Although one of the most renowned constituents. of the catholic liturgy, the Stabat Mater is a text regarded with caution by composers since it is long and dwells so exclusively on specific images associated with the Crucifixion that it allows little option for contrast. Some notable settings which have surmounted the problems are Domenico Scarlatti’s of c1715 and Krzystof Penderecki’s (1963).
Patterson’s solution to the problems is dramatically most effective; contrast being achieved by initially placing the emotional focus on the chorus, and only as the work proceeds allowing the emphasis to pass to the mezzo soprano soloist, as though it is the unbearable sorrow of her burdens that force her into the protagonist’s role.
Although cast in eight sections the work was formally conceived as a single span which is unified harmonically by frequent use of certain chords; texturally by an orchestral colour beard at the outset of trumpet, high bassoon, and vibraphone; and thematically by the Stabat Mater motif sung as the chorus enters.
1. Chorus and mezzo soprano. (Moderato)
A short orchestral introduction establishes the sombre mood evoked by the image of the virgin standing at the foot of the cross. Appropriately, for a text so signally imagined from the female perspective, women’s voices are heard first. The soloist only joins in towards the end with a sad melody which is echoed in canon by the oboe.
In a fast animated choral movement, a dialogue between the men and the women dwells on Mary’s sorrows. The theme is derived from the Stabat mater motif and the harmony has a strong polytonal tension which is used to effect to emphasize words like ‘pierced’ and ‘sword’
3. Mezzo soprano.
Over the doleful, elegiac tread of the strings, the soloist describes the virgin’s tears as she watches Christ’s agony. The music suggests a restrained response however from the mezzo, as if she is holding back her emotions. Her meditations are accompanied by a bassoon obbligato whose melody is thematically interwoven with hers.
By contrast, the chorus give full rein to themselves with the mental suffering of her son, off-beat and cross-rhythms, disso anguished interval of the augmented 4th) to portray the horror of the scene.
5. Chorus and mezzo soprano.
This powerful movement, mainly scored for the pitch of the work onto a new level of intensity with the mezzo being more overtly drawn into the emotional situation. It beings with the trombone intoning a plainsong-like melody which is taken up the the voices and soloist. Low sonorities are frequently exploited to produce a rich majestic colour, synonymous with the sentiment of the text as the supplicant prays to be infused with the love of Christ, Much of the harmonic tension is derived through the interval of a semi tone clash consonant harmony and the central section has been likened by the composer to the choral chanting of the Russian Orthodox Church.
6, Chorus. poco a poco accel.
To portray the choruses’s pleas to share in the suffering of the Crucifixion within their own hearts, Patterson uses a device exploited in earlier works such as Voices of Sleep and Mass of the Sea, whereby a controlled accelerando creates a sense of relentless momentum. Beginning pianissimo and ending ending in a huge climax, the movement’s spiky orchestration, irregular rhythms both add to the cumulative effect.
7. Mezzo soprano. Dramatico
The pent-up emotion of the mezzo can be no longer restrained and to the words ‘Let me bear Christ’s death’, she gives vent to her grief in a dramatic recitative. The operatic character of her line and the tremolo string accompaniment have a Verdian sweep about them and the interval of a minor 6th resolving to a 5th, adumbrated in an earlier section of the work, comes to the foreground.
8. Chorus and mezzo soprano.
The same interval is prominent in the finale which draws together ideas heard in earlier movements. Led by women’s voices, the chorus three times surge and soar to the climax of the work expressing the victory not the desolation of the Cross. Then quietly, the voices create a lulling web of sonority as they, and above them the mezzo, pray that after death they may be granted the serenity of paradise. With the hope of resurrection uppermost an ‘Amen’ of affirmation concludes the work.
Chorus and Orchestra
Mezzo Soprano, Chorus and Orchestra. 2(2 dbl Picc).2.2.2/18.104.22.168/Timp/2Perc/Strings
Commission: for the Huddersfield Choral Society’s 150th Anniversary
Dedication: ‘To Owain Arwel Hughes’
Publisher: Universal Edition
Huddersfield Town Hall, 27th March 1986
Linda Finnie, mezzo-soprano / Huddersfield Choral Society / BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes