22 March 2008

The Harrowing of Hell: Reflection 3

Patrick Comerford

Reflection 3: Rossini’s Stabat Mater:

The Stabat Mater is a 13th century hymn written by a Franciscan friar, Jacopone da Todi or Jacobus de Benedictis (1230-1306). The title comes from the opening line, Stabat mater dolorosa, “The sorrowful mother was standing.” The hymn, one of the most powerful mediaeval poems we still have, recalls the sufferings of Mary as she stands by the Cross during her son’s crucifixion (The picture to the right is El Greco’s Pieta).

This hymn has been set to music by many composers, including Palestrina, Haydn, Dvořák, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Gounod, the Scarlattis, Schubert, Arvo Pärt, Verdi, Kodály, Ireland’s own Charles Villiers Stanford, and most recently Karl Jenkins. But the best known setting is by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868).

Rossini’s Stabat Mater has an interesting history. In 1829 at the age of 37, suddenly, and without apparent reason, Rossini severed his connection with the stage. The rest of his life was spent without any musical activity save for the composition of his Stabat Mater and his Messe Solennelle.

During a visit to Spain in 1832, Rossini was persuaded by a wealthy banker to write a Stabat Mater for a Spanish prelate, the Abbé Valera (Don Francisco Fernandez Valera). Rossini accepted the commission on condition that the work was not to be made public.

Rossini worked on the Stabat Mater at his home in Bologna, finishing it with some help despite illness. The work was sent to Spain, and the composer was paid with a snuff-box valued at 5,000 francs. When the Abbé Valera died nine years later, Rossini was told the abbé’s heirs had sold his work for 2,000 francs. Rossini went to court to recover the copyright, saying he had dedicated the work to the abbé but had reserved the rights to publication.

The case caused a sensation in Paris, where the fame of Rossini’s William Tell was growing steadily and he was becoming increasingly popular despite his withdrawal from the stage. A private performance for about 50 people was arranged on 3 October 1841. By the next day, it is said, all Paris had come to know that Rossini had created a new masterpiece.

Rossini won his case, reworked parts of the Stabat Mater that were not his own, strengthened the orchestral parts, and then sold the performing rights for 28,000 francs. At its first public performance in Paris, Rossini’s new Stabat Mater was received with enthusiasm and rapture. Rossini’s name was shouted in the applause, and there were demands for repeat performances of many pieces.

However, the Stabat Mater was not to the liking of many critics, who asked whether the music was appropriate to the text. Do its brilliant loveliness and sensuousness detract from its reverent and religious themes? But the poet Heine pointed out that the same could be asked about painters and their religious subjects: “The true character of Christian art does not reside in thinness and paleness of the body, but is a certain effervescence of the soul, which neither the musician nor the painter can appropriate to himself either by baptism or by study.”

After hearing the Stabat Mater, Heine said the theatre seemed like “a vestibule of heaven.” He described audiences that were deeply moved by the sombre beauty of the long opening and taken by the beautiful melodies of the movements that follow.

The soprano duet Quis est homo was sung by at Rossini’s funeral in the Church of the Trinity in Paris on 21 November 1868.

In his reworked Stabat Mater, Rossini lost neither his creativity nor his individuality. One of the most wonderful parts is the unaccompanied quartet Quando corpus morietur, which comes at the end of the work, concluding with an elaborate double fugue, Amen. In sempiterna saecula. These words come from the final verses of the Stabat Mater, which ends with the prayer:

Quando corpus morietur,
fac, ut animae donetur
paradisi gloria. Amen

When my body dies,
let my soul be granted
the glory of Paradise. Amen.

That prayer, the prayer we share with the dead visited by Christ on this day at the Harrowing of Hell, is the prayer we share today and the prayer we share with Christians of the past, present and future.

And so this evening we listen to Rossini’s conclusion of the Stabat Mater with his unaccompanied quartet Quando corpus morietur which leads into his elaborate Amen.

This is the third of five reflections on the Harrowing of Hell delivered on Easter Saturday, 22 March 2008, in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

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