“Stabat Mater Dolorosa”, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)

This article first appeared in the March 2014 edition of our parish magazine.

It is often said that no parents should outlive their children. However this hymn, sung as a duet, tells of the sorrows of Mary in her vigil at the foot of Jesus’ cross. Deeply moving, the words of the first movement are

  • Stabat mater dolorosamary-foot-of-cross
  • juxta Crucem lacrimosa,
  • dum pendebat Filius.

Which was translated by Edward Caswall (1839) as

  • At the Cross her station keeping,
  • stood the mournful Mother weeping,
  • close to her Son to the last.

This is another all time favourite of mine. The discords of the harmonies reflect so clearly the agonies of Mary, watching her son dying slowly and painfully on the cross. It is beautiful though, arranged for two equal female voices, although usually sung by a soprano and alto. Neither part accompanies the other: both are essential, each contributing equally to the sound. I have had the privilege of singing this duet a number of times at St Margaret’s, firstly partnered with Sarah Ogden and later with Hayley Jackson. I would love to sing it at some point with Jennifer. The musical phrases are long and sustained (requiring good lung capacity and controlled breathing) which for me is also in keeping with the mood of the text and the season in which it is sung.

This is actually the first of twelve movements a of a much larger work for two female singers, alternating between soprano arias, alto arias and duets for both voices.

Perhaps inappropriately, each time I hear or sing this I get tingles down the back of my neck. The combination of the music, the words, their meaning – and very often the performance environment – is too powerful a combination not to be moved by. Indeed, Jean-Jacques Rousseau praised this opening movement as “the most perfect and touching duet to come from the pen of any composer”.

You can listen to a superb performance of “Stabat Mater” here, featuring Núria Rial (soprano) and Carlos Mena (counter tenor)

More musical musings next month…maybe to do with Easter.

Carol P

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