U.S. premiere of choral Mass will mark Newman canonization

STAMFORD — More than 125 years ago, the legendary Irish composer, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, composed his Great Mass in G Major, which employs a full orchestra, a chorus and vocal soloists. And yet for all its grandeur, it has been performed on only several occasions.

Now, it will be performed in the United States for the first time at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in a Mass celebrating the canonization of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman on Sunday, October 13 at noon.

“The Great Mass was written when Stanford was at the height of his musical powers and calls for a wealth of musical forces, employing a full orchestra, choir and soloists,” said Nicholas Botkins, Director of Music at the Basilica, who will serve as conductor. “Stanford is one of the giants of British music, and I can’t think of a better way for our Catholic community to honor the canonization of a giant figure in our Church, John Henry Cardinal Newman.”

Only in the past few months have the orchestral parts of the Mass been made available to the public, and Botkins was able to obtain them.

“It is a great Mass, obviously under done in the form that you would normally hear it,” he said. “It is a very beautiful Mass so I wanted to give it the proper respect. The orchestra parts have been available to us, and we can now do it as the composer intended.”

Stanford, who died in 1924, was a major composer, music teacher and conductor and the founding director of the Royal College of Music in London. During his prolific career, he composed seven symphonies, nine operas, five Irish rhapsodies, chamber music and choral works for church performance.

The Great Mass in G Major, Opus 46, was written in 1892 at the request of Thomas Wingham, who was choirmaster of the London Oratory. It was performed only twice in Stanford’s lifetime (Wingham died before he could hear it) and again in 2014 by the Choir of Exeter College at Oxford.

“The orchestra parts had been locked away at the London Oratory, and I have been trying to get them for about five years,” Botkins said.

“It was all very providential,” he added. “Monsignor DiGiovanni has ties with the London Oratory and knows the prefect for music there, and I spent some time there and suddenly there was an announcement that Newman would be canonized. I had always wanted to do this Mass … and one thing led to another.”

The liturgical performance will include the Basilica choir, which sings at the noon Mass, soloists from the opera program at Yale University and an orchestra assembled by a contractor, who works  the New York City Ballet and the Philharmonia of New York. Admission to the noon Mass on October 13 is free and open to the public.

On that day, Pope Francis will elevate John Henry Newman to sainthood during a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Blessed Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) was an Anglican priest who converted to Roman Catholicism and became the most influential religious leader, educator and theologian of his day. He was also the founder of the London Oratory, for which Stanford’s Mass was written.

Newman has a special spiritual significance to Botkins, who is also a convert to Catholicism.

“He is a British giant, and I certainly can identify with his conversion,” Botkins said. “He had a very successful Anglican career so for him to convert in a country where Catholicism was suspect took an enormous amount of humility.”

Botkins, himself, came into the Catholic faith in 2007 after being inspired by the perpetual Eucharistic adoration that was held at a parish where he was working, and it had a profound and lasting influence upon him.

Botkins, who for 10 years was the director of sacred music and master of the choirs at the St. Francis de Sales Oratory, an apostolate of the Institute of Christ the King in St. Louis, was appointed Director of Music at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in March.

“This will be a special day,” Botkins says, “because God has blessed us so much with this canonization. It is always important for the Church to offer the best that she can. The Infant of Prague promises, ‘The more you honor me, the more I will bless you.’ And by marking this occasion with the Mass, it will provide great clarity at a time when ambiguity is weaponized. It is very important for us to mark these occasions that are sacred because it provides a light that points us in the right direction.”