At the cross her station keeping: Stabat Mater settings for choir

by Rebecca Raber - Director of Music Ministry at the University of Mary/Assistant Professor in Music & Catholic Studies

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“There is something within these sacred texts and music that transcends time and connects us with the past in a truthful and beautiful way.” – Rebecca Raber

At the Cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to her Son to the last.

It seems strange that, in February, we could already be looking ahead to Lent. We have just finished celebrating the birth of Christ, and now we anticipate the approaching season of Lent and Holy Week. Our Holy Mother Mary is a key figure in both events, but she is especially compelling as she stands at the foot of the cross that bears her only son.

As we begin to prepare for Lent and Holy Week, I’d like to recommended recordings for one of the most intensely devotional of all Latin Catholic hymns: Stabat Mater.

Stabat Mater – a 13th century devotional hymn to Mary, is a collection of 20 rhymed stanzas, each containing three metered lines of text. The complex text is both descriptive and lovely. The verses provide narration, but also personal reflections and prayerful petitions. Mary’s tender devotion is mingled with her vivid suffering, as her “soul is pieced by a sword.”

Scholars largely attribute this sacred hymn text to Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306) although certainty of authorship remains unresolved. It draws from several scriptural passages, but is inspired by John 19: 25-26, “Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son.’”

Stabat Mater is a sequence, a liturgical hymn sung prior to the reading of the gospel on feast days. It is typically sung at the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary; it also commonly sung on the Friday after Passion Sunday. It is one of the five sequences used in the Catholic Church (also: Dies irae, Lauda Sion, Veni Sancte Spiritus, Victimae paschali laudes).

Because of the rich and dramatic nature of the text, Stabat Mater has been a popular setting for composers wishing to demonstrate their Marian devotion. Hundreds of composers have set this text. Even “younger” composers such as Paul Mealor and Philip Stopford have found this ancient text to be engaging. Ten of the most popular settings of this text include:

Antonio Caldara: 20 minutes (SATB/soloists/orchestra)
Antonin Dvorak: 80 minutes (SATB/soloists/orchestra)
Franz Josef Haydn: 60 minutes (SATB/soloists/orchestra)
Herbert Howells: 51 minutes (SATB/soloists/orchestra)
Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina: 11 minutes (SATB/SATB, a cappella)
Arvo Part: 30 minutes (SAT/string trio)
Giovanni Pergolesi: 35 minutes (SA/soloists/strings/organ...also SATB version)
Francois Poulenc: 32 minutes (SATB/soloists/orchestra)
Josef Rheinberger: 16 minutes (SATB/strings)
Giocomo Rossini: 62 minutes (SATB/soloists/orchestra)
Domenico Scarlatti: 25 minutes (SSSSAAAATTTTBBBB/continuo)
Giuseppe Verdi: 13 minutes (SATB/orchestra)

Of these settings, my favorites are composed by Pergolesi, Poulenc, and Pärt.

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is arguably the most well-known setting of the text. It is scored for women’s voices and is hauntingly beautiful. In its opening movement, the image of Christ hanging on the cross is represented by the harmonic suspensions in the vocal writing and the orchestral accompaniment. The densely emotional writing is impressive for such a young composer. Pergolesi was only 25 years old when he penned this work, and died only a few weeks after completing it.

Poulenc’s approach to the text is very different. He expertly strikes a tricky balance between the modern and honoring the ancient. The vocal writing is engaging and alternates between angular and more sentimental melodies. His use of a cappella singing mixed with larger accompanied sections contributes to the emptiness and feeling of loss that Mary undoubtedly felt at the foot of the cross. Poulenc’s writing glistens with vibrant orchestral colors and complex rhythmic ideas. It contains some musical surprises, as is usually the case with Poulenc.

Arvo Pärt’s Stabat Mater is completely different as well. Pärt is a minimalist. It is scored for just a handful of musicians. It is absolutely stark, aptly reflecting the mood of the text. The strings function by doubling the vocal parts, playing a simple counterpart to their vocal lines, or as an interlude between stanzas. The orchestral writing is not “competitive,” but forms a base of sound which allows the choral sound to “hover” above it. Pärt’s Stabat Mater is haunting, plaintive and sublime.

Last year, I heard a student posing this question, “Why do people still compose using these ‘old’ texts? Don’t they want to do something more modern? I don’t understand.” I smiled. There is something within these sacred texts and music that transcends time and connects us with the past in a truthful and beautiful way. Music provides a way for us to glimpse the pain of a Mother grieving her only son, as if we were at her side.

I’ve created a Spotify playlist (free online service) that has all of these settings and several more! If you don’t use Spotify, you can find all of these on YouTube as well.

To listen to Stabat Mater settings: https://open.spotify.com/user/mrraber/playlist/1i9Gg26fJjEu5XpcdUBZi4

To find free music SCORES:
http://www3.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Stabat_Mater#Musical_settings_at_CPDL

To learn more about the Stabat Mater:
http://www.stabatmater.info

Another source for online listening and learning:
http://stabatmateronline.blogspot.com