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  • Graham Abbott

Stabat Mater

Today we’re going to take a journey through a range of widely-differing church music spanning several centuries. All the extracts we’ll hear have one thing in common: they are all settings of the same words, and these sorts of surveys remind us of the great depth and richness of our western music tradition.


The text set in all these works is a long medieval poem called Stabat mater dolorosa. It contains twenty three-line stanzas, in Latin, and tells of the plight of Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the foot of the cross as her son suffers for the sins of the world. You can find the entire text and translation here.


Here it is sung in a Gregorian chant setting. [listen]



The text, which is devotional and highly intense in its imagery, has been traditionally attributed to the Franciscan poet Jacopo da Todi, who died in 1306, but most scholars these days seem to reject the idea of his authorship. Even though it was most probably written in the 13th century, the author was most likely an anonymous Franciscan monk.


Giotto: Crucifixion (c. 1305)

It became part of the Roman liturgy in the 15th century, and the most commonly-used plainchant settings allow the words to be heard simply and clearly. The opening lines are translated:


The grieving mother stood weeping beside the cross where her son was hanging. Her soul, sighing, anguished and grieving, was pierced by a sword. O how sad and afflicted was that blessed mother of the only-begotten, who mourned and grieved and trembled when she saw the sufferings of her glorious son.


One of the earliest-known polyphonic settings of the Stabat mater comes from the outpouring of virtuoso Catholic church music which took place in England around 1500. Settings by Richard Davy, William Cornysh and John Browne are known from the famed Eton Choirbook, which was compiled between about 1490 and 1502. Browne’s setting for six-part voices sets a slightly different version of the text, but it is a beautifully rich example of the work of a composer about whom we know almost nothing. [listen]


Perugino: Centre panel from Crucifixion triptych (c. 1482)

From the 15th century, the Stabat mater was used as part of the ritual for the Feast of the Compassion of the Virgin. In the 16th century, two of the most important composers of sacred music wrote settings of the text: Orlando di Lasso (often just known as Lassus) and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Lassus’ magnificent setting was published in 1585 and is written for voices in eight parts. For the majority of the piece the voices are split, not into two equal four-part choirs, but into two halves based on pitch. In the opening few minutes of the piece you’ll hear the high voices sing the first two stanzas, with the low voices singing the next two. Both halves of the ensemble combine at the end to provide a gloriously warm, rich, eight-part ending to the piece. [listen]


Dating from around the same time, Palestrina’s famous setting of the Stabat mater is also for voices in eight parts, but here the division is the more common one of two four-part choirs of equal disposition which sing sometimes separately, sometimes together. Palestrina’s is one of the few settings of the period to set the entire text; composers often omitted some verses due to the poem’s length. This work became a treasured part of the repertoire the Sistine Chapel and by the 17th century was a traditional part of the Offertory for Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter). [listen]


In the 17th century many of the counter-reformation movements laid special emphasis on devotion to the Virgin Mary, something which the Protestant Reformation had of course put to one side. A French composer who wrote an enormous amount of music for the various Catholic feasts devoted to the Virgin was Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who died in 1704. His beautiful and moving Stabat mater setting was composed for the Convent of the Port-Royal in Paris. [listen]


Murillo: Christ on the Cross with the Virgin, Mary Magdalene and St John (c. 1670)

In the later Baroque period (that is, the first half of the 18th century) a number of Italian composers produced settings of the Stabat mater which have become some of the best-known. It was in the 18th century that the Stabat mater moved, liturgically speaking, to become associated with the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, which fell on 15 September. As such, it became popular to set the text for female voices, and it was a setting of this sort - for this feast day - which Antonio Vivaldi composed in 1712 for the church of S Maria della Pace in Brescia. In fact, the nine-movement Stabat mater RV621 for alto voice and strings is Vivaldi’s earliest-known sacred work. [listen]


A recent post in this blog surveyed Vivaldi’s sacred music.


