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David Hill, conductor
Domenico Scarlatti: Stabat Mater
James MacMillan: Seven Last Words
Domenico Scarlatti, Stabat mater
Born in 1685 in Naples, where his father Alessandro was a celebrated composer of operas and oratorios, Domenico Scarlatti spent most of his adult life in the comparative musical backwater of Spain. The younger Scarlatti was both a virtuoso harpsichordist and a composer of marked originality, and his undemanding job as personal musician to the Spanish queen left him free to indulge his passion for keyboard music. As prolific as he was inventive, he wrote no fewer than 555 single-movement harpsichord sonatas, whose apparent simplicity masks a highly innovative approach to the keyboard. Fanny Burney, the English novelist, reflected the prevailing sentiment of the next generation when she alluded to “the fanciful flights of that wild but masterly composer.” Scarlatti himself referred to his short sonatas as essercizi (exercises) and cautioned performers not to search in them for “any profound intention,” but merely “an ingenious jesting with art.”
This modest disclaimer notwithstanding, Scarlatti’s ingenious sonatas have held a place of honor in the repertoire ever since. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his equally accomplished church music, operas, oratorios, cantatas, and other vocal works, most of which were composed in Italy and Portugal before Scarlatti moved to Spain in 1729. Indeed, his setting of the Stabat mater was somewhat overshadowed during his lifetime by those of Palestrina, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Pergolesi. Not until 1940 did the long-neglected score receive its first modern performance in Siena, as part of the Mussolini regime’s politically motivated revival of Italy’s musical patrimony. Among those won over by the work was the composer Alfredo Casella, who praised the Stabat mater as “a marvelous and extensive composition in which we suddenly find ourselves face to face with a Domenico whom no one would have expected, a polyphonist of unbelievable technique whose contrapuntal skill bears comparison with Bach’s.”
Although there is scant evidence on which to base a secure chronology, Scarlatti presumably wrote the Stabat mater during his brief tenure as director of the Cappella Giulia, the papal choir based at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, between 1714 and 1719. If this dating is correct, his best-known sacred work followed close on the heels of a string of operas he composed at the behest of his patron, the exiled Polish queen Maria Casimira. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Scarlatti’s setting of the medieval Marian hymn, with its moving imagery of the Mother of God grieving at the foot of the cross, contains a pronounced strain of theatricality. Scored for ten voices (four sopranos plus pairs of altos, tenors, and basses) and continuo (keyboard and bass-line instruments), the Stabat mater was well suited to the rigorously trained personnel of the Cappella, which in Scarlatti’s time consisted of sixteen to eighteen male singers.
Scarlatti combined his effortless mastery of the stile antico—the “old-style” unaccompanied vocal polyphony of the sixteenth century remained the lingua franca of church composers throughout Europe in the early 1700s—with elements of a newer style that was more rhythmically incisive, harmonically adventurous, and dramatically flexible. The twenty three-line stanzas of the Stabat mater text are grouped into ten short movements, forming a continuous narrative sequence that flows from suffering to compassion to burning love and, finally, an impassioned invocation of the glory of heaven. Scarlatti imbues the work with variety both through harmonic contrasts (although the music is solidly anchored in a plaintive C minor tonality) and through skillful modulations of texture, timbre, vocal register, and pacing. Weaving the ten independent voices together in a wealth of imaginative permutations, he reserves the full choir for special emphasis at key transitional passages and emotional climaxes.
The first two movements exemplify Scarlatti’s sensitivity to drama, both private and public. The choir steals in softly at the beginning of “Stabat mater,” as if reluctant to intrude on the intimacy of Mary’s anguish, the vocal lines gently rising and falling like sympathetic sighs. A flurry of imitative contrapuntal entries, suggesting the confused emotions of the onlookers, resolves on a C-major chord as they, and we, pause to contemplate the crucified Christ (“filius”). The second movement, lamenting the torments suffered by mother and son, falls into three clearly delineated sections, the first mournful (“Cujus animam gementem”), the second consolatory (“O quam tristis”), the third insistently questioning (“Quis est homo”). Similarly expressive touches abound throughout Scarlatti’s score, which culminates in an exhilaratingly fugal appeal to Christ’s grace (“Fac ut animae”) and a jubilant concluding “Amen.”
