Tuesday 12 April 2022

Stabat Mater

 There are a number of wonderful settings of the great 13th century hymn describing the sufferings of Mary at the foot of the cross on the first Good Friday. It obviously inspired many composers and still does if you look at the list of those who have put it to music. Among my favourites are those by Josquin, Palestrina and Pergolesi written when he was only about 25. But my very favourite is by an English composer and not, I hasten to add, for patriotic reasons. It really is extraordinary and contains some of the first word painting which is normally thought to have originated about 100 years later at the dawn of the Baroque period with masters like Monteverdi.

This composer lived in the latter half of the 15th century and his work is preserved in the famous Eton Choirbook which is a collection of sacred music for liturgical use, mostly dedicated to the Virgin Mary and including several Stabat Mater Dolorosas. John Browne may have a common name but his music is anything but ordinary. In fact, it is some of the most dramatic religious polyphony ever written with one famous example being his setting of the words Crucifige, Crucifige in which the clamour of the baying mob seems to depict the hammering of nails into the cross. But this alternates with more peaceful and reflective passages of great beauty, and Brown juxtaposes the full choir sections with settings for reduced voices with extraordinary skill. The piece is about 15 minutes long and not a note is wasted.

I actually found the first version I ever heard on Youtube and here it is. It's an early recording of The Sixteen directed by Harry Christophers and for me has the passion of youth before professionalism takes over. Not that they aren't very professional here.

Stabat Mater

The Crucifige section is at 8.10. But little earlier at 6.54 the music shifts gloriously into the major at the lovely words Stabat mater, rubens rosa (the Mother stood, a blushing rose). And as with many of these English pieces of the period there is an extended Amen starting at 14.10 which brings the whole piece to an exhilarating conclusion. This is one of the most extraordinary musical compositions of any period and if you think that is hyperbole have a listen.

1 comment:

Francis Berger said...

Sublime. Thanks for posting this.