Stabat mater dolorosa

As part of my preparation for Easter this year, I’ve been listening to various settings of the Stabat Mater.  This is a 13th century Catholic hymn to Mary that has been set to music many times over the centuries.  Although I’m not a Catholic, I find the words (especially those of the first few verses, with which I am most familiar) well worth pondering as Easter approaches.  Also, it’s quite fascinating to listen to the various musical treatments of the work.

I have been listening to the Stabat Mater settings in my own musical library in roughly chronological order.  The earliest is an anonymous 15th century plainchant setting that I got with a copy of BBC Music magazine some years ago.  Next up is a 16th century one by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (which was on the same BBC Music cover CD, along with a performance of Liszt’s Via Crucis).  My collection then jumps over 100 years to settings by Antonio Vivaldi and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, with the next example being by Joseph Haydn.  The nineteenth century is represented in my collection by the Stabat Mater settings of Gioachino Rossini and Antonín Dvořák.

The latest Stabat Mater I have listened to so far is by Karol Szymanowski, a Polish composer whose work is previously unfamiliar to me (this, along with a couple of others, is a new addition to my library for this Easter).  Unlike all the earlier ones I’ve got, which were all in Latin (the original language of the hymn), Szymanowski’s version is in Polish.  It was written c. 1925.

There are two further settings in my collection, which I hope to listen to tomorrow.  One is by Krzysztof Penderecki (another Polish composer, though I believe his version is in Latin — it’s another new one for me) and the other is by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins.  This one was written in 2008 and combines verses from the Stabat Mater itself with other texts, both modern and traditional.  It fuses Western classical music with Middle Eastern folk music (and instruments), and includes several languages (including Latin, Aramaic, Arabic and English but, perhaps surprisingly for Jenkins, no Welsh).   I requested and received a copy of this setting (in the original recording conducted by Jenkins himself, which as far as I know is still the only one available) for Christmas a couple of years ago and have listened to it several times, though not for a while.  I’m looking forward to hearing it again tomorrow.

There are several other Stabat Mater settings I’d like to get hold of.  Principal among these would be the one by Josquin des Prez (roughly contemporary with the plainchant one I already have) and the one by Domenico Scarlatti (the only one of those which Wikipedia says are the most famous that I don’t already have).  Still, those can wait until next year and give me something to look forward to then.

As well as Stabat Mater settings, my listening this week has included several other Easter-related classical pieces, including the aforementioned Via Crucis by Liszt, Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge oratorio (often held to be one of his lesser works, but still pretty impressive to my ear) and Bach’s Easter Oratorio.   I’ve also got a few more lined up to listen to over the next few days, including Buxtehude’s Membra Iesu Nostri, Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, as well as some seasonal Gregorian chant (although it sounds pretty much like any other Gregorian chant to me).

Most of this listening has been done while I’ve been working, so it’s been effectively background music and I have not been able to devote my full attention to listening.  I’m hoping on Friday or Saturday to set aside a bit of time to listen more carefully to one or two of the great liturgical works.  My first choice for this will probably be Handel’s Messiah, which has the advantage that I can understand the words somewhat better than pieces sung in Latin or German!

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