James MacMillan, Seven Last Words from the Cross
From Mary’s witnessing of the crucifixion we turn to the sayings traditionally attributed to Jesus on the cross, as recorded in the gospels of Luke, John, Matthew, and Mark. Long associated with the liturgy for Good Friday, the “Seven Last Words” have been set to music by many composers, from Schütz, Haydn, Gounod, and Franck to Sofia Gubaidulina and Tristan Murail in our own time. This version by the contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, for chorus and string orchestra, was commissioned by BBC Television and first screened in seven nightly episodes during Holy Week in 1994. The seven short sayings trace a trajectory from forgiveness to lamentation and ultimately renunciation, as Jesus relinquishes his earthly existence and commends himself to his Father.
Born in 1959 in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, MacMillan rose to prominence in the early 1990s with works such as The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, an orchestral requiem for a Scottish woman condemned as a witch in the seventeenth century, and the plainchant-based percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Although MacMillan often draws inspiration from the past, his eclectic synthesis of styles, traditions, and subject matter is wholly of the present. The composer’s deep Catholic faith and his conception of music as a spiritually transformative experience contribute to the strong narrative and ritualistic thread that runs through his music. An outspoken critic of “secular liberal elites,” MacMillan has written in a wide range of genres, from instrumental solos and intimate choral pieces to large-scale music-theater works. Among the latest additions to his extensive choral catalogue are a St. John Passion and his own setting of the Stabat mater.
In Seven Last Words from the Cross, MacMillan supplements the canonical biblical sayings with related texts that function like scriptural glosses. Jesus’s “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” runs subliminally throughout the first movement as a prayerful cantus firmus. It is juxtaposed with the “Hosanna” celebrating his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, accompanied by skittery violin fanfares, and with a chanted responsory for the Good Friday Tenebrae service. The latter finally trails off with the sopranos quietly intoning “For there was no one who would acknowledge me or give me help.” MacMillan thus creates multiple layers of meaning, both musical and semantic. For example, in setting the first saying from Saint Luke to an ominous, stepwise-ascending melody borrowed from his own clarinet quintet Tuireadh, a threnody for victims of an oil-derrick explosion in the North Sea in 1991, he weaves together themes that are at once sacred and secular, timeless and contemporary.
The second movement opens with a fourfold chorale-like exclamation “Woman, behold thy son!” This stern and austere commandment, delivered at maximum volume and punctuated by emphatic silences, gives way to a murky tangle of soft, slithery chromatic lines in the lower strings. These contrasting ideas slowly gather momentum, crest in a massive, cacophonous wave of sound, then mysteriously dissolve into the void. In the third movement, a thrice-repeated Latin exhortation to behold the wood of the cross (again from the Good Friday liturgy), sung by basses, tenors, and altos in turn and adorned with exotic grace notes and flourishes, serves as prelude to the sopranos’ radiantly soaring “Verily, I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” After lingering briefly in the sunlit empyrean, the music plunges to the stygian gloom of the lower strings and bass voices, as the latter intone the lugubrious Hebrew lament “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” The fourth movement swells to a fiercely emotional climax before expiring with an exhausted groan
The musical landscape that MacMillan paints for the fifth of Jesus’s sayings is appropriately barren, sere, and parched. The chorus repeats “I thirst” in agonizingly slow, drawn-out phrases, interspersed with a Latin reproach for Good Friday telling of “life-giving water from the rock” sung in rapid monotone susurrations. A brief coda for tremolo strings, marked in the score “like a violent shuddering,” brings the movement to an uneasy close. “It is finished” features another sharp contrast: a raucous barrage of pounding, dissonant chords in the orchestra frames a plaintively subdued, and mostly unaccompanied, choral rumination on sorrow, the text taken again from the Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. The violins reminisce on the dirge-like “forgiveness” theme from the first movement. The chorus’s final fervent outcry, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” cuts as deeply as the sword that pierced the grieving Mary’s heart in the Stabat mater. But it is MacMillan who has the last word in the achingly beautiful instrumental postlude, with its rhapsodic echo of a traditional Scottish lament.
Notes © by Harry Haskell
A former music editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History and Maiden Flight.
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