Latin, attrib Jacopone da Todi (c.1230-1306)
Choral level of difficulty: 4-5 (5 greatest)
John Studzinski’s Genesis Foundation is responsible for some wonderful philanthropic projects, one of the most special being the relationship with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. They have collaborated frequently and perhaps most notably on Genesis Sixteen, the youth choir associated with the senior group giving opportunities and training to the next generation of young professional consort singers. Like MacMillan, Studzinski is a passionate Catholic and was named Catholic of the Year in 2017 by the Catholic Herald. The Stabat Mater was commissioned by the Genesis Foundation for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen and was premiered with the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican Hall in London in October 2016.
The work is scored for eight-part choir with soloists from the choir and string orchestra, and the composer views it as a partner piece to his Seven Last Words from the Cross – indeed the Stabat Mater starts from the close of the earlier work. The poem, from the 13th century, is a deeply personal meditation describing the suffering of Jesus’s mother as she stands at the foot of the cross watching her son’s final agony and death. MacMillan digs deep under the surface of this harrowing poem and the result is so deeply personal that it as if we are carried on that journey as witnesses being caught up in the drama and the emotional turmoil. The level of imagination, the unswerving aural acuteness – the variety of textures and effects are simply overwhelming. But perhaps what tells most is that the means of achieving all this never stretches beyond the possible however challenging the work may be overall. As always, the mixture of these means; chant, pure, simple harmony, complex polyphony, extraordinary virtuoso string writing and passages of the richness which seems to pay homage to Vaughan Williams but is MacMillan through and through, permeate the score.
For the choir and orchestra who can undertake this work effectively it will bring untold rewards. It matters little whether those taking part are practising Christians or of no faith, the sheer humanity which pours from these pages cannot fail to move each and every one, as it does the audience who witnesses it. It is notable that the Vatican allowed The Sixteen’s performance of the work as its first live-streaming from the Sistine Chapel gathering a global audience. This is a masterpiece by anyone’s reckoning.
Repertoire Note by Paul Spicer
"MacMillan speaks of a ‘painful world of loss, violence, and spiritual desolation’, and those are the intense feelings packed into his score. Both sides of MacMillan are to be found here, the devotional and the painter of bold, dramatic canvases – the former in the ethereal writing for solo and ensemble voices, the latter in the lacerating blows and feverish anxieties depicted in the string ensemble."
"It’s not often that the composer of a new work gets a standing ovation, but then every new work isn’t like James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater for chorus and string orchestra… The chorus’s plangent cries, carved with a scalpel, might have been expected – but what about the string commentary of stabbing chords, high-speed buzzings, sickening crescendos, growls and whispers?... from noble lament through fury and shriek to contemplative devotion."