Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pergolesi: Stabat Mater

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi: Stabat mater

(This post is a part of my series introducing to the enjoyment of classical music.)

Stabat Mater is a poem from the 13th century, commonly attributed to Jacopone da Todi, a Franciscan monk. It's one of the few sequences (a song specific to the given feast, which is sung before the gospel) still in use in the Roman Catholic liturgy - currently it is on the feast of "Mater Dolorosa", 15 Sept.

Stabat Mater is a meditation at Christ's cross. The richness in thoughts and pictures, its disciplined structure and colorful language usage are all exceptional, a good expression of the 13th century's exstatic view of the world. A poem basically - similarly to the Dies irae sequentia of the requiem, which is also from this century - draws a picture of a fundamental scene of Christian faith and comes to the personal participation - taking misery voluntarily gives the certainty in salvation. This route can be summarized by quoting 3 verses (in the translation of Edward Caswall):

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last


Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;

And in the last verse:

While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.

Reading these line it should not be surprising, that the text of Stabat mater was inspring for composers of all ages to write about their personal faith - more than 200 musical compositions known.
From the 18th the most well-known is of Pergolesi, in the 19th century, Rossini and Verdi. In 1960s the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki used the poem in the St. Luke passion to emotionally emphasize the tragic of crucifixion. In 1956 Ernő Dohnányi composed an interesting work for 2 girls' choir and orchestra.

Let's look closer at the Stabat Mater from Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). First, some words about the composer.
An author of the late baroque, in the transitional phase from the mature baroque of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) to the classicism of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Pergolesi died at age 26 - in that year he wrote his best known and most often played composition, the Stabat Mater.
In 18th century, the work was considered not applicable in the liturgy, because its strong display of emotions and resemblance to the comic operas of Naple made it appear to secular.
But at the same time Pergolesi intentionally uses the popular music of his era and mix with the strict ecclesiastical parts, to make the whole composition more life like for the listeners of his time.
The work is easy to grab: neither of the 12 part is longer than 5 minutes, some of them are only 1-2 minutes. The nature of the parts often changes gives surprises, so casual listeners will be catched as well.
There are lot of emotions displayed: crying, getting schocked, angry. The opera like effect causes that many find it too happy - while the poem is about suffering together with Maria, the music often uses major tonalities, fast tempos. Besides the balance needed in the music, I think that the thought of the coming redemption allows the "happiness".
Also, the music mostly reflects to the bigger units of the text, and in the details it handles that with more freedom.

Part 1 – Duo

Stabat mater dolorosa
Iuxta crucem lacrimosa
dum pendebat filius.
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last

The piece starts with a sad, short prelude in F-minor, the bass plays straight eighth notes, the strings play long notes with many dissonant intervals, creating tension. The soprano-alto duo enters with the same dissonant, frictional intervals. The notes going down as sobbing at the word "lacrimosa" (weeping). After the verse the starting bass line and melody returns but higher, with more emotion.
We can note in this part that instead of the dramatic, gory nature of passions here we encounter the lyrical colours of the mother's pain.

Part 2 – Soprano aria

Cuius animam gementem,
contristatam et dolentem
pertransivit gladius.
Through her heart,
His sorrow sharing, all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

The part has Andante amoroso as its tempo signature, which is like "calm, but loving". Distracted, 3/8 time signature music, increasing volume, higher than the previous part - passionate music. After the  "objective" nature of the previous part now the music shows the unsettling of the people looking at Mary, by the screaming high trills of the singer and the violins. After pertransivit gladius, and at the end of the part the otherwise silent strings shows the pain with sudden forte octave jumps.

Part 3 – Duo

O quam tristis et afflicta
fuit illa benedicta,
mater Unigeniti!
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.

A dramatic part. The tragic nature of the words expressed in a concise way with the first notes, but even in this verse a consolatory, major toned music replies: "fuit illa benedicta" - who is blessed, even sitting next to the cross.

Part 4 - Alto aria

Quae maerebat et dolebat,
pia Mater, dum videbat
nati poenas inclyti.
Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.

The last part of the first "scene", the most joyful - the melody doesn't fit the text, the brighter music is to balance the musical material - but the end of the part is surprising - instead of what one would except, the movement ends with a one voiced melody including dissonant elements.

