Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Stanford Mass Via Victrix premiere, Partington, BBC NOW.

Charles Villiers Stanford's Mass Via Victrix, resurrected and edited by Jeremy Dibble, with Adrian Partington conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.  This world premiere will get a lot of attention since Stanford has become fashionable in recent years, so it's sure to be well received.   Completed in December 1919, it is  inscribed with the Latin translation of a line from Psalm 66, "Transiverunt per ignem et aquam et eduxsisti in refrigerium",  which means "We went through fire and through water; But You brought us out to rich fulfillment.". Since Stanford and his contemporaries knew their Bible well, it is worth reading the psalm in full. (link here)  because the psalm is not a hymn of mourning but a song of triumph.  

Even more pointedly, the psalm is about power  that cannot be questioned.  "How awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power. Your enemies shall submit themselves to You" And "He rules by His power forever; His eyes observe the nations;Do not let the rebellious exalt themselves".  Which is fair enough as God is omnipotent, but soldiers killed in battle, no matter how heroic they were, are men, not gods : they cannot be conflated in the same terms.  So savage was the 1914-1918 war that everyone had some connection to those who were killed, maimed or bereaved, and by 1919 it would have become obvious that the configuration of Europe was irretrievably changed. Many had been mourning for years. 

It is not enough to take this Mass at face value. The title is explicit "Via Victrix" - the "Way of the Victor".  This is no personal expression, but a public statement  taking pride in the idea that Might is Right.  Perhaps that's why the piece didn't fit the mood of those post-war years, when millions were numb with grief,  with no taste for the bullying belligerence that led to war in the first place.

Stanford's Mass Via Victrix is a Mass, more or less following the format established long before the Reformation.  Religion does not come into it as a means of musical expression : many composers who have written Requiems weren't devout and no doubt a good few were only Christian by social convention.  Stanford would certainly have known  Brahms German Requiem.  Because Msses operate in sequence they provide internal structure and colour.  Introits are processionals,  Dies Iraes are turbulent, Sanctus's are reflective, Pie Jesu's are plaintive.  And the ultimate goal is always the same : redemption.  Thus variations are built into any Mass, obeying the shifting liturgical balance.  Stanford follows the form faithfully, alternating outbursts of volume with moments of restraint.  Each section is elaborately orchestrated, maximizing impact and drama,  making the piece impressive. Ultimately, though, a Requiem recognizes that man is mortal, and that God alone brings victory over death.  Humility is of the essence !  Not that that has hindered some much loved Requiems, full of ego and show.  I don't think we should assume either way that bluster and piety are incompatible.  Stanford must have been very pleased with himself.  The assertive certainities of this Mass are comforting to live with in our modern world, which seems to be growing infinitely more divisve and extreme.  Perhaps the popular mood has shifted again, as it did in the years after 1918, and the time has come for a Mass Via Victrix, as long as you are on the right side.  As music, Stanford's Mass Via Victrix is rousing stuff,  easy to march along with, and should prove popular, triumphalist or not, though one should caution against calling it a major masterpiece.  Certainly, a performance executed with gusto, from Partington, BBC NOW and soloists Kiandra Howarth, Jess Dandy, Ruairi Bowen and Gareth Brynmor John. 

Frederick Septimus Kelly's Elegy for Strings, In Memoriam Rupert Brooke provided an interesting counterpoint : achingly poignant and sincere, the smaller ensemble and tight orchestration allowing  intimacy.   Although Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin may have been included in this programme to extend the war memorial aspect to France, the piece is more than a set oif portraits of departed friends.  It is every bit as much a homage to French style, and to the vigour of the dance forms defining it.  The programme began with Ernest Farrar's Rhapsody No 1 "The Open Road" , Op 9 (1908). Ostensibly the connection is that Farrar, who was killed in the Somme after having survived Gallipolli, was a student of Stanford, but so was practically everyone else. Farrar's piece is very original,  imbued with a free-wheeling spirit.Vaguely  Scottish cadences suggest wide open spaces,  away from constrained civilization.  What might Farrar have gone on to had he lived ? Would he, like Ralph Vaughan Williams, have continued his musical adventures exposed to the brave new world of Ravel et al ?

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