Songs of Mercy

One of most compelling sights of Holy Week is that of Mary standing beneath the cross on which her son hangs dying. There were, after all, two innocents at Calvary—her son, innocence itself, nailed to the Cross; and Mary herself, innocently suffering from sin, her heart pierced. Yet Mary is our intercessor. She asks for her son’s mercy on us, the perpetrators of the crime. This reality makes the image of Mary at the foot of the cross so moving for us, far beyond the already highly charged human empathy we would normally feel for a mother watching her son die.

On this subject a thirteenth century poet, thought to be the Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi of Umbria, wrote a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater. The poem is in rhymed terzines, three-line verses grouped in pairs, of which there are ten. The poem is really a prayer, the motion of which takes us through Mary’s sufferings to those of Christ, in whose mercy we hope to attain at the final judgment, with Mary’s intercession, paradisi gloria.

The Stabat Mater was used for devotional purposes, but also as a sequence, a hymn-like work that is not part of the ordinary of the Mass but belongs rather to the proper, which changes with the Church calendar. By the sixteenth century sequences had so proliferated they threatened to overwhelm the rest of the liturgy. The Council of Trent eliminated all but four of them, including the Stabat Mater, though it continued to be used separately. In 1727, the Stabat Mater was restored as the fifth sequence in the Missal, to be given at the Feasts of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin—September 15 and the Friday of Holy Week.

The Stabat Mater has been set to music throughout history, by such luminaries as Palestrina, Rossini, Verdi, Dvorak, and, in our own century, Szymanowski, Poulenc, and Part. The history of musical settings of the Stabat Mater generally follows a progression from the devotional to the dramatic. Early settings tended to be pure and contemplative, as in the chant settings of the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance, the Stabat Mater was treated with the full richness and complexity of polyphony. A particularly florid example is the Stabat Mater of William Cornyshe. An English contemporary of Josquin des Pres, Cornyshe (d. 1523), wrote a highly elaborated, contrapuntally complex and vocally ornamented showpiece of a Stabat Mater, quite beautiful of its kind (as can be heard on a lovely Gimell CD–GIM 014). But this type of vocal intricacy must have been, in part, what the musical reforms of the Council of Trent were aimed against in their demand for greater simplicity and attention to text. Perhaps it is the result of those reforms that one hears in Palestrina’s far more restrained but beautifully serene eight-part setting of Stabat Mater from later in the sixteenth century.

The Baroque era brought more drama to the Stabat Mater, as it did to the church architecture and painting of the time. Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater, written during the composer’s sojourn in Rome (1714-19), is quite gripping in its portrayal of Mary’s anguish. It has real emotional thrust and involvement. Here polyphony is used, not as decorative vocal tracery, but as an urgent elaboration of things that need to be and must be said.

In 1736 Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Scarlatti’s much younger contemporary, wrote his Stabat Mater in his last months of life at a Franciscan monastery near Naples. It was composed on commission of the Neapolitan brotherhood of Cavalieri della vergine dei dolori for their Holy Week devotions. Melodically beautiful, it is also by far the most dramatic rendering up until its time: it is almost operatically expressive. Pergolesi used only two solo voices, a soprano and alto, over a string orchestra and basso continuo. The orchestra is a full participant, setting the mood and commenting on events. In an especially touching moment, the lower strings punctuate the faltering voice of the soprano as she describes Christ emitting his spirit.

A newly released London budget set (443 868-2; two CDs) contains Scarlatti’s striking version as well as Pergolesi’s. Bonuses include Alessandro Scarlatti’s luminous O magnum mysterium, Antonio Bononcini’s Stabat Mater and other works. For the Pergolesi, however, I prefer the budget Naxos recording (8.550766) for two reasons: because it uses solo voices as opposed to the unauthentic chorus employed on the London recording; and because the conductor, Michael Halasz, gives by far the most vigorous reading I have heard—a good five minutes swifter than most other versions. The gain in urgency brings this work to life and demonstrates how dramatic it can be.

