Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Lent IV

As Lent turns into Passiontide, the Catholic mind turns more intensely to thoughts of the Cross, to Christ Crucified and to His Sorrowing Mother. The hymn Stabat Mater Dolorosa sets this theme.

It is ascribed popularly to the Franciscan Jacopone di Todi, but is also ascribed by Pope Benedict XIV, with a wealth of scholarship, to Pope Innocent III. It was only in the year 1727 that it entered the Roman Liturgy, being assigned to the feast of the Seven Dolours of Our Lady, on the Friday after Passion Sunday (and before Palm Sunday!).

I have searched in vain for the chant version, so familiar from traditional renditions of the Stations of the Cross, but it it not to be found on Youtube or Gloria.tv. This happy fault forces us to look at the rich inspiriation that the Church's Liturgy has provided for composers of every age.



First in time, of the three examples here is that of Fr. Antonio Vivaldi, composed about 1727, the same year that it was introduced to the Roman Missal, probably for the girls of the Pio Ospedale della Pieta, or State Orphanage of Venice, where he had been on the staff until 1711. The composition is divided into eight sections. The melodies of sections 1 to 3 are repeated in sections 4 to 6. Only the first 10 stanzas of the hymn are used.


The second is the Stabat Mater of the short-lived Giovanni Battista Pergolesi composed in 1736. The German poet German poet Tieck once wrote: "I had to turn away to hide my tears, especially at the place, 'Vidit suum dulcem natum'" in speaking of this setting. The melodies have given rise to some criticism because they were thought to be too cheerful. Of particular note is the line: 'dum e-mi-sit' in that it is marked to be sung intermittently to create a musical picture of the last breaths of Our Lord on the Cross. This device has been copied by other composers.


Finally, we will consider the Stabat Mater of Giacomo Rossini, written in 1832 and revised in 1841. The composition was not intended for liturgical use. It is essentially a performance piece. However, despite the obvious operatic tendencies, this seems not to have been Rossini's intention. Writing of his Petite Messe, he says that his sacred works come of a real religious feeling: "Here it is then, this poor little Mass. Have I written truly sacred music, or just bad music? I was born for opera buffa, as You well know. Not much skill, but quite a bit of feeling - that's how I'd sum it up. Blessed be Thy name, and grant me a place in Paradise".

While the sensuality of the composition has often been regarded as unsuitable for the sanctity of the theme, Rossini's defenders, who included Fr. Taunton, one of Cardinal Manning's Oblates of St. Charles, have said: "critics who judge it harshly, and dilettanti who can listen to it unmoved . . . must either be case-hardened by pedantry, or destitute of all 'ear for music'".

Mother of Sorrows, pray for us!

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