Friday, April 1, 2011

Lenten Music: Stabat Mater

We Mormons have a tendency to shy away from anything that has anything to do with Mary, the mother of Jesus, presumably out of concern of being tainted with Catholic Marian devotion.  This aversion, unfortunately, can often prevent us from appreciating some of the most beautiful musical works of the western tradition that form part of our great musical and spiritual heritage. 

Such is the case, for example, with the various versions of Ave Maria, which we associate with the celebration of Christmas.  Such can also be the case with the numerous versions of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa (referred to hereinafter simply as Stabat Mater), which is associated with Lent in general, and the crucifixion of Christ in particular.

I must confess that I had not previously been very familiar with the Stabat Mater prior to commencing this series of posts on Lenten music.  I have been enriched by what I have learned, and I hope to convey some of that appreciation and enrichment in this post.

What is the Stabat Mater?

Stabat Mater is a 13th-century Roman Catholic hymn to Mary that has been variously attributed to the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi and to Pope Innocent III.  There are two Stabat Mater hymns: the Stabat Mater Dolorosa is a Lenten hymn about the Sorrows of Mary; the other, Stabat Mater Speciosa refers to the Nativity of Jesus. 

The title of the sorrowful hymn is an abbreviation of the first line, Stabat mater dolorosa ("The sorrowful mother stood").  The Dolorosa hymn, which meditates on the suffering of Mary during the crucifixion of her son, was well known by the end of the fourteenth century.

A large literature has grown about the hymn, “Protestants sharing with Catholics a deep, and often glowingly expressed, admiration for its pathos, its vividness of description, its devotional sweetness and unction, its combination of easy rhythmic flow with exquisite double rhyming and finished stanzaic form.” [Catholic Encyclopedia].  Dr. Philip Schaff has stated that "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 words of the Latin poem, along with a popular English translation, are as follows:
Stabat mater dolorosa
juxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her son to the last.

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.

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.

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

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

Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ's dear Mother to behold?

Quis non posset contristari
Christi Matrem contemplari
dolentem cum Filio?
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother's pain untold?

Pro peccatis suae gentis
vidit Iesum in tormentis,
et flagellis subditum.
For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:

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.

Eia, 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:

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.

Sancta Mater, istud agas,
crucifixi fige plagas
cordi meo valide.
Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:

Tui Nati vulnerati,
tam dignati pro me pati,
poenas mecum divide.
Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.

Fac me tecum pie flere,
crucifixo condolere,
donec ego vixero.
Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:

Juxta Crucem tecum stare,
et me tibi sociare
in planctu desidero.
By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.

Virgo virginum praeclara,
mihi iam non sis amara,
fac me tecum plangere.
Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;

Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,
passionis fac consortem,
et plagas recolere.
Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.

Fac me plagis vulnerari,
fac me Cruce inebriari,
et cruore Filii.
Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away;

Flammis ne urar succensus,
per te, Virgo, sim defensus
in die iudicii.
Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
lest in flames I burn and die,
in His awful Judgment Day.

Christe, cum sit hinc exire,
da per Matrem me venire
ad palmam victoriae.
Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
by Thy Mother my defense,
by Thy Cross my victory;

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

Translation by Edward Caswall
Lyra Catholica

The Stabat Mater was introduced into the Catholic Liturgy gradually until 1727 when it was prescribed as a Sequence for Mass of the Seven Sorrows of Mary on September 15 and on Friday before Holy Week, as well as their corresponding offices.  The Stabat Mater's popularity is also reflected by its use in the popular devotion of the Stations of the Cross.

The Stabat Mater in Music

Mater Dolorosa
Rogier van der Weyden - Deposition (detail) -- c. 1435 (Oil on oak panel)
Museo del Prado, Madrid

16th Century - Palestrina

During the sixteenth century, the sequence motet was a favorite form among important musical composers.  The Stabat Mater was frequently given elaborate polyphonic settings, a model of which was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s composition, which employs two choruses and combines several couplets to suggest larger musical units within the total composition. 

Palestrina was musical director of the papal choir at Saint Peter’s and at several other churches in Rome.  A prolific composer, he left hundreds of compositions, including 105 masses, 68 offertories, at least 140 madrigals and more than 300 motets. In addition, there are at least 72 hymns, 35 magnificats, 11 litanies, and four or five sets of lamentations.

Here is a recording of Palestrina’s Stabat Mater, in which each verse of the poem is sung.

18th Century – Vivaldi, Casciolini and Pergolesi

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Stabat Mater inspired large works for chorus and orchestra.  The hymn's text was divided into a number of autonomous and differentiated movements.  One such work was that composed by Antonio Vivaldi in 1712 for the church of Santa María della Pace in Brescia, Italy.  Current scholarship indicates that this was Vivaldi’s first sacred work.

Here is a video featuring the first movement, which is a meditation on the first verse of the poem.  The music is accompanied and dramatized by footage from Mel Gibson’s The Passion (some of which is graphic):

Another setting from the early 18th century was that of Claudio Casciolini, a lesser-known Italian composer.  Here is a performance of his beautiful Stabat Mater which, like that of Palestrina, includes the entire poem:

Although there have been many, many other compositions of the Stabat Mater down through the past five centuries, I will feature only one more:  that of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, who lived from 1710 until 1736, making him a younger contemporary of both Vivaldi and Casciolini.  He composed his Stabat Mater in 1736 for the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo in Naples for its annual Good Friday meditation.  Pergolesi’s composition soon attracted widespread acclaim and was performed all over Europe in many different editions. However, shortly after completion of the work at the Capuchin monastery at Pozzuoli the composer died there from consumption.

Here is a video featuring the first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, accompanied by images of modern women whose sons have suffered violence and death.

As I have worked on and researched material for this post, something unexpected happened to me.  I gained an appreciation for the music I have included, true enough; but beyond this, I found myself thinking about and reflecting upon the life of Mary – and what an extraordinary life it was.  Being visited by an angel and conceiving the Son of God, while yet a teenager.  Giving birth to Jesus.  Fleeing to Egypt.  Returning to Nazareth.  Raising other children. Watching her First Born grow and develop into a man.  Watching Him commence and fulfill His earthly ministry; then watching Him die.  For a fleeting moment, I felt I gained a flash of insight into this extraordinary woman, and I’m grateful for that.

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