Stabat mater

About this work

Of all people, it was Richard Wagner who may have most contributed to the popularity of Palestrina's eight-voiced Stabat mater. Wagner discovered the work among the Catholic music in Dresden; he performed it, and even published his own "edition" of the motet, chock full of his own interpretive markings. While Wagner certainly over-interpreted the music by infusing it with stark changes of dynamics and tempo, Palestrina's Stabat mater is an extremely expressive motet. In its notes our historical imagination can hear the tensions of Palestrina's time: deep reformation of the Catholic practice in the midst of passionate, personal, and even mystic individual devotion to Christ and the Blessed Virgin.

The poetic text of the Stabat mater probably comes from the passionately devoted pen of Jacopone da Todi; its topic is the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin as she stood at the foot of the Cross seeing her son Jesus being crucified. Named "the tenderest and most pathetic hymn of the Middle Ages," the plainchant Stabat mater was sung by Flagellant brethren on their travels from town to town. The sequence offers a nearly perfect vehicle for late medieval devotion: as one sings the Stabat mater, he or she metaphorically gazes at Mary gazing at Jesus' sacrifice; Mary's voice in the text suffered intolerable grief over Jesus' death, and the worshipper asks her to share the wounds and pain of them both, in exquisite detail.

Palestrina's musical setting, in turn, fully embodies the gaze of devotional passion. On the surface, his musical materials are simple (pace Wagner): eight voices, presumably without accompaniment, follow, as always, perfect counterpoint and careful dissonance treatment; the choir is divided into two groups that alternate often simple and homophonic passages. Yet within that "purity" of basic musical style, the composer relishes the passionate imagery of his text. Right in the first phrase, he uses a strong harmonic contrast between chords with sharps and flats, giving the tenor voice a radical melodic tritone to sing and placing a plangent B flat right on the word "dolorosa" (grieving). Similar harmonic tensions populate the entire piece, with plenty of trigger words for flats (sad, suffering, weeping) or sharps (the sword that will pierce her soul). Often, changes in texture also stem from the text: imitative duos to represent the grieving pair of characters, or full eight-voiced textures when the poem asks for us all to bear the Cross of Christ, for instance.