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Why are so many composers drawn to the Stabat Mater?

With this 13th century Marian hymn, a composer enters into a particularly painful world of loss, violence and spiritual desolation

1 October 2016

9:00 AM

1 October 2016

9:00 AM

Music likes to tell the same story over and over again. This is part of its tradition but even individual composers can be drawn back to the same models in attempts to reclothe and reinterpret musical forms and structures and settings of classic texts. This is especially the case with the Crucifixion narrative. Bach is revered for his two Passions — St Matthew and St John — but there have been other ways for composers to relate this story in sound. The Seven Last Words from the Cross is a now defunct liturgical form which attracted the attention of Lassus, Schütz, Haydn, Gounod and César Franck.

The liturgy of Tenebrae has given rise to settings of the Lamentations by Tallis, Charpentier and Stravinsky (Threni) as well as the Tenebrae Responsaries by Victoria and Gesualdo. Allegri’s famous Miserere (Psalm 50) is also associated with Good Friday and then there are all those incredibly powerful settings of the Stabat Mater.

This text is a 13th-century Marian hymn, meditating on the suffering of Mary, the Mother of God, as she stands at the foot of the Cross. ‘Stabat Mater Doloroso’ (‘The grieving mother stood …’) — these are the first words of a long poem, some 20 stanzas in full, whose subject is the Virgin Mary as she beholds her dying Son. For devout Catholics, and the many great composers who set these words, this is a kind of ultimate, spiritual Kindertotenlied. The poem goes beyond mere description and invites the reader and the listener to partake in the Mother’s grief as a path to grace, and as part of a believer’s spiritual journey.

The authorship of the hymn has been variously ascribed to St Gregory the Great, St Bernard of Clairvaux, Innocent III, St Bonaventure, Pope John XXII and Gregory XI, but was most probably the work of Jacopone da Todi, a Franciscan monk. It is a tricky text to set to music. It is difficult to sustain a persistent tone of pathos, and there are challenging repetitious rhythmic issues in the text. But just as the image has inspired countless painters and sculptors through the centuries it has also attracted generations of wonderful composers.


There are many great musical settings from history by Josquin, Palestrina, Pergolesi, the two Scarlattis, Vivaldi, Haydn, Rossini and Dvorak. In the 20th century there are beautiful settings by Szymanowski, Poulenc and Arvo Pärt. Pergolesi’s setting is one of the longest, but also one of the most popular works of sacred music. Liszt created some of his noblest music in his setting, which is part of a larger oratorio, Christus. Szymanowski’s is fragrant and compelling — a work that is simultaneously atmospheric and colourful. Dvorak wrote his Stabat Mater as a grieving father and devout Catholic. The work turned out to be a landmark in his life, spreading his fame and reputation far, not just in central Europe, but also in the United States where the piece was widely performed.

The great 19th-century Swiss theologian Philip Schaff wrote about this poem. In his Literature and Poetry he says, ‘The secret of the power of the Mater Dolorosa lies in the intensity of feeling with which the poet identifies himself with his theme, and in the soft, plaintive melody of its Latin rhythm and rhyme, which cannot be transferred to any other language.’ The usual Protestant objections to the poem’s ‘Mariolatry’ have been muted due to the great beauty and pathos that can touch even the hardest heart. Schaff reminds his readers that Catholics ‘do not pray to Mary as the giver of the mercies desired, but only as the interceder, thinking that she is more likely to prevail with her Son than any poor unaided sinner on earth’.

I have also repeated myself as a composer. I’ve written two Passion settings (St John and St Luke), a Seven Last Words, some Tenebrae Responsaries, a Miserere and even a response to the Stations of the Cross. Some people say that God intervened in human history. That is, He interfered with our story, to become one of us, to know what it means to be human, and for us to know Him and to discover that He loves us, with all the implications that has.

I seem to have been circling around these few days in history for some years. It can be done in purely abstract instrumental music too, but a composer enters into a mysterious collaboration with the word (and The Word) whenever a setting of a text like this is involved. And with the Stabat Mater a composer enters into a particularly painful world of loss, violence and spiritual desolation. I seem to have grown up with the Stabat Mater, singing it as a hymn at school (in the English translation by Edward Caswall) and in the local Catholic parish in Scotland as a boy, and having my early perception of the crucifixion (and indeed the world) coloured by its beauty and sadness. It was a great delight and honour to respond to The Sixteen, and write my own Stabat Mater for them. Its composition has engrossed me for the past few years.

I regard Harry Christophers’ choir as one of the great choirs of the world and their standards of vocal brilliance and blend are unsurpassed. I remember conducting them in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam a few years ago and encountering astonishment and wonder from the Dutch audience at their unique beauty. I have written a few smaller things for them in the past, but my Stabat Mater, with string orchestra accompaniment (the Britten Sinfonia in the first performances), is a big piece. I feel close to this choir and orchestra.

I do feel as if I’m telling an old story —that many others have been here before me, feeling the tread of history and tradition. But the tragedy keeps resurfacing, from one generation, from one century, to the next.

The world première of James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater is on 15 October at the Barbican.


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