Saturday 20 October 2018

Damn fine music: Stanford's Mass Via Victrix (1914-1918) receives its belated premiere

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford
The composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford is so well known, that it seems surprising that he has a significant body of major work which is still rarely, if ever performed. Yet his Mass Via Victrix (1914-1918) is receiving its first performance on 27 October 2018. It is a major, mature work, Stanford wrote it during the First World War and the vocal score bears the date December 1919 (by which time Stanford would be 67). Though Boosey and Hawkes published the vocal score, the work was never fully performed, only the Gloria being given in a version with organ.

Mass Via Victrix (1914-1918) is a large scale concert work, for four soloists, chorus and orchestra, and its belated premiered is at BBC Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff on 27 October 2018 when Adrian Partington conducts the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales with soloists Kiandra Howarth, Jess Dandy, Ruairi Bowen and Gareth Brynmor John.

The work was prepared for performance from Stanford's autograph manuscript by the Stanford scholar Jeremy Dibble (Reader of Music at the University of Durham and author of the standard biography on Stanford), and I spoke to him via Skype to find out more about the background to the mass.

I was curious as to why the work was not performed, especially as Stanford clearly intended it to be a World War One commemoration (it includes the date 1914-1918 in the title. Jeremy Dibble feels that Stanford was something of a casualty of the change in musical attitudes after the war. In fact, Stanford touted a number of large scale works round publishers, failing to get them placed. His style was seen as somewhat old-fashioned, and he was very much associated with German music (as well as Cambridge, he studied in Berlin and Leipzig and held Brahms very much as an exemplar). Unfortunately attitudes had changed as a result of the war, so he failed to find publishers for his Second Violin Concerto and his Fifth Irish Rhapsody (which was dedicated to the Irish Fusiliers).

Caricature of Stanford by Spy, Vanity Fair, 1905
Caricature of Stanford by
Spy, Vanity Fair, 1905
Though Stanford wrote a lot of church music (mainly for the Anglican liturgy but there is a Roman Catholic mass too) Mass Via Victrix (1914-1918) is very definitely a large scale concert work. Jeremy feels it can be placed alongside Stanford's Requiem (written for the Birmingham Triennial Festival in 1897), the Te Deum (written for the Leeds Festival in 1898) and the Stabat Mater (written for Leeds in 1907). All four are big symphonic works, almost operatic at times. And we often forget that Stanford was an aspiring opera composer, after all he did write nine operas.

Stanford never heard a performance of the mass, and the Gloria was performed with organ at King's College, Cambridge, as part of a concert of music by Cambridge composers for the new Chancellor, Arthur Balfour in 1920. Stanford was still professor of music, so his music was included alongside composers such as RVW and Cyril Rootham.

Jeremy finds the work as couched in the late 19th century Romantic style, though influences stretch beyond Brahms and German music. Quite a lot of the dramatic music in the mass draws from Stanford's studies of French and Italian opera. Jeremy sees the quasi-funeral march in the Kyrie as having hints of the Italian Verismo school. He also mentions the remarkable Agnus Dei, where the singers are confined to the outer sections and the central section is a powerful purely orchestral funeral cortege. The opening of this movement is for the striking combination of soprano soloist and viola obbligato. The two longest movements, inevitably, are the Gloria and Credo. Both are multi-sectional with soloists and chorus interacting in dialogue in an almost operatic manner.

In two movements, Gloria and Benedictus, Stanford quotes from his Stabat Mater, associating the suffering of Mary at the foot of the Cross with the agony and loss which the mass was intended to reference. Though there are joyful moments in the mass, it is very much an introspective piece, commemorating the death of the over 1 million men during the war.

Though the work is being premiere in Cardiff, there will be plenty of opportunities for everyone to hear it as it is being recorded by the BBC for broadcast in BBC Radio 3 in November, and will be issued on disc by Lyrita.  It will be coupled with Stanford's 1920 work for chorus and orchestra, At the Abbey Gate which Jeremy sees as being inspired by the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey in 1920, a moment of catharsis after the war. It is a big choral slow march, and in it Stanford quotes the 'Dead March' from Handel's Saul.

