Charles Villiers Stanford 1919 “Via Victix” still relevant

This is a world premiere recording — of a work that was completed in 1919. And, I think, it’s a work that deserves reevaluation. Charles Villiers Stanford composed his Mass “Via Victix 1914-1918” to mark the end of the Great War (now called World War I).

The conflict had begun with stirring appeals to patriotism and glory — with music to match. It ended with nations stunned by the massive casualties and apparent futility of the struggle. Audiences were in no mood for big, celebratory works like Haydn’s “Lord Nelson’s Mass.”

And Stanford understood that. His goal was to write a work that would both mark the return to peace, and mourn the fallen. The Via Victrix is a masterwork of choral writing, and — I think — one that strikes the proper balance between a sense of victory and an appreciation of its high cost.

But the world had changed in other ways. By 1919 the Late Romantic style of Stanford, Elgar, and others reminded audiences too much of the prewar era. An era they now repudiated. Stanford’s music was labeled old-fashioned.

The work was performed once (with organ rather than an orchestra) and shelved. And that’s a shame because Stanford succeeded in his goals. The work is full of lush harmonies and grand gestures. Yet it also has quiet, introspective sections of great pathos and beauty.

Modern audiences don’t have negative associations with the music of the 1910s. So this mass can be judged on its own substantial merits. And I think it fits very well with our own mixed emotions about the cessation of conflicts. Yes, we won — but at what cost?

Also included is “At the Abby Gate.” Its a setting of a poem by Charles John Darling written for the dedication of Britains Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Again, Stanford’s music hits just the right tone — introspective and somber without being lugubrious and plodding.

Adrian Partington directs the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales with an instinctual understanding of this music. Stanford was steeped in the British choral tradition, and Partington makes that connection plain. He successfully brings out the conflicted emotions underlying these works. Emotions that very much speak to us today.

Charles Villiers Stanford
Mass “Via Victrix 1914-1918” Op. 173
At the Abby Gate. Op. 177
Kiandra Howarth, soprano; Jess Dangy, contralto; Ruairi Bowen tenor; Gareth Brynmor John, bass
BBC National Orchestra of Wales; BBC National Chorus of Wales
Adrian Partington, director
Lyrita SRCD 382

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