Stabat Mater

Stabat Mater

In Brief

In Lotus Eaters Bloom thinks, "Molly was in fine voice that day, the Stabat Mater of Rossini." The day is never specified, but Eumaeus confirms the location: St. Xavier's church in Gardiner Street. In that chapter Bloom tells Stephen that Molly scored "a hit, a veritable sensation, he might safely say, greatly adding to her other laurels and putting the others totally in the shade." The "others" would be the other soloists: Rossini's great work features a soprano, a mezzo-soprano, a tenor, and a bass, in addition to the chorus and orchestra. 

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"Stabat Mater dolorosa" means "The grieving mother was standing." These are the opening words of a medieval hymn about the Virgin Mary standing at the foot of the cross where her son was tortured to death: "The grieving mother stood / weeping beside the cross / where her son was hanging...." Through the course of 60 such lines the hymn calls on the listener to feel Mary's anguish as a way of cultivating love for Christ, the savior of mankind. The text is sacred, but Rossini's musical setting is romantic: dramatic, melodic, emotional, stirring, tender, soaring, haunting. Bravura vocal performances are called for.

In Lotus Eaters Bloom recalls the words "Quis est homo," which begin the third section of the work: "Who is the man who would not weep / if he saw the Mother of Christ / in such torment? / Who could not share her sorrow, / seeing the loving mother / grieving with her son?" Bloom's interest is not devotional but aesthetic and spousal, because this section is a duet for soprano and mezzo, with the soprano leading off. He thinks of the people in the church waiting for Molly's first notes: "Could hear a pin drop. I told her to pitch her voice against that corner. I could feel the thrill in the air, the full, the people looking up: / Quis est homo."

Rossini composed his piece in fits and starts from 1831 to 1841, and the entire thing was first performed in Paris on 7 January 1842. The audience was enthralled and called for encore performances of three numbers. In Eumaeus Bloom recalls Dubliners responding similarly: "there was a generally voiced desire for an encore." The passion is easy to understand: in this sacred work Rossini put his extensive experience in writing operas to good use. Twenty years later, after writing another great sacred work, the Petite Messe Solennelle, he wrote on the manuscript, "Dear God, here it is finished, this poor little Mass. Is this sacred music which I have written or music of the devil? I was born for opera buffa, as you well know. A little science, a little heart, that's all. Be blessed, then, and admit me to paradise."

Rossini here gently acknowledged the tension between religious and aesthetic impulses that has sometimes troubled composers setting sacred texts to music. This tension plays between the lines of Lotus Eaters as Bloom regrets not being able to get Molly "into the choir" of St. Xavier's, unaware that Pope Pius X had banned women from church singing as not having sufficient spiritual authority. It surfaces once again as he thinks of "Those old popes" being "keen on music," again unaware of the reactionary impulses that led some of them to ban certain kinds of composition and performance, "Palestrina for example."

Not being dependent on papal patronage, Rossini did not materially suffer from the conservative forces in the Catholic church. But his plea to God on the pages of the little mass ("Is this sacred music which I have written or music of the devil?") shows him to have been keenly aware that in making a devotional text ravishingly beautiful he might be suspected of impiety. In an essay on Rossini, Heinrich Heine noted that German critics regarded the Stabat Mater as "too worldly, sensuous, too playful for the religious subject." French audiences seem to have disagreed, and at least one Italian composer followed Rossini's lead with deep conviction. In his overwhelmingly powerful 1874 Requiem Giuseppe Verdi likewise set a religious text to romantic music and, in an unmistakable bow to Rossini, put a soprano, a mezzo, a tenor, and a bass in front of a chorus and orchestra. That splendid requiem mass, which has been criticized as being overly operatic, is seldom performed in churches. Instead, it is usually staged as a concert piece.

JH 2022
Oil on canvas portrait of Gioachino Rossini by Vincenzo Camuccini, held in the museum of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.