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Stabat Mater
Program Notes by Steve Bryant

Anders Marshall (soprano)
Steve Bryant (countertenor)
photo: Demian

About the Music Performed

Salve Regina in A minor is a work of Domenico Scarlatti’s first Italian period (early 1700s). This condensed setting of the text, just six minutes long, presents all the charms of a fine miniature painting. Extremely short movements declaim the varied aspects the text with great variety. They range from simple fugal passages to coloratura displays, spanning an emotional range from cheery acclamations to expressions of great pathos. Domenico Scarlatti is best known for his more than 600 keyboard sonatas, but he was also a skilled vocal composer of operas, cantatas, a Stabat Mater and two Salve Regina settings.

Vivaldi set only the more dramatic, first half of the Stabat Mater. His selection of an alto soloist gives the work a suitably dark timbre. Although he wrote a large volume of vocal and instrumental works for an orphanage of young women where he long directed musical activities, this work was apparently written for one of the hundreds of castrati employed in Italian churches at this time. Vivaldi repeats the music of the first three movements for the next three — with no obvious textual reason. Was he seeking a quick way to fulfill a commission or using repetition for musical purposes, or both? In any case, the result is satisfying.

Vivaldi’s intricate writing for strings — famous from his “Four Seasons” — is evident here as well, most notably in the “Eia Mater” movement. Its persistent, weeping violin figure serves as a counterpoint to the lyrical vocal line. “Fac ut ardeat cor meum” provides a sweet contrast with a swinging, lullaby-like effect that suggests a mother’s love. Also interesting is the whipping figure in the third and sixth movements, and the stabbing chords underpinning the second and fifth movements — both vividly evoke the suffering of Mary at the foot of the cross.

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (circa 1735) was first printed in London in 1749 and became the most frequently published single work of the 18th century. The Stabat Mater is a setting of the sequence for the Feast of Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Pergolesi composed the work for solo soprano and alto voices during the last few months of his tragically short life, which he spent in a Franciscan monastery at the well-known spa of Pozzuoli. His biographer Villarosa states that this was the composer’s last work, and that it was written, fittingly, for the aristocracy at the church of S. Maria dei Sette Dolori in Naples as a replacement for Allesandro Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater.

Pergolesi’s musical approach is largely operatic in nature, setting stanzas in movements designed to portray the emotions of Mary or her followers, whether profound grief, empathetic suffering, or fevered faith. The fugal opening, central and final movements are more traditionally liturgical in approach. They provide a three-legged structural foundation while helping to propel the work’s emotive quality from introspective grief to ardent love to transcendent peace. The Amen is especially notable for its suggestion of ringing bells.

Steve Bryant
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