The Sixteen - Spirit, Strength and Sorrow (Coro 16127)
Stabat Mater dolorosa
iuxta crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.
The mother stood sorrowing
by the cross, weeping
while her Son hung there There's no greater sorrow than that of a parent who has lost a child.
From the Old Testament story of David, and his anguished cry after learning of the death of his son Absalom, "Would God I had died for thee…" to 21st-century bloggers publicly chronicling the loss of their children, that kind of pain doesn't limit itself to certain demographics or countries or eras.
The heartbreak felt by Mary at the crucifixion was memorably framed in the 13th century in the 20 stanzas of a text called the Stabat Mater.
A new album from Harry Christophers and his ensemble, The Sixteen, gives an opportunity to meditate on several explorations of that text. Christophers said the project was the result of their association with an arts-mentoring program, the Genesis Foundation, and its founder John Studzinsky.
Studzinsky had been reading the Stabat Mater while on vacation, and it struck a chord. "He phoned me up when he got back," Christophers says, "and said this is the most amazing poem. It's so relevant to the modern day as well. The mother … sorrowful for her children and so pertinent. And he said would I look into it and see how many Stabat Maters had been written? But the only major Stabat Maters that have been written in more recent times were Poulenc and Szymanowski. And we thought that that needed to be remedied."
So they commissioned three new settings of the Stabat Mater.
"Alissa Firsova's one is very much taking over elements of hope from the Stabat Mater, and Tonu Korvits' one is darker. Matthew Martin has included some newly written English texts to reflect elements of Stabat Mater to bring that into the modern day. So it's three really contrasting settings."
Alissa Firsova is based in London now, but she was born in Russia. Christophers says you can hear traces of that heritage in her music. "She has wonderful chordal structure that is fantastic," he says. "She has very subtle harmonic changes. She uses the bass voices very well — I think that's where she has Russian undertones coming."
Matthew Martin's setting weaves together the old text with a few lines of 20th-century verse by Robert Willis, spare and haunting:
In Silence crying at the cruelty of death In Love identifying with each agonising breath
"The one that has the clearest and totally different language from anyone else is Tonu Korvits," Christophers continues. "His is based on a folk scale from southern Estonia. When we first started rehearsing the piece, it was very difficult to find a way around it. It's one of those things that looks simple on the page, but my goodness me — it's not!"
The album also includes two older versions of the Stabat Mater, including one by little-known Italian composer Claudio Casciolini. Christophers describes his setting as "Very simple. Very beautiful. It was almost like a palate-cleanser."
The album closes with a virtuoso setting by Domenico Scarlatti. "The Scarlatti is a tour de force, isn't it? It's virtuosic and quite brilliant," Christophers says. "Why he didn't write more, I don't know."
Scarlatti had spent a fair amount of time at the royal court in Portugal, Christophers says. "At that time, they were incredibly wealthy and some of these establishments in Portugal brought players from all over Europe," he explains. "So I think that's partly why Scarlatti wrote that piece — he had larger forces to deal with and clearly some pretty virtuosic singers. Look at towards the end — it's incredibly exciting."
Music exciting and meditative, hopeful and dark: six settings of the Stabat Mater from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen.
Love the music?
Show your support by making a gift to YourClassical.
Each day, we’re here for you with thoughtful streams that set the tone for your day – not to mention the stories and programs that inspire you to new discovery and help you explore the music you love.
YourClassical is available for free, because we are listener-supported public media. Take a moment to make your gift today.