The sorrowful mother

Posted on: 24 March 2021, by :

This Thursday, 25 March, is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Christian Church remembers how the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son, as recounted in Luke 1:26-38 and previously foretold in Isaiah 7:14. Unlike the dates of Lent and Easter, which shift according to the lunar calendar, the date of the Annunciation is normally fixed, 25 March being nine months before the birth of Christ is celebrated on 25 December. Since it falls shortly before or, as this year, during Passiontide, the Annunciation is always a poignant reminder of both Mary’s great joy at being the blessed mother of Jesus and her great sorrows when her son is arrested, condemned, tortured and crucified. In the Roman Catholic tradition, this week includes another special day. The Friday in the fifth week of Lent, just before Palm Sunday, is—or used to be until the Papacy, in 1969, revised the calendar of feast-days—the ‘Friday of Sorrows’ that focuses on the emotional pain experienced by the Virgin Mary: the occasion when the Stabat Mater was recited or chanted.

This early thirteenth-century poem in Latin, in ten rhyming six-line stanzas, each subdividing into two three-line versicles, is of disputed authorship and has not always been a sanctioned part of the liturgy. It was excluded from the Tridentine rite by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century but nonetheless remained popular: numerous well-known musical settings—by Lassus, Palestrina, Charpentier, Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti, etc.—date from before Pope Benedict XIII in 1727 formally readopted the Stabat Mater as a part of the Roman liturgy.

Antonio Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, marvellously sung in this performance from 2017, is a brilliant example of how music enhances this deeply moving portrait of the grieving mother of Christ. It’s a short version, setting only the first half of the poem (the first five stanzas, or versicles 1-10 as numbered here, plus ‘Amen’), which marks it as the type to be used as a hymn in the Office, not as a sequence during Mass. It’s best to listen to all nine short sections at one sitting: they are not designed to be heard as distinct movements (sections iv-vi repeat the music of sections i-iii) and belong together in an unchanging soundscape in the rare key of F minor, which in opera and The Four Seasons Vivaldi reserved for scenes of pain and other extreme discomfort. This persistent bleakness is scarcely relieved at all by C minor for the two recitatives and section vii, ‘Eja Mater’. Yet the music wears its heart on its sleeve with a great deal of lyricism, through which we may feel the sadness and empathize with Mary’s personal sorrows. The concluding ‘Amen’ is one of the best settings of that single word, and probably the most animated, to be found in all musical literature.

The work almost certainly dates from early 1712 and is perhaps Vivaldi’s very first sacred vocal composition: before this he was known as a violin virtuoso and teacher and a composer only of sonatas and concertos. A record of payment to him shows that a Stabat Mater was commissioned by the Chiesa della Pace in Brescia, where it was probably performed, with one of that church’s professional male altos as soloist, on the ‘Friday of Sorrows’, which in 1712 fell on 18 March.

* *  This post is in a series for Lent and Holy Week, 2021 * *

Vivaldi, Stabat Mater, RV 621, sung by Tim Mead with Les Accents, directed by Thibault Noally, at Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, in June 2017.

[i, Largo] 1: The grieving mother stood weeping beside the cross where her son was hanging.
[ii, recitative] 2: Through her weeping soul, compassionate and grieving, a sword passed.

[iii, Andante] 3: O how sad and afflicted was that blessed mother of the only-begotten.
4: Who mourned and grieved, the pious mother, looking at the torment of her glorious child.

[iv, Largo] 5: Who is the person who would not weep seeing the mother of Christ in such agony?
[v, recitative] 6: Who would not be able to feel compassion on beholding Christ’s mother suffering with her son?

[vi, Andante] 7: For the sins of his people she saw Jesus in torment and subjected to the scourge.
8: She saw her sweet offspring dying, forsaken, while he gave up his spirit.

[vii, Largo] 9: O Mother, fountain of love, make me feel the power of sorrow, that I may grieve with you.
[viii, Lento] 10: Grant that my heart may burn in the love of Christ my Lord, that I may greatly please him.

[ix, Allegro] Amen.

Translation drawn from
1: Stabat Mater dolorosa / Juxta crucem lacrimosa, / Dum pendebat filius.
2: Cujus animam gementem / Contristatam et dolentem / Pertransivit gladius.

3: O quam tristis et afflicta / Fuit illa benedicta / Mater unigeniti.
4: Quae moerebat et dolebat, / Pia Mater, dum videbat / Nati poenas incliti.

5: Quis est homo qui non fleret / Matrem Christi si videret / In tanto supplicio?
6: Quis non posset contristari / Christi Matrem contemplari / Dolentem cum filio?

7: Pro peccatis suae gentis / Vidit Jesum in tormentis / Et flagellis subditum.
8: Vidit suum dulcem natum / Moriendo desolatum / Dum emisit spiritum.

9: Eja Mater, fons amoris, / Me sentire vim doloris / Fac, ut tecum lugeam.
10: Fac ut ardeat cor meum / In amando Christum Deum / Ut sibi complaceam.