Charles Villiers Stanford: Mass 'Via Victrix'

In 1919 Stanford chose to compose a setting of the mass to commemorate the allied victory, hoping perhaps that the work might be attractive to choral societies. In terms of his music connected with the war, the Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’ Op. 173 would be his greatest and most substantial effort, and it would prove to be a canvas to equal similar large-scale choral tours de force such as his Requiem Op. 63 (1897), Te Deum Op. 66 (1898) and Stabat Mater Op. 96 (1907), all ambitiously conceived for chorus, four soloists, orchestra and organ. Bearing the adapted Latin dedication ( ‘Transiverunt per ignem et aqua et eduxisti in refrigerium’ [“(They) went through fire and water and thou has brought (them) into a wealthy place”?] taken from Psalm 66 verse 12 (from Tyndale’s translation), the work was dedicated to those who made the greatest sacrifice in defence of their country. The mass was therefore intended as a work of thanksgiving, of celebration for the final victory, but equally one which looked into the heart of the nation, to commiserate with those who grieved, to pray for those whose sense of loss was unconsolable, and to urge for a spirit of renewal in the face of the hardships and sorrows the nation had had to endure. In this sense Stanford’s work stood at the vanguard of other cathartic expressions of war grief such as John Foulds’ A World Requiem (1921), Delius’s Requiem (1914, but not performed until 1922) and Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes (1930).

When news was made known of the unveiling of the Cenotaph and the interment of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey in October 1920, the Right Hon. Mr Justice Charles John Darling (1st Baron Darling) published a poem ‘At the Abbey Gate’ in The Times on 26 October (under the initials C.J.D.) as part of a larger article ‘To the Unknown Dead’ announcing the special nature of the ceremony on 11 November. Through a desire to commemorate this major national occasion, Stanford decided to set Darling’s poem as a march for chorus, solo baritone and orchestra. At the Abbey Gate Op. 177 was completed in November 1920 in the days following the great national ceremony. Jeremy Dibble



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Rescued from obscurity nearly a century after its composition, Stanford's largescale post-war mass is definitely worth checking out. Impassioned performances here.




Considering that the vocal score of Stanford’s Via Victrix had been published in 1920, it is a real mystery why this work had been totally ignored and forgotten until Jeremy Dibble excavated and edited the orchestral parts for a first outing at the end of October 2018 by the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales.
It is a very effective setting in its own right of the liturgical text of the Roman Catholic mass replete with many imaginative touches, such as the tortured choral jabs in the Crucifixus, and magnificent climaxes in the central and closing sections of the Gloria and the Sanctus. The scoring for the quartet of solo singers, more often employed as a sort of semi-chorus in contrast to the main body of the choir than as soloists in their own right, is well-integrated and subtly blended. The scoring, and the sometimes unexpected harmonic contrasts, are masterful.

The singing of the solo quartet was excellently blended last autumn. The choral writing throughout is considerate and the singing is gloriously controlled over some passages of extreme dynamic contrast. For those who heard the broadcast on the radio, I should add that the Lyrita recording makes the very most of the acoustic of the resonant Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff and the sound generally seems to have a little more body than it was vouchsafed by the BBC engineers last autumn.
To round off this invaluable first release, which will deservedly attract purchasers and collectors of British choral music, we are even given an additional item in the form of another piece written by Stanford to commemorate the dead of the First World War. Unlike the mass, this anthem written in memory of the entombment of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey had been given a full performance at the time of its composition but had been no less comprehensively neglected since. I have to observe that Stanford, working here on a smaller scale and to a modern text, makes more impact in his treatment of the words than he managed to do in the mass. The orchestra too seems to be more emotionally treated, Elgarian indeed in the manner of the latter’s Grania and Diarmid funeral march, making a grander impact in the outer purely orchestral sections of the work. Gareth Brynmor John too makes more of an impression than he did in the mass, declaiming the oddly unconventional text by Charles John Darling with passion and involvement. The very ending of the work, as the orchestra dies away seemingly into the distance leaving the unaccompanied organ to fade in its turn, is highly impressive.

The booklet, quite apart from the extended essay by Jeremy Dibble, also supplies full texts and translations. This is an issue of importance which deserves every support.




Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD Mass Via Victrix, At the Abbey Gate - BBC National Ch & O Wales/Adrian Partington rec. 2018 LYRITA SRCD382 It’s been good to see some enterprising Stanford releases this year, most of them first recordings too. This one, however, takes the palm. It’s a live recording of the first complete performance of Stanford’s ambitious setting of the Mass, 99 years after Stanford wrote it. Composed in the immediate aftermath of World War I, the Mass remembers the dead, consoles the bereaved and, above all, gives thanks for victory, albeit not in a triumphalist way. A fine quartet of young soloists joins highly committed BBC Wales forces under the assured direction of Adrian Partington. This recording brings to the light a British choral work of major importance which should not have been allowed to suffer a century of neglect.


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