holy days

... God in the Arts - exploring symbols of the Christian faith

Editor:  The Revd Michael Burgess here examines one of the great works of music. - the Stabat Mater


 ‘Glorious the song when God’s the theme’: the Stabat Mater

May is traditionally the month of Mary, the mother of Jesus. When we read of Mary in the Gospels, we sense the heartache and trial of much of her life: a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, fleeing with her new-born baby and Joseph to Egypt, losing the child Jesus while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, following her son on His ministry but always in the background, and there at the foot of the cross as her son is crucified. It is then Mary must have thought back to that occasion in the temple when Simeon took her child and told her that a sword would pierce her own soul.

That sense of heartache and the sorrow it brings is poignantly expressed in a beautiful poem of the Middle Ages called Stabat Mater, which pictures Mary at Calvary and that sword of desolation and sadness that pierces her soul. We are not sure who wrote this poem. It is ascribed to Jacopone da Todi, who became a Franciscan friar on the death of his wife in the 13th century. The contemplation of Mary’s sorrows in the Stabat Mater has inspired many composers, and there are wonderful settings by Palestrina, Rossini, Dvorak, Verdi and Poulenc.

This month let’s focus on a very simple setting, but one that captures those searing pangs of sorrow at the heart of the poem. It is by Antonio Vivaldi, who was born in Venice in 1678. In 1703 he was ordained a priest, but by then he had made his name as a skilled violinist and composer. He continued to compose throughout his life: a vast amount that includes some 40 operas (though only 18 survive), 400 concertos, and over 100 choral works. In 1730 Charles de Brosses described him as ‘an old man with a prodigious fury for composition.’ For much of his life Vivaldi was music director of the Ospidale della Pieta, a music school for girls. Then in 1740 he left Venice hoping for preferment in Vienna. That was not to be, and his final days were marked by poverty and neglect, and in 1741 burial in a pauper’s grave.

Most of us know Vivaldi through the brilliance and colour of ‘The Four Seasons’ and his setting of the Gloria.  The tone is more restrained in his setting of the Stabat Mater.  There is a very fine CD recording entitled ‘Vespers of Sorrow’ where the work is linked to a sonata, a psalm setting and the Magnificat for an imagined celebration of our Lady’s feast (to listen to a clip of 'Vespers of Sorrow' just Google the title).

The Stabat Mater is a long poem and Vivaldi restricted himself to setting eight verses for contralto and strings: the solo voice standing for Mary as she sings of the despair and agony as the mother of Jesus. The opening verse, ‘At the cross her station keeping’ captures the intensity of emotion with the throbbing rhythms of the accompaniment – that mood recurs throughout the work. And then with the verse, ‘Eja Mater, fons amoris’ (O thou Mother! Fount of love!) the violins and viola accompany without any bass instruments. It is a pivotal point in the work as the solo voice cries out ‘Mater’ across the heights and depths of the music, leading into the prayer that the love of Mary will touch all human hearts. The final verse set by Vivaldi begins ‘Make me feel as thou hast felt,’ and so Mary stands for all mothers who have lost loved ones: perhaps sons killed in Afghanistan, perhaps daughters dying through disease.

Mary’s love for Jesus, her son, touches the hearts of them and of all parents. Hers was a protective, sacrificial love that led her to the foot of the cross, where Jesus gave His mother and John, the beloved disciple, into the care of each other. The sacrificial love of a mother mirrored in the sacrificial offering of her son in death.

Julian of Norwich meditated on this motherly love in her Revelations. In chapter 60 she wrote, ‘A mother’s caring is the closest, nearest and surest for it is the truest…As we know, our own mother bore us only into pain and dying. But our true mother Jesus, who is all love, bears us into joy and endless living. Blessed may he be!’ So the protective care of mother Mary cries out to us in Vivaldi’s setting of the Stabat Mater. The closing lines of that poem look to Christ’s maternal love like Mother Julian:
               ‘Christ when Thee shall call me hence,
               Be my mother, my defence,
               Be thy Cross of victory.’

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