With Mary and a cloud of witnesses

by Ken Myers

[This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Touchstone magazine.]

There are many texts that have been employed in the music of Holy Week. The Passion accounts in the Gospels are the most immediate candidates, and have produced — augmented with sensitive and theologically alert poetry — some of the most memorable works in the canon of sacred music (e.g., J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion).

The book of Lamentations is another biblical source for musical expression during Holy Week (see last year’s column, “The depths of solemn grandeur”). Beginning in the fifteenth century, many of the greatest composers working in the Western Church wrote settings of Lamentations to be used at matins on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Last year, I singled out Robert White’s little-known setting, but also notable are those by Morales, Tallis, Palestrina, Lassus, Byrd, and Victoria. Readers would do well to spend time in the week before we celebrate the Resurrection to allow the expression of sorrow conveyed in the work of one or more of these servants of the Word to get into their ears and heart.

Another text that has inspired a huge catalog of music for Holy Week is the medieval poem Stabat Mater dolorosa, “The Mother Was Standing.” While its authorship has been attributed to various hands, including St. Gregory the Great, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Pope Innocent III, St. Bonaventure, Pope John XXII, and Pope Gregory XI, it was likely (but not certainly) the work of Jacopone da Todi (c. 1230–1306). Born into a noble family in northern Italy, Jacopone had been a successful lawyer until the tragic death of his pious wife prompted a dramatic conversion. He wrote many hymns, mystical poems, and satirical verse in addition to Stabat Mater dolorosa, a 20-stanza poem probably intended for private devotional rather than liturgical use.

Expressing and sharing in the suffering

The subject of the poem is the emotional reaction of the Mother of Jesus standing at the foot of the Cross. The first ten stanzas describe Mary’s grief and agony, inviting us as readers to imagine both what she felt and what we ought to feel: “Who is it that would not weep, seeing Christ’s Mother in such agony? Who could not feel compassion on beholding the Holy Mother suffering with her Son?” The final ten stanzas address Mary in the hopes of sharing in her suffering: “Grant that my heart may burn in the love of Christ my God, that I may greatly please Him.”

As early as 1417, the poem appeared in prayer books, by which time it had already long been chanted in simple, repetitive chant, although not yet a formal part of the liturgy. In fact, it was not added to the Roman Catholic liturgy until 1727. By that time, many composers had created intricate and often quite intense musical works that attempted to translate into sound — felt with the body — something of the suffering of Mary sharing in the sufferings of her son.

Just as the poet who wrote Stabat Mater dolorosa (often called simply Stabat Mater) attempted to give form to the feelings of Mary at this decisive moment in her life — a pivotal moment in cosmic history — so hundreds of composers have dedicated many agonizing hours to add another dimension of form to express those feelings, and to enable those feelings to become ours.

Mary watches her son die, and participates in his suffering. A poet then meditates on Mary’s experience and, in capturing it in words, participates in her grief. A composer reflects on this poem and enters into the heart of the poet, who entered into Mary’s loving heart, who entered into the agonies of the man who had been in her womb years earlier, the one who was Love incarnate.

Sympathetic witness

The Crucifixion did not happen apart from sympathetic witnesses. It could have been possible for the death of Christ — with all its atoning significance — to have occurred in seclusion, without anyone present to watch and weep. But the presence of Mary and John at the foot of the cross established a pattern of sympathetic witness that is carried on in poetry, music, and other expressive art. The death of Christ is not simply a factual event, it was an experienced event, and not just by Jesus.

Philosopher Susanne Langer, in Problems of Art, argued that

subjective existence has a structure; it . . . can be conceptually known, reflected on, imagined and symbolically expressed in detail and to a great depth. Only it is not our usual medium, discourse — communication by language — that serves to express what we know of the life of feeling. . . . [W]hat language does not readily do — present the nature and patterns of sensitive and emotional life — is done by works of art. Such works are expressive forms, and what they express is the nature of human feeling.” 

