• LSO Szymanowski: Stabat Mater

thumb-phpKarol Szymanowski: Stabat Mater
programme note written for
London, 30 and 31 March 2013



Although Szymanowski is best-known for his orchestral and chamber music, his contribution to vocal music was far from negligible.  His collected songs run to four CDs, he wrote several stage-works, notably his opera King Roger, while both the Third Symphony and the ballet Harnasie (Mountain Robbers) include a tenor solo and chorus.  Towards the end of his life, he composed choral music on sacred topics, the two short cantatas Veni Creator and Litany to the Virgin Mary.  Undoubtedly, however, his vocal-instrumental masterpiece is the Stabat Mater (1925-26).  Despite its modest size and forces, it is one of his most expressive and resonant works and is one of the glories of twentieth-century sacred music.

In 1924 Szymanowski was commissioned by the French music patron, the Princesse de Polignac.  In what might regarded as a parallel with Brahms’s German Requiem, or Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, his first real thoughts centred on a Polish ‘Peasant Requiem … some sort of mixture of naive devotion, paganism and a certain rough peasant realism’. In the end, this plan came to nothing, but the following year he accepted a different commission which resulted in the Stabat Mater.  This more modest project developed his vision for a ‘Peasant Requiem’, its six short movements combining folk elements with archaisms such as Renaissance contrapuntal practices.  The orchestra is modest too, not even playing in the fourth movement, and the three soloists (no tenor in this work) sing together only in the last movement.

Szymanowski was spurred on by the Polish translation by Józef Jankowski, whose poetic imagery spoke more vividly to him than did the Latin.  The poignancy of the opening bars – its subdued register and keening harmonies – anticipates the text’s pain.  But Szymanowski also brings a compelling beauty to Mary’s lament, as the melody for the solo soprano (supported by the choral sopranos and altos) movingly demonstrates.  The tolling bass line of the second movement (baritone and chorus) upholds a more declamatory mode, building to a sonorous climax.

The solo contralto opens the third movement, in plangent duet with a clarinet.  The entry of solo soprano and female chorus, pianissimo, is breathtaking.  The prayerful heart of the Stabat Mater is the fourth movement, composed for a cappella chorus joined partway through by the female soloists.  This essentially homophonic music, with its wondrous chord sequences, brings to mind the church songs that also inspired Szymanowski, as he once commented: ‘The essential content of the hymn is so much deeper than its external dramaturgy … one should preserve a state of quiet concentration and avoid obtrusive, garish elements’.

The baritone solo of the fifth movement, accompanied by chanting chorus, returns to provide the second climactic moment of the Stabat Mater.  The sixth movement brings reflection and an opening for the solo soprano which Szymanowski described as being ‘the most beautiful melody I have ever managed to write’ (so beautiful that it influenced Górecki in his Third Symphony, often regarded as the Stabat Mater’s natural successor).  With soaring melody and deep cadences, as well as a brief return of a cappella singing, the work resolves on a major triad that resonates into silence.

© 2012 Adrian Thomas


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