Piteous Beauty

Monday March 12, 2012
Piteous Beauty

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mass in g minor for double chorus and Domenico Scarlatti, Stabat Mater

This performance is now available as a compact disc or digital download.

Join us for an evening of two otherworldly choral works: one well-known and the other a hidden gem.

Vaughan Williams’s stunning Mass in g minor for double chorus is rightfully beloved for its ethereal sonorities.

In the lesser-known, Domenico Scarlatti sets the 13th century hymn Stabat Mater dolorosa, a contemplation of Mary at her son’s crucifixion, with expressive and hauntingly beautiful vocal lines representing the apex of Baroque vocal style.

Some words on the program from Mary Beekman, Director of Musica Sacra

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

Tonight, in its concert Piteous Beauty, Musica Sacra presents two monumental works for chorus. Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his Mass in g minor for two equal unaccompanied choruses made up of Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass, while occasionally varying the texture through the use of a solo quartet. Domenico Scarlatti composed his Stabat Mater for ten voices with continuo accompaniment, in which one instrument provides the harmonic implications of the polyphonic interaction of voices. In the text of the Mass, Christians alternately praise God in His greatness while lamenting their own inadequacies and their need for mercy. In the text of the Stabat Mater the Christian believer contemplates the suffering of Mary, Jesus’ mother, as she watches the crucifixion of her son. Both texts inspired music of incredible beauty from each of their respective composers—hence, the title of tonight’s concert.

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Domenico Scarlatti, like both Johann Sebastian Bach and George Friedrich Handel, was born in 1685. Like Bach, he grew up in a musical household with a father who made music his profession. Among concert-goers today, Domenico Scarlatti is known for his brilliant Sonatas for keyboard: pieces made exciting through abrupt rhythmic movement and startling harmonies. He composed these pieces in the second half of his life, when he lived in the Royal Court of Spain. Early in his life, from 1715-1719, however, he had been the Maestro di Cappella at the Vatican in Rome. There he had been in charge of the sixteen to eighteen singers making up the choir. It was an august appointment and one held by such musicians as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Gregorio Allegri; last year Musica Sacra presented Allegri’s Miserere in our March concert Double Takes. Scarlatti left the Vatican Chapel in 1719 to work in the Portuguese Court in Lisbon, where, among his other duties, he taught the princess Maria Barbara. This had to be one of the best places for a musician to work at that time; the famous castrato Farinelli was also employed at the court. While there, Scarlatti had thirty to forty singers to work with. He followed Maria Barbara to the Court of Spain and remained there for the last twenty-five years of his life.

It is not known when Scarlatti composed the Stabat Mater; there is no record of a performance, nor is there an autograph of the manuscript. However, a huge earthquake shook Lisbon in 1755, destroying many records, including perhaps the original manuscript. We can only guess at what stage of his career Scarlatti might have composed it. Being familiar with some of the works he wrote in Rome, however, I would surmise he wrote it later in life, for its harmonic and melodic language has far more complexity than those of his Roman oeuvre.

The poem Stabat Mater, dating from the 13th century, has a pervasive tone of penitence and sorrow befitting the monumentality of the circumstances that it contemplates. Scarlatti paints this contrition and anguish with all of the Baroque compositional tools at his disposal. Individual lines weave their way through diminished chords, composed of two minor thirds and outlining a tritone, “the devil in music.” These lines may also leap a tritone outright, a flagrant violation of voice leading and an unusual, disorienting and, some might say, ugly sound. Individual lines may move by half step; they may also rise or fall by augmented seconds, enharmonically equivalent to a minor third but filling a very different role in harmony, or diminished fourths, which sound like major thirds but, again, behave quite differently. All of these musical grotesqueries serve to illustrate both the profound emotional pain of the Christian onlooker to Christ’s suffering and Jesus’ physical torment as he hangs on the cross.

Scarlatti divides the poem, consisting of twenty verses of three lines each, into nine sections, but the amount of time and musical material he devotes to each stanza varies greatly. The opening and thirteenth stanzae each have a movement devoted to them, while the extended last movement sets only the last two lines of the poem’s final stanza. The other seventeen stanzae are divided up among the remaining six sections. Sometimes Scarlatti treats the individual voices in a soloistic capacity; the melodic line, imitated among fewer voice parts, has florid melismas, or extended vocal lines on a single syllable. Those lines twist harmonically and rhythmically of themselves and among themselves, creating an exquisite musical equivalent to the classical statue of Laocoön and his sons. The most florid of these lines, setting the line “Inflammatus et accensus,” provides a fine example of a duet in the dramatic style emblematic of the Baroque style of composition in Italy.