Not so highly regarded today, Franz Joseph Haydn’s Stabat Mater, composed in 1767, was his first vocal work to achieve European fame. Haydn’s masterpiece for Holy Week is the much later Seven Last Words, a deeply moving meditation in eight consecutive adagios (try the string quartet version with the Kodaly Quartet on Naxos 8.550346). Not on that same exalted level, nor near the greatness of The Creation oratorio, the Stabat Mater is nonetheless quite lovely. A new midprice recording issued by Discover International (DICD 920232) with the Prague Chamber Choir and the Virtuosi di Praga, directed by Tadeusz Strugala, takes a very leisurely approach that emphasizes the reflective, consoling, even soothing aspects of this gentle work.

The operatic potential glimpsed in Pergolesi’s treatment of the Stabat Mater reaches full flower in Gioacchino Rossini’s dramatic version of 1842, which premiered, appropriately enough, in a theater. The accusation that Verdi’s Requiem was “an opera in ecclesiastical costume” applies equally well to this work of Rossini. Some critics have remarked upon the disparity between the gravity of the subject and some of Rossini’s rollicking opera tunes. But Rossini’s sincerity is never in doubt. Rossini wrote on the score to his Petite messe solennelle, “I was born for the opera buffa, as well Thou knowest. Little skill, a little heart, and that is all. So be Thou blessed and admit me to paradise.” His Stabat Mater is written in the same spirit and, with that in mind, there is much to admire and enjoy, though it does not quite make a convincingly coherent whole.

On the largest scale of any Stabat Mater, at one and a half hours, Antonin Dvorak’s Stabat Mater is a massive, Romantic, full-blooded, deeply felt treatment, every bit as compelling as his Requiem. He finished it in 1877, after three of his children had died in their infancy over the course of the three preceding years. The sense of desolation and loss he must have felt infuses this ineffably touching, fervent score. But so does the moving consolation that his deep Catholic faith gave him. The compositional style is a heterodox combination of tone poem, German oratorio, and Italian opera, but it works magnificently. In fact, the Stabat Mater established Dvorak’s worldwide reputation. This is a work from the heart. (Delos has issued a beautiful new recording [DE 3161]) at midprice with the New Jersey Sympohony Orchestra, conducted by Zdenek Macal, though I prefer the weightier reading by Wolfgang Sawallisch with the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon CDs (103561-2).

From the first part of this century comes Karol Szymanowski’s hypnotic, Slavic version of the Stabat Mater, composed from 1924 to 1926. Szymanowski translated the Latin text into Polish (his is the only treatment in the vernacular that I know of). This substantially changes the character of the work. No suggestion of the liturgical is left, though Szymanowski does employ intriguing hints of the “Dies Irae” and of the sound of church bells. Otherwise, this is very much a national and personal work, expressing Poland’s and Szymanowski’s special relationship to Mary. The musical idiom is also somewhat exotic and Eastern in its references. The work calls for soprano, contralto and baritone soloists, chorus, and orchestra. It is exquisitely beautiful, both tender and powerful. (Marco Polo offers a stunning, deeply felt performance on CD 8.223293, with the Polish State Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, directed by Karol Stryja).

After losing a close friend in 1950, Francis Poulenc said, “I had the idea of a prayer of intercession, and the heartrending words of the Stabat seemed to me completely right for confiding the soul of dear Bernard to Our Lady of Rocamadour.” In the extraordinarily short space of two months, he completed a half-hour Stabat Mater for solo soprano, mixed chorus, and orchestra. This sign of inspiration is also an indication of the music’s sense of immediacy, its power to startle, to put the listener in the Passion, directly reacting to the events and to Mary’s sufferings. As have few others, Poulenc captures the passion, suffering, sorrow, supplication, and, finally, glorious hope of the Stabat Mater. (There is a beautiful performance on a Harmonia Mundi CD 905149.)

With the Estonian composer Arvo Part we come full circle. The Stabat Mater he wrote in 1985 brings us back to the piercing purity of the thirteenth century and to the liturgical roots of the work. Composed for a trio of voices and a trio of violin, viola, and cello, this twenty-four–minute opus, employing medieval and Renaissance techniques, is startlingly simple, intensely concentrated, and devotional. Like all of Part’s work, it grows out of a respect for silence—in this case, the silence at the foot of the cross. What sort of music would one make from the foot of the cross? His answer is both harrowing and profoundly moving. This is not an exercise in musical archaism, but a living testament to faith. It is music to listen to on your knees. (A sublime performance is available with the Hilliard Ensemble on a CD entitled Arbos, ECM 1325/831959-2).


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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