The Stabat Mater of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Live, high-definition video of the entire work in concert by the San Francisco Early Music Ensemble Voices of Music. Soloists: Dominique Labelle, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano.
In Italy in the early eighteenth century, people were mad about music--music at home, music in the streets, music in the theatres and concert halls, music in the villas and palaces--and the kind of music that was the most popular of all was baroque opera, which was the creative synthesis of art, poetry, dance, drama, music, and virtuosity of the highest level. Understandably, when composers were fulfilling their sacred obligation to provide music for the Church, they could not resist the elements of sprezzatura of the opera world, and thus we have nowadays a rich legacy of late baroque motes, masses, hymns, vespers, magnificats and many more forms: works which tone down the language, but not the harmony or notes.
In his short life, Giovanni Pergolesi composed a wide variety of music in the major genres of the time. His primary compositions were also operas, especially the new Opera Buffa (comic opera). His highly influential mini-opera, La Serva Padrona (1733) was the subject of a fierce debate in France over the future of opera, and was one of the most popular operas of the mid-18th century. The Stabat Mater, written in 1736, may have been composed for members of the secular nobility, the Cavalieri della Vergine dei Dolori, that met in Naples and commissioned a setting of the Stabat Mater every year. A few years earlier, Alessandro Scarlatti set the same text for members of the same group. Pergolesi's Stabat Mater was an immediate hit, and was copied, imitated, arranged and reprinted many times throughout Europe. When it was engraved in London in 1749, it quickly became the most frequently printed musical work in the 18th century.
Despite the widespread modern appreciation of the Stabat Mater, many questions remain about how the work was intended to be performed, and much of the preparation for this concert involved the making of a new edition, in which the many extraneous dynamics and articulation markings were removed, and Pergolesi’s own unusual instructions, such as “sotto voce”, “lasciare”, and “dolce assai” were restored. Contemporaneous copies of the holograph manuscript as well as other works in the six surviving Pergolesi manuscripts were consulted for clues as to the interpretation of Pergolesi’s markings: early copies of the original Stabat Mater manuscript, which differ only in small details, provided a number of missing or illegible notes. A dozen or so bars from the viola part, missing for hundreds of years, have also been restored. The musicians of Voices of Music all contributed valuable insights for the final version.
Pergolesi does not specify a specific voice type in his manuscript; however, the wide dynamic range and difficult sequences of trills indicate singers experienced in baroque opera, which fits with the secular provenance of the commission. Virtuoso music from this time was sung by both men and women, and although Farinelli and Senesino were operatic superstars (and a box-office guarantee), the soprano Margherita Durastanti was known to have sung operas by Scarlatti in Naples, and Francesca Cuzzoni sang all over Italy. We have chosen to interpret many of the original dynamic markings as transitional, so that instead of playing sections that simply alternate between loud and soft, there are gradations of phrasing between the pairs of dynamic marks. Once the accretions of centuries of performances have been removed, Pergolesi’s score is surprisingly modern and streamlined in style: bold harmonies and vibrant rhythmic patterns occur in every movement, yet each individual section has its own special character.
The fugal ending is a slight but meaningful nod towards the more traditional ending of a large-scale liturgical work; even here, in the sacrosanct Amen, Pergolesi cannot resist giving the fugal structure a splash of chromatic paint as the piece moves inexorably to the final cadence. The work is here performed without a conductor, as was the practice of the time: each movement is given a starting impulse from one of the performers, after that, anything can happen.
The musicians and their instruments
Voices of Music performs on original instruments: hear the music played on instruments from the time of the composer.
Elizabeth Blumenstock, baroque violin by Andrea Guarneri, Cremona, 1660
(courtesy Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Period Instrument Trust)
Lisa Grodin, baroque viola by Mathias Eberl, Salzburg, Austria, 1680
Katherine Kyme, baroque violin by Johann Gottlob Pfretzichner, Mittenwald, 1791
Maxine Nemerovski, baroque violin by Timothy Johnson, Indiana, 1999 (after Stradivarius)
Farley Pearce, violone by George Steppani, Manchester, 1985, after Amati, 1560
Sara Usher, baroque violin by Desiderio Quercetani, Parma, Italy, 2001
William Skeen, five string baroque cello, Anonymous, Italy, c1680
David Tayler, archlute by Andreas von Holst, Munich, 2011, after 18th c. originals
Hanneke van Proosdij, baroque organ by Winold van der Putten, Finsterwolde, Netherlands, 2004, after early 18th-century northern German instruments