Monday, September 7, 2009

Dvorak and the Stabat Mater

The next two weeks in the liturgical calendar contain feasts common both to East and West: the Nativity of the Virgin Mary on the 8th and the Exaltation of the Cross on the 14th, but the day following Holy Cross Day, the 15th, commemorates the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, a feast peculiar to the Catholic Church. 

The Tridentine rite of the Catholic Church, now commonly known as the Extraordinary form of the Roman Mass, contains a variable part known as the Sequence: largely disused and abandoned in the modern rite, the Sequence was a poetic hymn inserted between the reading of the Epistle and the Gospel. Perhaps the most famous Sequence is the Dies Irae, one of the signature elements of the Requiem Mass: Mozart and Verdi, inter alia, composed justly famous versions.

The Sequence for the the feast of the Seven Sorrows (Sept. 15th) is Jacopone da Todi's Stabat Mater. Like the Dies Irae, the Stabat Mater is a fine example of medieval Latin poetry. The Sequence, as a portion of the Mass, had both a didactic and devotional purpose: its ejection (or attempted ejection) from the modern rite is one of only many flaws in the contemporary Roman liturgy. 

As a devotional hymn, the Stabat Mater is surely meant to evoke an attitude of contrition in the listener: the poetry itself pictures the distressed Mother of God witnessing the agonies of her son's death. This kind of dramatic imagery' was doubtless intended to summon similar feelings 

The Flemish Josquin des Prez and the Italian Palestrina both wrote polyphonic versions of the Stabat Mater, but my personal favorite is Antonin Dvorak's, the Czech composer of the late 19th century. Composed after the unsettling deaths of two of his children, the work is suffused with an intense feeling of fellow suffering, the subject matter by no means remote to the grief-stricken father and family man. 

The extract below, Quando Corpus Morietur, is the last stanza of the Stabat Mater:

Quando corpus morietur,
Fac, ut animæ donetur
Paradisi Gloria.
When my body dies
Grant that to my soul is given
The glory of paradise.

I'd urge the would-be listener to acquire another version, if possible, of this fine piece: the above example is insufficient to the task. And if Dvorak's Stabat Mater piques your interest, do listen to his unfortunately little known Requiem.

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