Can a medieval poem meditating on the suffering of Mary, the mother of Christ, as she stands at the foot of the cross have any relevance to these times, or to someone like me who adheres to no faith? The answer given by the performance of James Macmillan’s new setting of Stabat Mater at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall was a resounding yes.

The singers of Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen and the strings of the Britten Sinfonia combined to produce an electrifying performance of Macmillan’s elegiac, angry and often discordant cry of grief and personal commitment in the face of tragedy. I don’t think I’ve attended a more enthralling concert of contemporary music in the classical tradition.Though it’s not entirely certain, the person considered most likely to have been the author of the Stabat Mater text is a 13th-century Franciscan monk from Umbria, Jacapone da Todi. The title derives from the first lines of the poem which in Latin read, ‘Stabat mater dolorosa/juxta crucem lacrimosa.’ In Avril Bardoni’s translation in the programme notes they read:

The sorrowful mother stood
full of tears by the Cross
while her son was hanging there.

Initially suppressed, over the centuries the Stabat Mater came to enter the canon of sacred music. As James MacMillan commented in a recent interview, he follows in exalted footsteps:

I seem to have grown up with the Stabat Mater, singing it as a boy, and having my perception of the Crucifixion coloured by its beauty and sadness. There are many great musical settings from history by Josquin, Palestrina, Pergolesi, the two Scarlattis, Vivaldi, Haydn, Rossini and Dvorák, and from the 20th century there are settings I find particularly inspiring by Szymanowski, Poulenc and Arvo Pärt.

So, particularly for devout Catholics but also for composers drawn to the poem’s expression of a mother’s grief the Stabat Mater has been an everlasting source of inspiration. Through the centuries the same has been true for painters and sculptors, too.

Giovanni Bellini, Pieta, 1505
Giovanni Bellini, Pieta, 1505
Käthe Kollwitz, Woman With Dead Child, 1903
Käthe Kollwitz, Woman With Dead Child, 1903

But why listen to sacred music if you’re not religious? The massive success of recordings such as the Officium albums by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, or by Arvo Part suggest that this music has considerable appeal beyond those with religious faith. Perhaps the most common reasons for seeking out such music might be for calm, for reflection, or for spiritual solace in troubled times.

However, in Macmillan’s setting of the Stabat Mater there are moments when there is precious little calm and often a great sense of anger, even though the music offers solace in the end. James MacMillan’s music is inspired by his Roman Catholicism and sympathies for the oppressed (for example, in 2008, we saw a performance of his work Búsqueda which uses poems by the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, interlaced with the Latin text of the Mass). In the concert programme, MacMillan suggests that the text of the Stabat Mater has a special meaning for us today:

To me this great poem isn’t just about the suffering of one person, even if she is the Mother of God. It’s about the suffering of humanity, and the need for redemption from suffering, and that makes it very relevant for us now.

Certainly, there were passages in this gripping performance by The Sixteen and the musicians of the Britten Sinfonia when I felt a deliberate intent in Macmillan’s score to thrust us into the contemporary world and its pain and suffering. The words, ‘Through her weeping soul, lamenting and grieving, a sword passed,’ were punctuated by lacerating chords on the strings that stabbed and sliced through the choral line like screams. And at the opening of the second section, the cellos set up a resonating thrum at their lowest register that seemed to signify the dread of approaching bombers, before we heard these words:

Who would not grieve with her
in contemplating Christ’s mother
sorrowing with her son?

Aleppo. July 23, 2012: Fatma Al-Krama cradles the body of her dead son, 25-year-old Habib Al-Krama, tortured and killed by pro-Assad militias. (Photo by Moises Saman of Magnum)
Aleppo. July 23, 2012: Fatma Al-Krama cradles the body of her dead son, 25-year-old Habib Al-Krama, tortured and killed by pro-Assad militias. (Photo by Moises Saman of Magnum)

I thought of Syria, of Aleppo, of mothers such as Fatma Al-Krama pictured by the Magnum photographer Moises Saman on 23 July 2012, surrounded by members of her family members as she cradled the body of her dead son. 25 years old, Habib Al-Krama, had been tortured and killed by pro-Assad militias, and his body dumped on a city street.

Macmillan’s Stabat Mater is dedicated to the man who commissioned the piece: John Studzinski, an investment banker who – contradicting all dearly-held stereotypes – is also a notable philanthropist, directly involved in charity work and patronage of the arts. Alongside a career that has taken in stints at Morgan Stanley, HSBC and Blackstone, his philanthropic interests have favoured projects concerned with homelessness, trafficking and slavery, human rights (he is currently Vice Chair of Human Rights Watch) and the arts (where he funds the Genesis Foundation which supports young artists starting out on their careers).

In the programme notes, James MacMillan writes that it was Studzinski who suggested he tackle the Stabat Mater, founded on ‘his belief that Mary’s grief at the foot of the Cross is recognisable to thousands, hundreds of thousands, of parents around the world, especially today in time of war and refugee crisis’. It was a text with which MacMillan was familiar, singing it in his early years in rural Ayrshire, finding within it elements which nurtured a deep social conscience and a fierce commitment as a young man to revolutionary socialism. For both musician and patron, therefore, a new Stabat Mater fulfilled their hope that sacred music might resonate far beyond traditional religious settings.

