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Stabat Mater: Young Composers Explore An Ancient Text

The British choral group called The Sixteen have taken on new settings of the ancient <em>Stabat Mater</em> text.
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The Sixteen
The British choral group called The Sixteen have taken on new settings of the ancient Stabat Mater text.

The words of the Stabat Mater come from an ancient Latin text describing Mary weeping at the cross over her son, Jesus. While the Catholic poem has been set to music by many — from Vivaldi to Arvo Pärt — three contemporary composers have put their own spin on the old verses.

Alissa Firsova was born in Moscow, but has lived in England since she was 4.

"I was most inspired by the end of the poem," Firsova says, "because it all leads up to Paradise, where the mother can be reunited with her son. And so I decided to focus on that and make the whole piece really positive, as opposed to a lot of Stabat Maters where they're concentrating on the weeping, weeping. And I think we've had enough of that in our world."

The British choral group called The Sixteen has been singing the new settings of the Stabat Mater. "What we were looking for from these three new commissions was something that was very spiritual, very mystical," says the group's director, Harry Christophers. They recorded the new works for an album titled Stabat Mater: Spirit, Strength & Sorrow.

British composer Matthew Martin borrows music from a simple Catholic hymn called "Stabat Mater," while focusing on the variety of drama inherent in the text.

"In the Stabat Mater you have a range of emotions," Christophers says. "The mother weeping over her son and the range of emotions it goes through is quite amazing. Mothers suffer in all sorts of ways, through war, through violence. Every mother can tell a tale."

For Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits, working in a language beside his own provided a new challenge, but one tempered by the wealth of folk melodies from his homeland.

"It somehow comes unconsciously to my music, using Estonian folk tunes or scales from our folk tunes," Kõrvits says. "In the Stabat Mater I used a scale from Southeast Estonia, which is actually very Oriental. People use them in sad songs, like lamentations or if someone has died."

Kõrvits says the key, for him, comes at the last page. "The three 'Amens' I wrote at the very end," he says, "was a kind of goodbye for me to this text. Also I felt very thankful."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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