That the Stabat Mater belongs to the best-known Latin poems is stating the obvious. Few other texts have been as often set on music. Wikipedia alone counts some sixty settings, and their list is not at all exhaustive. On the beautiful site The Ultimate Stabat Mater Website more than 500 settings are listed, still excluding the anonymous ones!
The poem remained popular throughout the 20th and even the 21st century. The same list gives more than 130 items for these last twenty years. The latest one recorded, from the beginning of this same year, is by the Russian composer Mikhail Bronner, saying on the site that he took his inspiration from “the suffering of the Mother, who sees how her Son is being killed.” And he continues: “Unfortunately, the endless repetition of this story makes it relevant at all times…”
No Latin text can boast of a similar success and which texts in modern languages can?
What might be at the origins of this popularity? Why does this highly religious poem not fade away in a period and society in which the religion that inspired it is by most members of this same society despised and discarded of? Is it not even more bizarre that all musical settings with some rare exceptions keep themselves to the Latin text? Translations only form a small minority of the tradition.
Stabat Mater: you do not need to be an educated amateur of classical music to have some bell ringing when hearing these opening words. Are they ringing when you hear At the cross her station keeping or Debout, la mère des douleurs or Naast het kruis, met weenende oogen or Christi Mutter stand mit Schmerzen? Many of these translations are known in their countries. They were done by great poets. Yet none of them raises the emotions as evoked by the two single words Stabat Mater.
Is it just tradition? Our cultural memory that links these words to the pains the poem expresses? Or is there something in the language itself, in the Latin, that gives this poem its unparalleled force?
Many composers had personal reasons to put the Latin text on music. Mikhail Bronner in the actual crisis is just the last one for now. Of Dvorak it is known that he started to compose his version after the death of a daughter and that he finished it after the death of his two other children. Moreover, as it is his first sacred work, I think one should take the question serious: why drawing on this religious piece in a language that is considered a dead language? Why should one express one’s mourning and pains in a language that not only is not one’s mother tongue but that is nobody’s mother tongue?
This will be the topic of today’s introduction.
written by Prof. Dr. Wim Verbaal