Langer quoted a psychologist who had been trained in music, who claimed: “Music sounds as feelings feel.”

When you listen to a performance of the Stabat Mater dolorosa (as I hope you will during Holy Week), you become the latest instance in the succession of sympathetic witness that began on the first Good Friday: from Mary to a poet to a composer to performers to you. And since there are many composers who have set the words of this hymn to music, there is not a single path back to the foot of the cross and to the Weight it bore.

Numerous musical testimonies

The earliest musical setting for which we have an extant score is from about 1480 and was written by Josquin des Préz. There are other Renaissance composers who set the text to music, most notably Palestrina’s 1590 setting for the Papal chapel. But the era which produced a bumper crop of Stabat Mater settings was surely the Baroque period, roughly 1600 to 1750. This is no accident. In the Foreword to his book The Pathos of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts— The Baroque Period, Richard Viladesau explains that “a major aspect of the spirituality of the Passion in this period” was “a dramatic conception of the events of the Passion, aimed at reaching the affects of the viewer and listener to produce a living relation with the God of redemption.”

The most celebrated setting of the Stabat Mater during this period was that by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, composed in 1736. Pergolesi’s work was regarded as so definitive that around 1746, J. S. Bach copied the music — with slight variations — for a cantata based on the text of Psalm 51, Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden, “Blot out, Highest, my transgressions.”

Among other notable Stabat Mater composers are Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Haydn, Liszt, Dvořák, Stanford, Szymanowski, Poulenc, Howells, Pärt, and (most recently) James MacMillan, whose 2016 Stabat mater was live-streamed to the world from the Sistine Chapel a year ago.

The testimonies from this cloud of witnesses are readily available on recordings and often in concert performances (most of the works are not suitable for liturgical use). They typically require some time to begin to enter into their emotional space, perhaps a lifetime. “Let me mingle tears with thee, mourning Him who mourned for me, all the days that I may live.”

The Latin text of Stabat Mater dolorosa with English translation is available here.

Below are a number of recordings of settings of the work, arranged chronologically.

Josquin des Prez (1450?-1521)

La Chapelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe, conductor

John Browne (1453–c. 1500)

The Tallis scholars, Peter Phillips, conductor

William Cornysh (1465–1523)

The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, conductor

Richard Davy (c. 1465–1507)

The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, conductor

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594)

Taverner Consort, Andrew Parrott, conductor

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725)

Hana Blažíková, soprano, Markéta Cukrová, alto, Collegium Marianum, Lenka Torgersen, concert master

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)

James Bowman, countertenor, Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood, conductor

Emanuele d’Astorga (1680–1757)

Freiburger Barockorchester and Balthasar-Neumann-Chor, Thomas Hengelbrock, conductor

Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)

BBC Singers, John Poole, conductor

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736)

Núria Rial, soprano, Carlos Mena, contratenor, Ricercar Consort, Philippe Pierlot, conductor

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)

Patricia Rozario, soprano, Catherine Robbin, mezzo soprano, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor, Cornelius Hauptmann, bass, Choir of the English Concert, The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock, conductor

Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805)

Agnès Mellon, soprano, Ensemble 415, Chiara Banchini, conductor

Antonin Dvořák (1841–1904)

Erin Wall, soprano, Mihoko Fujimura, mezzosoprano, Christian Elsner, tenor, Liang Li, bass, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Mariss Jansons, conductor

Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937)

Jadwiga Gadulanka, soprano, Krystyna Szostek-Radkowa,, contralto, Andrzej Hiolski, tenor, Polish State Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, Katowice, Karol Stryja, conductor

Herbert Howells (1892–1983)

Benjamin Hulett, tenor, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, David Hill, conductor

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)

Chœur Régional Vittoria d’Île-de-France, Orchestre de la Cité, Danielle Borst, soprano, Michel Piquemal, Conductor

Arvo Pärt (born 1935)

Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, conductor

James MacMillan (born 1959)

The Sixteen, Britten Sinfonia, Harry Christophers, conductor