We still have a lot to discover about late Stanford. His Song of Agincourt, a long symphonic poem poem which  combines introspection and heroism, has only relatively recently been performed by the Ulster Orchestra (in 2014), and his Second Violin Concerto long remained in manuscript though Jeremy Dibble has now orchestrated it from Stanford's manuscript.

But one of Jeremy's points about Stanford is that perhaps we still view him wrongly, though his symphonies and church music were important it was as an opera composer that he thought of himself. He wrote nine operas, none has been recorded and most are rarely if ever performed. That is gradually changing and New Sussex Opera is performing Stanford's The Travelling Companion this Autumn and recording it too for SOMM Records; for Jeremy, this work is Stanford's best opera. His first opera The Veiled Prophet was premiered in 1881 whilst The Travelling Companion is his last, being written in 1916 and premiered in 1925 after Stanford's death.

He only enjoyed real operatic success with Shamus O'Brien, a work with spoken dialogue which premiered in 1895 (RVW, one of Stanford's pupils, would comment sarcastically that on Stanford's centenary in 1952 Covent Garden celebrated by performing Bellini's Norma when they should have been performing Shamus O'Brien).

So though Stanford's big choral works are a rather different genre, his operatic taste does rather come out in them. But Jeremy is optimistic that, in time, people will get interested in the operas as well.

Stanford was quite modern in his attitudes to opera, he campaigned for performances in the vernacular. He wanted the government to sponsor an opera house performing opera in English and as late as the 1920s was still writing letters to The Times on the subject.

The remarkable thing about this late music is how much of it Stanford never heard. He only heard a dress rehearsal of The Travelling Companion, not a performance, he never heard the Second Violin Concerto, nor Mass Via Victrix. And there are two or three other operas he never heard; he wrote an Italian opera, Lorenza in the 1890s for La Scala which was not performed, and there is another opera in English with spoken dialogue, Christopher Patch which not only remains unperformed by whose libretto has been lost so performance is tricky.

Despite all this, he kept on writing and wrote works in the hope that people would perform them. And he did have supporters, his pupils such as RVW and Herbert Howells were both keen supporters of their teacher's music. Part of the problem is that though publishers were happy to publish vocal scores, as they would sell lots of them to performers, they were not going to sell many full scores so these were not published and works remained in manuscript and were hired out.

Before ideas about commemorating the centenary of World War One occurred, people had been in contact with Jeremy about performing Mass Via Victrix but the fact that it remained in manuscript was a great hurdle. To create the performing edition used in forthcoming performance, Jeremy worked for four months using both the autograph manuscript (now in the British Library) and the vocal score for reference. In fact, Jeremy has done a lot of this type of work for the music of both Stanford and Sir Hubert Parry, and this has indeed generated interest so that he hires out his editions. He is hoping that, once Mass Via Victrix is available it will generate interest as a concert work. Jeremy feels that it is not only vintage Stanford but damn fine music, with some extremely advanced chromatic harmony that is probably as advanced as Stanford got.

  • 27 October 2018 - Stanford Mass Via Victrix (1914-1918) - BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, Adrian Partington (conductor), BBC Hoddinott Hall - see BBC website.
  • 21 November 2018 (and then on tour until 2 December 2018) - Stanford The Travelling Companion - New Sussex Opera, Toby Purser (conductor), Paul Higgins (director) - see New Sussex Opera website
Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A visit to Italy at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Untold riches - music from Estonia & the Baltic at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Southbank Sinfonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy in Grieg, Prokofiev and Beethoven (★★★★)  concert review
  • A Bernstein Celebration - London English Song Festival - concert review
  • Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes (★★★) - theatre review
  •  Something for everyone: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess from English National Opera (★★★★)  - opera review
  •  Handel's Radamisto from English Touring Opera (★★★★½) - Opera review
  • Portrait of a life (or many): Art songs from the African diaspora (★★★★) - concert review
  • Crowd-funding & collaboration: new choral music from Lumen  - interview
  • Double concerto for bandoneon and violin (★★★½) - CD review
  • The choral music of Richard Allain (★★★½) - CD review
  • Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots returns to the Paris Opera - Opera review
  • Modified Rapture: Verdi's Aida from the Met (★★★½) - Opera review
  • The Emperor's Fiddler - violinist David Irving on historical approaches on his new disc - interview
  •  Home


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