Thursday, September 15, 2022

Stabat Mater, the Hymn of the Virgin of Sorrows

Devotion to the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary originated in German-speaking lands in the early 15th-century, partly as a response to the iconoclasm of the Hussites, and partly out of the universal popular devotion to every aspect of Christ’s Passion, including the presence of His Mother, and thence to Her grief over the Passion. The feast that emerged as its formal liturgical expression of this devotion was known by several different titles, and kept on a wide variety of dates, but usually in Passiontide, or just after Easter. Before the name “Seven Sorrows” became common, it was most often called “the feast of the Virgin’s Compassion”, which is to say, of Her suffering together with Christ as She beheld the Passion. This title was retained well into the 20th century by the Dominicans, who also had an Office for it which was quite different from the Roman one, although the Mass was the same. It also appears in many missals of the 15th to 17th centuries only as a votive Mass, with no corresponding feast; this was the case at Sarum, where it is called “Compassionis sive Lamentationis B.M.V.” Its popularity continued to grow in the Tridentine period, until Pope Benedict XIII finally extended it to the whole of the Roman Rite in 1727.
The Virgin of Sorrows; the central panel of the Van Belle triptych by Pieter Poubus (1523 ca. - 1580); in the church of St James in Bruges, Belgium. There were different traditions as to which events in Our Lady’s life counted as Her Seven Sorrows; here they are (clockwise from lower left) the Circumcision, the Flight into Egypt, losing the Child Jesus, meeting Christ on the road to Calvary, the Crucifixion, the deposition from the Cross, and the entombment. The Roman version of the Passiontide feast contains no specific list. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
A second feast of the Seven Sorrows was promulgated in 1668 as the Patronal feast of the Servite Order, which was founded in the mid-13th century by seven Florentine noblemen, and soon spread all over Europe. (St Philip Benizi, who stands in their history as St Bernard does in that of the Cistercians, not their founder, but their most famous member, was almost elected Pope in 1271.) This order had always nourished a strong devotion to the Mother of Sorrows, and has its own rosary of the Seven Sorrows, and its own Marian stations of the Cross. Pope Pius VII added their version of the feast to the general calendar in 1814, after he returned from the exile in France shamefully visited upon him by Napoleon. Part of his reason for doing would certainly have been to ask the Virgin’s intercession and protection for the Church in the midst of the many horrors visited upon it by the French revolution and the subsequent wars. It was originally kept on the Third Sunday of September, as it had been first by the Servites, but when Pope St Pius X abolished the custom of fixing feasts to Sundays, it was placed on September 15th, the day after the Exaltation of the Cross.
As is often the case with later feasts, there was a considerable variety in the liturgical texts of the earlier version of the feast from one place to another, and between the traditions of the various religious orders. But of course, one of the most widespread was the hymn Stabat Mater Dolorosa, which is universally regarded as one of the great masterpieces of later medieval devotional poetry. The author of this hymn is unknown, and has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly conjecture. For a long time, many attributed it to a Franciscan friar name Jacopone da Todi (‘Big James from Todi’, about 80 miles north of Rome in Umbria; 1230 ca. – 1306); however, a fairly recent manuscript discovery has made this attribution untenable. Others have ascribed it to Pope Innocent III, who reigned from 1198-1216, and was certainly a very prolific writer in various genres, but this remains no more than a plausible conjecture.
In the Roman liturgical tradition, it is sung as a hymn in the Divine Office in one melody of the sixth Gregorian mode, and in another of the second mode as a Sequence at Mass, between the Alleluia and the Gospel.
Many great composers have also put their hand to setting it polyphonically, such as Josquin des Prez.
Palestrina’s version, composed shortly before his death in 1594, was traditionally sung in Rome on Palm Sunday.
One of the best known versions is by the Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Draghi (1710-36), who is generally known by the last name “Pergolesi”, after Pergola, the small town in the Italian Marches from which his family came. This was also composed very shortly before the author’s death, of tuberculosis at the age of only 26. This became the single most frequently printed work of sacred music in the 18th century, and, in the common fashion of the Baroque era, was reused by several other composers, including JS Bach, who turned the music into one of his German cantatas, albeit with a completely different text based on Psalm 50.

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