion for the composition of a good number of new musical works over the last few years, but Adrian agreed with me that it’s hard to think of another substantial work written at the time of the War and which has been completely unknown over the succeeding decades. This belated premiere offers a great chance to connect directly with a hitherto unknown contemporary musical response to the conflict.
The world premiere performance of Stanford’s Mass Via Victrix will be given at the BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff on 27 October. The soloists will be Kiandra Howarth, Jessica Dandy, Ruairi Bowen and Gareth Brynmor John. The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales will be conducted by Adrian Partington. It has yet to be announced whether the concert will be broadcast live or recorded for future transmission. Click here for more information, including booking details