Karol Szymanowski: Stabat Mater

IMG_1328The first concert of Highgate Choral Society in the concert season 2017 – 2018 will take place on Saturday 11 November 2017 at 7pm. The concert will begin with an orchestral piece: Karol Szymanowski: Etude, Op. 4 No. 3 (orchestrated by Ronald Corp). The main piece in first half is Karol Szymanowksi’s Stabat Mater, Op. 53.  In the second half of the concert Highgate Choral Society, solists and orchestra will perform Mozart’s Mass in C minor, K427. The concert takes place at All Hallows’ Church, Savernake Road, Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP.

This blog post is about one of the three pieces: Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater.  

1. Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, Op. 53, is a work for three soloists (soprano, alto and baritone), mixed chorus and orchestra. It is scored a modest sized orchestra.

2. Karol Szymanowski sets the traditional medieval poem Stabat Mater which is part of the Roman Catholic liturgy. The poem was written in the 13th century and is usually ascribed to the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi (ca. 1230 – 1306). It has twenty verses with three lines each. The poem depicts the sorrows of the Virgin Mary for her crucified son Jesus.

Karol Szymanowski set the text both in Polish and in Latin. In the autograph version of the work which is now in the National Library of Poland, the Polish text is written in black ink and the Latin text in red ink, but the Polish version was the one in which he was really interested in. He used a contemporary Polish translation of the text by Jósef Jankowski (1865-1935). Szymanowski said in an interview that he liked the “unusually primitive, almost ‘folk like’ simplicity and naivety of the translation”. For him the emotional content was important. He said about his aims for this setting:

“In my view, it must have a directly emotional impact, and therefore must draw upon a universally comprehensible text: the emotional content of the word must be organically fused with its musical equivalent.”

For Karol Szymanowski this direct impact could only be achieved by setting the Polish version of the text. The score states that the work should always be sung in Polish when it is heard in Poland, but could be performed in Latin elsewhere. We will perform tonight the Latin version. For me personally there are a number of reasons to perform the Latin version of the work. The specific emotional impact Szymanowski wanted to achieve was closely connected to the fact that his Polish audience would understand the text. If the work is performed for an audience who does not speak Polish this cannot be achieved by a performance of the original version. For an audience outside Poland the Latin text may not have the same impact as the Polish text for Polish speaker, but it is at least the one which is more familiar. Audience members might even know one of the many other settings of the Latin text by other composers. Szymanowski’s version of the Stabat Mater stands then in direct comparisons to settings by Pergolesi, Vivaldi or Rossini.

3. The idea of writing a sacred choral work goes back to 1924. Karol Szymanowski was in Paris and Princesse de Polignac, who was great patron of early 20th century music, asked Szymanowski to write a sacred work for soloists, chorus and orchestra. She specifically wanted a setting of a Polish text to music. He was interested in this idea and thought about writing a “Peasant Requiem”, a piece which should be “peasant and ecclesiastical … naively devotional, a sort of prayer for souls”. Szymanowski and Pricesse de Polignac lost touch and the idea of a “peasant requiem” did not develop further.

There were two incidents which had the result that Szymanowski took up the idea to write a sacred work with a Polish text in 1925. Szymanowski mentioned in an interview:

“A whole series of motives induced me to compose the religious work Stabat Mater, ranging from inner, personal experiences to external circumstances of everyday life, which prompted me to lay aside other, already started, ‘secular’ works for the time being and devote myself exclusively to the Stabat Mater”.

The external circumstances he mentioned were the commission of a requiem by the Warsaw business man Bronsiław Krystall in memory of recently deceased wife Izabella. The inner, personal experience was the sudden death of his niece Alusia Barotszewiczówna, the only daughter of his sister Stanisława Szymanowska. This personal loss and the grief of a mother about the death of her child motivated Szymanowski to abandon the idea to write a requiem. He chose instead the text of the Stabat Mater, a text in which a suffering mother grieves the death of her child.

4. Karol Szymanowski divided the text into six sections. He stressed that these sections are “thematically unconnected and different in fundamental character”, but certain movements relates to each other through their mood.

Musically Szymanowski was influenced by that time by renaissance music, in particular from Poland, and also Polish folk music. There is thematic link with Demeter, another work for alto solo, (female) choir and orchestra, a short cantata, which was composed in 1917 / 1924 and which he called his “Greek Stabat Mater”. Musically he used motives from the third of his Word Songs (Słopiewnie) which has the title “St. Francis” in this Stabat Mater.

The first section (“Stabat mater”) is for soprano soloist accompanied by the female voices of the choir and orchestra. It is a quiet and rather slow movement with lyrical music which reminds one of the colours in Debussy’s and Ravel’s music. This movement sets the scene at the foot of the cross.

The second section (“Quis es homo qui no floetus”) is for baritone soloist, full choir and orchestra. It continues to describe the scene at the crucifixion, but the music is quicker and more agitated. It is almost accusatory and calls on the listener to have compassion with the grieving mother. The movement ends with the death of Christ on the cross.

The tone and atmosphere of the third section (“Eia mater, fons amoris”) is similar to the one in the first movement. It is for soprano solo, alto solo, the female voices of the choir and orchestra. The alto soloist starts with a lyrical melody, the soprano soloist and the choir follows. The movement starts largo (slow) and dulcissimo (very sweet). The text of this movement is a prayer to the Virgin Mary and shows the compassion which the music of the previous movement demanded.

The music in the fourth section (“Fac me tecum, pie flere”) is the most archaic one, the one which is probably closest to the Renaissance models Szymanowski studied. This section is for four-part chorus, soprano soloist and alto soloist. The voices sing a cappella (without accompaniment). In this movement the prayer of the previous section continues with all voices of the choir. The sound of the unaccompanied voices reminds me of Rachmaninoff setting of the vespers.

The penultimate fifth section (“Virgo virginum praeclara”) is for the same forces as the second section, for baritone soloist, four-part chorus and orchestra. Also, musically this fifth section and the second one are related. The music is powerful and menacing. At the climax of the work soloist and chorus petition the listener to join the pains of Christ and ask for the protection of the Virgin Mary on the Judgement Day.

The sixth and final section (“Christe cum sit hinc exire”) is the only one for all three soloists, full chorus and orchestra. The music is again lyrical and full of hope that the soul of the deceased might be granted the joys of Paradise.

5. Karol Szymanowski completed the sketch for his Stabat Mater in by November 1925. The full score was finished by 2 March 1926. The premiere of the work took place on 11 January 1929 at the Warsaw Philharmonic. His friend Grzegorz Fitelberg conducted the work and his sister Stanisława Szymanowska whose grief over the loss of her child was one of the motives for the work sang the soprano solo.

It did not take long for the work to be performed outside of Poland. It had its premiere in the United Kingdom in 1932 at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester with Elgar and George Bernard Shaw in the audience.

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