''Stabat Mater'' by Karol Szymanowski for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, Op. 53, is one of the most famous and, at the same time, most personal works of the composer, making its appeal to the audience through the depth of its expression and sheer artistry. The first sketches of the work were made in the spring of 1925, while work on the full score occupied the composer from 20 January to 2 March 1926. Józef Jankowskis Polish translation of the medieval sequence formed the basis of the composition. This text, which was simple in a folk-like way, devoid of pathos but full of religious zeal, harmonized perfectly from the poetic point of view with the composers creative design. In an interview for the monthly Muzyka Szymanowski stated: ''in its Polish vestments that eternal, naive hymn was filled for me with its own immediate expressive content; it became something painted in colours which were recognisable and comprehensible as distinct from the black and white of the archaic original'' (''A Footnote to Stabat Mater'', Muzyka 1926, Nos. 11/12). In the score, the Latin text is given beside the Polish text, making it possible for the work to be performed more easily by foreign performers. In this work, the universal tradition of the Christian church was fused with the Polish religious tradition.
The composer creates the religious folk-like climate primarily through the character of the melodies which are akin to to the plainchant melodies to the text of Stabat Mater (the sequence, and especially the hymn) and their paraphrases in Polish religious songs (e.g. Stała Matka Boleściwa [The Dolorous Mother was standing]) as well as motifs from Polish Lenten songs and Gorzkie Żale (Bitter Laments). Szymanowski did not introduce them as quotations, but intersperses the melodic lines, which are more fully developed and frequently highly chromatic, with diatonic phrases, based on modal scales. They appear in all the movements of the work determining its cohesion.
In dividing the twenty-stanza text into separate segments, Szymanowski created a six- movement cantata. He took care to distinguish between the emotional shades of the various movements, varying his selection of solo voices (soprano, contralto, baritone), the voices of the chorus (female or mixed) and the orchestral forces. In the first and third movements the lyrical idiom prevails; the first movement, portraying the Mother of God at the foot of the cross, has a narrative character, whereas the third is a kind of prayer from a man who sympathizes with, and who wishes to be associated with Mater Dolorosas pain. In these movements only the female voices are used (soprano, contralto and female chorus), while the orchestra is employed in a chamber style, sometimes drawing on solo accompanying parts (e.g. the beginning of the third movement). The fourth movement, which continues the mood of prayerful contemplation, is designed for soprano and contralto solo as well as unaccompanied chorus. On the other hand, the second and fifth movements, involving the participation of solo baritone and the full chorus and orchestra, are similar with regard to forces and their dramatic character, which is austere in expression, harsh in tone, and markedly dissonant. Here grand climaxes appear with powerful orchestral tutti. The sixth movement crowns the whole. The lyrical, soft melody of the solo soprano at the beginning is gradually strengthened by the addition of the female chorus and the solo contralto, and in the final section, the solo baritone as well as the tutti of chorus and orchestra. The conclusion, subdued and full of concentration, suggests the introvert character of the experience as opposed to its dramatic pathos.
Stabat Mater by Szymanowski is part of a long tradition of compositions based on the text of the medieval sequence - ranging from polyphonic works by Josquin des Prés and Palestrina to the romantic Stabat by Giuseppe Verdi and Antonín Dvořák. And it was perhaps because of his consciousness of this tradition that Szymanowski used stylizing devices in the spirit of early music. The archaization manifests itself not only in the character of the melodies and their modal framework, but also in the harmonies (with their predominance of triads, open fourths and fifths chords and doubled thirds), the simple rhythms as well as the texture of the choruses (esp. the fourth movement). The composer does not, however, imitate the style of any specific historical epoch, but combines resources taken from early music with modern tonal and harmonic techniques. Archaization in Stabat Mater serves, moreover, a symbolic function; in evoking the many-centuries old tradition of church music, it emphasizes the universal nature of the idea contained in the text of the sequence, while the re-reading of the text by the composer gives the work its individual features.
[Zofia Helman, translated by Ewa Cholewka]
Masterpieces of Polish 20th Century Music
- Language of edition: eng, ger, pol
- Language of text: lat, pol
- Number of pages: 68
- Cover: softcover
- No. of edition: 6
- Published: 2000