In 1736, the Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi wrote the most famous of all 18th century settings of the Stabat mater, for soprano, alto, and strings. 1736 was also the year of Pergolesi’s tragically early death at the age of only 26 and the Stabat mater is probably his last work. The text is divided into 12 movements, some set as arias, others as duets. It begins and ends in the key F minor, the same home key as Vivaldi’s setting, a key which in the Baroque period had particularly dark, sometimes even supernatural, associations. [listen]


While remembered today primarily as a composer of symphonies and string quartets, Joseph Haydn left a very large amount of extraordinary sacred music. In 1767 he composed a lavishly beautiful setting of the Stabat mater for solo voices, choir and orchestra which is on a very large scale. The text is divided into 13 movements and in all it takes about 70 minutes to perform. The orchestral forces are modest - 2 oboes, bassoon, strings and organ - but in two movements the oboes are replaced by cors anglais, surely making one of their first appearances in music of any sort. [listen]


The dramatic nature of the Stabat mater text attracted many composers in the 19th century who were well-known as opera composers. Gioachino Rossini, for example, set the text in the period immediately after he retired from writing operas. It has attracted criticism for dressing the incredibly sad text in music which seems quite unconnected with it, and Rossini seems not to have had a great deal of interest in the piece. This didn’t prevent it from being a huge success at its premiere in 1842. [listen]


Wüger: Crucifixion (1868)

Altogether more “spiritual” and deeply personal is the setting of the Stabat mater composed a few decades later by Antonín Dvořák. He began the composition in February 1876, and may have had in his mind the death of his two-day-old daughter Josefa the previous September. He put the work aside before long to work on other pieces, but when more tragedy struck the following year, Dvořák seems to have found solace in the text which focuses so clearly on the sufferings of a parent losing a child. Within the space of a month in August and September 1877, the Dvořáks lost their eleven-month-old daughter Růženka (after she accidentally drank a poisonous solution) and their son Otakar, aged three-and-a-half, from smallpox. In less than two months after this horrendous turn of events, Dvořák had finished his Stabat mater, a work which won him wide acclaim and remains one of his best-known choral works. It was premiered in Prague in 1880 and it contains one of the most spine-tingling conclusions to any choral work I know. [listen]


Composed in 1896/97 when he was in his early 80s, Giuseppe Verdi’s setting of the Stabat mater for choir and orchestra is little-known today, and that’s a tragedy. This setting is grouped together with three other late sacred works as one of Four Sacred Pieces (not Verdi’s title; the pieces were conceived individually). The other pieces are a monumental Te Deum for choir and orchestra (also unjustly ignored), and two a capella pieces: Laudi all Vergine Maria and an Ave Maria on an enigmatic scale. The obscurity suffered by Verdi's Stabat mater today is a shame, because it’s a powerful and moving approach to the text. [listen]


In the 20th century many composers have been attracted to the emotional content of the Stabat mater. I'll briefly mention four. In the mid-1920s the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski composed a setting of the text in Polish (but also providing the option of performing the work in Latin if desired). It’s a moving and beautiful work. [listen]


The French composer Francis Poulenc was able to express the sacred and the profane in his music, sometimes with disarming rapidity between the two. His large-scale Stabat mater was written in 1950 and like his more famous later setting of the Gloria is scored for solo soprano, choir and orchestra. [listen]


Two more recent composers have written very different works inspired by the Stabat mater text. In 1962 the Polish composer Krzystof Penderecki composed a setting for three unaccompanied choirs, one of the most challenging virtuoso works of the 20th century choral repertoire. It encompasses chant-like phrases, huge tonal clusters, spoken text and impassioned, emotional melodies. The anguish of Jesus’ mother seems to be foremost in the composer’s mind. [listen]


Very different again is the chamber-scale Stabat mater setting composed in 1985 by Arvo Pärt. It’s scored for just three voices (soprano, alto and tenor) accompanied by a string trio of violin, viola and cello. It’s in Pärt’s trademark meditative style, showing more the tragedy, the sadness of the situation, rather than highlighting great emotional anguish or pain. Like most of Pärt's sacred music, it takes us into another world, and this seems an appropriate place to end this wide-ranging survey. [listen]


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2008.

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