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Vox Luminis: Stabat Mater

This evening’s program explores the theme of love in two senses, in two different types of works: secular madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi, and sacred works featuring representations of the Virgin Mary. In Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa, a nymph laments a lost cheating lover, while in the anonymous Lamentation de la Vierge au Croix and Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater, the Virgin Mary agonizes over the misery subjected upon her son, Jesus. This thread of lament permeates both the secular and sacred works, revealing suffering as a universal experience, regardless of the context.

Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus a 8 is taken from his Credo in F, scored for four voices. A prolific composer of both sacred and secular music, Lotti lived and worked in Dresden from 1717-1719, though the work was likely written in Venice before that. For this section of the Credo, the continuo alone backs the choir; the remaining instruments are tacet, and the choir doubles to eight parts, exploring a series of audacious chromatic progressions.

Monteverdi’s contribution to musical life in Venice formed a large part of his extraordinary musical legacy. His motet Adoramus te Christe displays a willingness to take on the rapid changes of character associated with the secular madrigal. Extended phrases in some voices alternate with the more rapid text-declamation heard in other voices in this effectively proportioned piece. It introduces the intensity of the madrigal Lamento della ninfa, which expresses heavy tears with a descending tetrachord. Lamento della ninfa is set in the ‘representative style,’ featuring singers as separate characters. In this case, the poet Ottavio Rinuccini gives Monteverdi a solo female character (the nymph) to work with as well as a narrator. Monteverdi assigns the narrator role to a trio of male voices (two tenors and a bass), structuring the madrigal in three parts: there are two outer sections that are for the male narrators only, and a central extended section that revolves around the solo female voice. The opening and closing sections have a purpose that is similar to the Greek chorus, and the ‘choruses’ that open some of Shakespeare’s plays (e.g. Henry V and Romeo and Juliet). In Monteverdi’s ‘chorus’ sections the tenor and bass voices foreshadow the action and moral conundra of the dramatis personae of the nymph, her cheating male romantic partner, and even ‘the other woman.’ The opening ‘chorus’ introduces notions of color (‘her pale face’) and sorrow (‘grief,’ ‘sigh,’ ‘lamented,’ ‘lost loves’).

The middle section goes through the stages of emotional trauma experienced by the nymph, who has just found out her beau has left her for another woman. Monteverdi shifts total focus to the female singer, whose part demands silken, pure singing. The musical foundation of this section is what’s known as the ‘lament bass,’ a descending bass figure that repeats some thirty-four times. Monteverdi makes the closing ‘chorus’ an epilogue, serving as the summation of the action. The final line, ‘Love mixes fire and ice,’ brings together the text-based images of the nymph’s cold, pale solitude, and the burning, red rage that comes with discovering the deception of an unfaithful significant other. The nymph, narrators, and audience all undertake a taxing emotional journey in Lamento della ninfa — one that could easily be fleshed out to become a full-length opera.

Although the Siena aristocrat Alessandro Della Ciaia was not a ‘professional’ composer, he did in fact publish three high-quality collections of his compositions. One of those collections, Sacri modulatus, contains a major work that examines the Virgin Mary’s lamentations when Jesus is removed from the cross, Lamentatio Virginis in depositione Filii de cruce. The text reflects a period in Catholicism when it was considered appropriate to place blame on certain ethnic and religious groups for Jesus’s crucifixion. A section of this text is similar to the Reproaches that are included in some Christian settings of the Passion story. While the implications of these texts and accusations are without question reprehensible by contemporary society’s standards, Della Ciaia’s composition offers a glimpse into the musical and ideological mentality of Catholics in the seventeenth century and presents a number of touching musical moments.

The work opens with a duet sung by two angels. The narration takes the form of a dialogue between Mary’s lament and a chorus of angels singing extracts from the text of the Stabat Mater. The piece concludes with the chorus joining the Virgin Mary in her lament, creating a choir of nine voices that end this work on a poignant but sublime note. Was this a stroke of genius by an amateur musician or a piece of assured writing by an under-celebrated composer? Either way, this work has a rather surprising and daring quality to its harmony.

Born in Naples, Scarlatti was the son of the renowned composer Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725). Domenico followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a noted keyboardist, conductor, and composer. In 1713, he was appointed to the Vatican, initially as assistant maestro di capella to the Cappella Giulia at St. Peter’s Basilica. Scarlatti’s duties at the Vatican included composing masses and other liturgical music. He quickly rose to the position of maestro of the Cappella Giulia, with 16 singers and two organists under his leadership. In 1719, Scarlatti left his position at the Vatican, making his way to Lisbon through connections with the Marquis, landing the job of maestro of the royal chapel of King João V of Portugal (1689-1750), where he directed the ensemble of 40 singers and instrumentalists, many of whom were Italian.

Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater is set for ten voices and basso continuo. The Stabat Mater is a sacred Catholic text believed to date from the thirteenth century, which tells of the Virgin Mother witnessing Jesus’s pain on the cross. Scarlatti’s musical testament to the suffering of the Virgin Mary is unique among Stabat Mater settings of its age for its use of stile misto (‘mixed style’). In combining Renaissance techniques with Baroque instrumental accompaniment practices, Scarlatti presents an innovative approach  (for the eighteenth century)to sacred vocal-instrumental writing. The voices are used in various combinations throughout, culminating in a highly original work with continually contrasting textures. It is only in the two repeats (Eja Mater and Amen) that the voices come together in their five pairs.

The incredibly moving text forms the basis for one of Scarlatti’s most beautiful musical expressions, and it is the slower movements in particular that consist of the most extreme tension and poetic, tender passages. Only two verses suggest an allegro tempo — the eighth verse (Inflammatus), which entrusts a virtuosic solo to a tenor and a soprano voice, and the ninth verse Fac ut animae donetur paradisi gloria, which introduces the final, brilliant ‘Amen.’

Although traditional Italian versions of the Stabat Mater do not hesitate to use alternating — and sometimes sharply contrasting — tempos that do not always have a direct correlation with the text, Scarlatti’s creation is more sombre and meditative in drawing out the text. In this regard, it resembles the seventeenth-century madrigal, as it reached the heights of its expressive powers in the hands of composers such as Monteverdi. It is only when the text makes reference to the gates of paradise that the music really comes alive, with the dance-like triple-time Amen concluding the work in an undeniably joyful manner.

© Nicholas A. Brown & Lionel Meunier