At other times Scarlatti creates a texture more typical of the choral genre, thereby increasing the variety in his compositional palette. He juxtaposes the bravura dynamic of the “Inflammatus et accensus” duet by following it first with a treble quartet and then with a pedal point initiated in the bass with the nine other voices coming in one by one to set in “die iudicii.” In the descending line taken up by each voice successively, you can hear the inexorable raining down of God’s judgment. For the thirteenth stanza “Fac me vere tecum flere /crucifixo condolere /donec ego vixero” Scarlatti uses a fugue in the stile antico; Baroque composers and theorists identified this style by its use of the larger note values and less depictive lines that they associated with the polyphonic writing of the Renaissance era. Compare the sound of this fugue with the fugue in the final movement of the piece, and you will understand the Baroque distinction between the stilo antico and the stile moderno; this last fugue is filled with vibrant lines of dramatic flourishes.

In addition to the devices described above, Scarlatti also presents some fine dramatic moments. For the line in the second stanza, “Quis est homo qui non fleret,” he isolates the word Quis and tosses it among the voices so that they seem to call to each other as children do in a game of “Marco Polo.” It increases the dramatic intensity of the question immeasurably, as the word “who” is thereby echoed among the voices. In the third movement Scarlatti employs a rare use of homophony, in which all voices move as one, to set the word “Vidit.” In this context, it begins the eighth stanza, but the word has just been used in the seventh stanza, as the poet depicts Mary’s sight of the instruments responsible for her son’s pain. In this stanza the poet describes her seeing Christ’s suffering and abandonment. Scarlatti’s isolation of this word as it starts the stanza, as well as his reiteration of it in the homophonic setting, stops the flow of music abruptly, so that we catch our breath with Mary as she suffers her heartache for the torment of her son.

Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his Mass in g minor in 1921, just three years after the end of World War I. As such, to those of us who have watched the second season of Downton Abbey, one cannot help but hear the war’s influence—its decimation of the population of young men and its irrevocable change in the British view of the world and their place within it—on the work’s haunted and haunting sonorities. The Kyrie seems less a personal plea for mercy than a shamed acknowledgment of the devastations that humanity can perpetrate. For this listener, in Vaughan Williams’ hands the darker elements inherent to the Mass—the need for mercy and the acknowledgment of sin and fallibility—recall the chaos and smoke-filled obfuscation of the battlefield, while the testaments to God’s greatness and beneficence represent, in the words of William Blake, “England’s green and pleasant land.” The modal harmonies create an atmosphere of luminescence, achieved through Vaughan Williams’ copious use of homophonic texture in his voice writing.

While the work is scored for two equal choruses of SATB, Vaughan Williams creates a never-ending variety of textures. Aside from the inherent one of alternating equal choruses, Vaughan Williams broadens the aural palette. In singing the line “Patrem omnipotentem,” the unison line of the chorus emphasizes both God’s power and the Nicene Creed’s first avowal: “I believe in one God.” In the Gloria, the vocal line setting “Cum sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patri,” tossed in imitative counterpoint among all eight voices and outlining a tenth in its scope, illustrates the glory of the Triune God. Earlier in that same movement, the listener hears the isolation and loneliness expressed by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane in Vaughan Williams’ solo setting of “Qui tollis peccata mundi,” while he conveys the penitence and humility of the Christian asking for mercy through the trio of treble voices in a hushed piano dynamic. The end to the subdued mid-section of the Gloria, an avowal of Jesus’ unique nature, is expressed in a soprano solo, which to this listener alludes to His divinity as well. In the Credo, Vaughan Williams utilizes a conceit common to masses of the Classical and Romantic eras: the use of a solo quartet to describe Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion. He interrupts it only once and to great effect: the eight vocal parts of the double chorus expand their respective ranges to reverentially intone “Et homo factus est.” The homophonic movement by the voices through four chords in an exceedingly widening disposition conveys masterfully Christians’ awe of the great mystery that God should become man.

To those of us who love the choral medium, tonight’s two works provide a sumptuous banquet. While I may accept the fact that choral music does not have the reputation that symphonic works have in society at large, I cannot accede to it when each of these works has such a capacity to move me.

© 2012 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.