Part 5 - Duo

Quis est homo qui non fleret,
Christi Matrem si videret
in tanto supplicio?

Quis non posset contristari,
piam Matrem contemplari
dolentem cum Filio?
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ's dear Mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother's pain untold?

This movement starts the second "scene", 4 verses, which are the summit of the whole piece.
In this part the bass line uses the typical lament theme of the era: going down with half notes (see Purcell's Dido's lament as an example of this lamento).
The melody sung by the soprano and alto leaves a lot to the personal expression, "participation" of the singers: „in tanto supplicio - who would not cry together?”. The movement ends with a question: "Quis?" - "Who?" - and the music doesn't close as well, but instead answers the question with a duo of surprising intensity:
Pro peccatis suae gentis
vidit Jesum in tormentis
et flagellis subditum.
For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:

„For the sins of his own nation” - dramatic power expresses Jesus' suffering, closing to the dramatic point of his death, in the next part.

Part 6 – Soprano aria

Vidit suum dulcem natum
moriendo desolatum,
dum emisit spiritum.
She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.

One of the central points of the piece (and the poem as well), an impressive aria. „Dum e - mi - sit” As Jesus dies, sends forth his spirit, the singing and the orchestra plays scattered to display the difficulty of breathing and losing his strength. The loneliness of death („My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) is shown in the orchestra - one voice, without harmony.

Part 7 – Alto aria

Eja Mater, fons amoris,
me sentire vim doloris
fac ut tecum lugeam.
O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:

A new part starts in the poem: the poet calls the Mother. The poem becomes a prayer. The dissonant orchestral accompaniment is striking at the end under the words "fac ut tecum lugeam".

Part 8 - Duo

Fac, ut ardeat cor meum
in amando Christum Deum
ut sibi complaceam.
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.

"Fac ut ardeat cor meum" - the "second scene" ends with a baroque type, polyphonics, not so subjective but very strong movement. The starting notes of this movement will be echoed in the last movement: "Amen" - as if the Amen related to "Make me feel as thou hast felt" - note the deepening illness of Pergolesi when composing this piece.

Part 9 - Duo

Sancta Mater, istud agas:
Crucifixi fige plagas
cordi meo valide.

Tui nati vulnerati,
tam dignati pro me pati,
poenas mecum divide.

Fac me vere tecum flere,
Crucifixo condolere,
donec ego vixero.

Juxta crucem tecum stare
et me tibi sociare
in planctu desidero.

Virgo virginum praeclara,
mihi jam non sis amara:
Fac me tecum plangere.

Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:

Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.

Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:

By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.

Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;

The last 4 movement starts again in major tone. It resembles a solemn hymns in the beginning, but then the music switches to a minor tone and a dramatic dialogue starts between soprano and alto, accompanied by the sighing motives of the strings.

Part 10

Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,
passionis fac consortem,
et plagas recolere.

Fac me plagis vulnerari,
fac me Cruce inebriari,
et cruore Filii.

Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.
Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away;

The rhythms in this movement show strength and majesty. Melody and melismas are full of tragedy. The first verse in this movement is accompanied with a monotonous one voice melody, the second verse is with rich harmonies. The last notes are again accompanied with one voiced strings.

Part 11 - Duo

In flammatus et accencus
Perte, Virgo, sim defensus
In die, judicii.

Fac me cruce custodiri
Morte Christi praemuniri
Confoveri, confoveri gratia
Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
lest in flames I burn and die,
in His awful Judgment Day.
Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
by Thy Mother my defense,
by Thy Cross my victory;

A mild movement in major tone calling the Virgin: "Defend me on the day of judgement". The next movement puts a strong contrast against this:

Part 12 - Duo

Quando corpus morietur
Fac ut animae donetur
Paradisi gloria.
While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.

Probably the most impressive and suprising movement of the whole piece. In some other Stabat Mater compositions the "glory of paradise" is displayed with some triumphant celebration - here a complete opposite: "paradisi gloria" is exceptionally unsure, faint-hearted, and instead a humble prayer.
Pergolesi's personal life is apparent in this movement. "Amen" is the prayer of one feeling the approach death - the sobbing melody with chromatically falling notes don't tell "so be it" at all.

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