World Premiere of Sir James MacMillan's Stabat mater at the Barbican, commissioned by the Genesis Foundation, performed by The Sixteen and Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Harry Christophers, on Saturday 15 October 2016 Photo by Mark Allan
Harry Christophers conducting at the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater at the Barbican on 15 October 2016 (photo by Mark Allan)

At the Bridgewater Hall on Friday there were no doubts on that score. The empathetic feeling of the medieval text (‘Let me share your gentle tears/and suffer with the crucified/for as long as I live’) and the emotional directness of MacMillan’s score combined to produce a powerful and moving experience. In the opening part, Macmillan’s vivid effects were sometimes harsh and discordant, evoking grief and terror, while in the fourth section he required the singers to repeat again and again the words, ‘burnt in the flames’. The whole piece is an extended expression of sorrow which nevertheless culminates in a blissful vision of paradise evoked in an eloquent solo by the lead violinist Thomas Gould.

The concert had begun with another work by James MacMillan, his setting of Miserere commissioned and first performed by The Sixteen in 2009. It’s another of the great Christian texts – Psalm 51 – to which an array of composers have been drawn down the centuries, including Palestrina, Gesualdo and, most famously, Allegri). MacMillan’s version is music made by unadorned voices, at times singing wordlessly, that is desolate yet achingly beautiful.

The two other pieces performed in the first half were linked: ‘Why fum’th in fight’, a setting by the 16th-century master Thomas Tallis of Psalm 2 which, more than three centuries later, was the inspiration for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

Thomas Tallis, ‘Why fum’th in fight’ performed by The Sixteen

Thomas Tallis’s piece is a setting of an English rendition of Psalm 2 – ‘Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?’ – by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1567. Tallis had lived through years of terrible religious turmoil which no doubt drew him to Parker’s paraphrase: ‘Why fum’th in fight the Gentiles spite/in fury raging stout?/Why tak’th in hand the people fond/vain things to bring about?’

175 years later, Handel set a different translation of the same psalm: ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together?’ Then, in 1904, Vaughan Williams undertook to edit the music of The English Hymnal which proclaimed itself, ‘A collection of the best hymns in the English language’. Vaughan Williams had been appointed its musical editor even though he was by that time an atheist. Though his father had been a country vicar in Gloucestershire,he died before Ralph was three, while his mother was descended from the Wedgwood and the Darwin families, both noted for their scepticism about religious belief.

Despite his atheism (and pertinent in light of my earlier question about sacred music if you are not religious), Vaughan Williams retained a deep insight into the place of religion in the musical life of England, and of music in its religion. Vaughan Williams understood the emotional force that Tallis’s theme derived from its being a hymn tune (as composers and musicians in a variety of genres have also done – think, for instance, of how rooted was sixties soul in the sacred music of black American gospel, or the tunes of jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim in the hymns that were familiar to him in the black Christian churches of South Africa).

After the singers of The Sixteen had given us an unaccompanied rendition of ‘Why fum’th in fight’, they silently left the stage as the strings of the Britten Sinfonia launched into a gorgeous performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia, written off by one reviewer at its 1910 premiere in Gloucester Cathedral (where it was played and conducted by the composer) as ‘a queer, mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea.’ Hard to believe anyone would think that now of a piece that has become one of the nation’s favourites.

Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis: the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Gloucester Cathedral

I don’t think I’ve attended a more enthralling concert of contemporary music in the classical tradition. At the end, it seemed that the applause would never stop as conductor Harry Christophers and members of the choir and string orchestra were joined on stage by the composer for a standing ovation.

James MacMillan (right) and conductor Harry Christophers take a bow at the Barbican world premiere
James MacMillan (right) and conductor Harry Christophers take a bow at the Barbican world premiere

This was the second time in a month that we had seen The Sixteen perform live. Each year their director Harry Christophers leads them on a Choral Pilgrimage, and we saw them on their sixteenth tour at Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral. This year’s programme celebrated the work of William Byrd and Arvo Pärt, composers from very different eras, both of whom are considered masters of sacred music despite having faced considerable persecution for their work.

In this year’s Pilgrimage programme Harry Christophers placed two pieces by Pärt in the context of works by the Tudor composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. The music of the Estonian composer, though noted for its modernist minimalism and his unique ‘tintinnabuli’ style, speaks in ancient accents. The centrepiece of the performance was  Pärt’s ‘The Deer’s Cry’, a setting of a fourth-century incantatory text attributed to Saint Patrick.

Something special happens when this music is performed in the shimmering acoustics of a cathedral. While the acoustics at the Bridgewater Hall, seated centrally three rows back, were as perfect as they could be, making for a completely enthralling experience in which every individual voice or note from the strings was perfectly placed, the sensation of being enveloped in the lingering echoes of notes sung in a cathedral is another thing entirely.

The Choral Pilgrimage 2016: The Deer’s Cry

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2 thoughts on “The Manchester premiere of James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater: sacred music concerned with the suffering of humanity

  1. How eloquently and beautifully discussed – my father (believer) and I (non-believer) attended the Norwich premiere (the same programme) and were both deeply moved. I was unsure how I would respond to MacMillan’s 21st century interpretation, being more a lover of Early Music, but you couldn’t fail to hear and feel the pain. Grief, as you have shown, is universal.

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