A touring performance of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.
Kacey Kurpinsky, soprano
Hope Littwin, mezzo soprano
Elikem Fiase, organ

Program Notes

The text of the “Stabat mater” dates back to the 13th century when religious poetry flourished in medieval Italy. In 1727 the Roman Catholic church instituted the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, integrating the hymn into the sequence of the mass. This day of devotion now falls on the 15th of September, where the “Stabat mater dolorosa” is sung in remembrance of Mary’s suffering during the crucifixion and death of her son.  

This text has been set to music by many composers, several of which are known famously for their rendition, including Palestrina (approx. 1590), Vivaldi (1712), Haydn (1767), Verdi (1897), and Poulenc (1950) among others. Settings by Scarlatti (1723) and Pergolesi (1736) were both commissioned by the same Neapolitan brotherhood, only nine years apart. Composed on his deathbed, Pergolesi died a few weeks later from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six.

Honored to have been commissioned, he was acutely aware of the standards he would be compared against, following the work of his cherished predecessor. His challenge was to compose a new setting that reflected the changing musical styles in Naples, while following the same scoring requirements presented to Scarlatti. At this time, the use of two single voices instead of a choir was unexpected, but highlights the intimate observance of the occasion. The use of arias and duets was predominantly found in secular music only, as religious texts typically did not fit with the aesthetics of secular genres.

In Scarlatti’s “Stabat mater,” he expressed the text as a dramatic narrative, very much indicative of the musical language of the High Baroque. While clearly taking inspiration from Scarlatti, Pergolesi focused on the contrast of lighting and shading within each movement, and across the work as a whole. Each of the twelve movements are saturated with dissonances that create tension you can feel in your body, then find sweet resolve to soothe; much like the desire expressed to share in the burden of suffering with Mary. German poet Ludwig Tieck responded to Pergolesi’s composition saying, “I had to turn away to hide my tears.” There is no question as to why this breathtaking work has transcended more than two hundred years and impacted musical culture around the world.