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Concert Preview – Pergolesi: Stabat Mater and other music of The Neapolitan baroque

October 5, 2010

Anonymous: Mater Dolorosa, circa 1450

In the high middle ages, a new kind of religious music was born in Europe, vigorous, rhythmical, and passionate: so much so that it threatened to swamp the cool, decorous “Gregorian” chant approved by the Church of Rome.

In their own day they were called “sequences”; we would call them “hymns”: striding, rhyming, memorable, and above all, popular. Some estimate that over a thousand were composed before the Councils of Trent put an end to them in the mid-16th century. Only four, including the famous chant for the dead “Dies irae,” were still allowed to be sung. Among the banned hymns was the most popular of all: the Stabat mater dolorosa.

Why did “the sorrowing mother standing, beside the cross weeping, beneath her son hanging” become a focus of worship and meditation in the late middle ages? Perhaps because the experience of Mary, the human mother of Jesus, was easier to comprehend and sympathize with than an incarnate Godhead.  Whatever the reason, adorers of the Virgin refused to accept the exclusion of their beloved hymn from the liturgy, and “lobbied” the Papacy for nearly 200 years to restore it to favor.
That finally happened in 1727, and in celebration, some pious gentlemen of Naples commissioned a new musical setting of the 13th century poem for their annual Good Friday ceremony from the most eminent composer of their time and place: Alessandro Scarlatti.

Their timing couldn’t have been worse. There was a new musical voice in town, a brash youngster just arrived from the mid-Adriatic town of Jesi, and his lively dancing rhythms, graceful, transparent textures, and above all his gift for limpid melody made all traditional music sound stiff and old-fashioned. After only nine years, the gentlemen of the Confraternità di San Luigi gave up and asked young Giovanni Pergolesi to recompose their Stabat mater.

Their timing was impeccable this time around: Pergolesi’s setting perfectly captured the preferred religious tone of its day: serious but not weighty, grave but graceful, meditative but with sufficient dramatic contrast to sustain twenty stanzas of intense contemplation of suffering and sorrow. His Stabat mater became the most frequently printed music of the century and was excerpted and adapted by dozens of other composers, among them Johann Sebastian Bach (though with words adapted to Lutheran beliefs). In modern times, after the revolutionary changes in Catholic liturgy after the Vatican Council II, the 800-year-old poem holds its own (on the feast-day of September 15), and, in Pergolesi’s setting, in concert halls and the hearts of music lovers round the world.

Seattle Baroque Orchestra: Pergolesi: Stabat mater

Town Hall Saturday, Oct 23, 2010, 8:00 pm

Preconcert lecture at 7:00 pm

Doors open at 6:30 pm

Tickets: $40 General Admission, $35 Senior (65+), $25 Side Sections, $15 Under 25

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