PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater / Salve Regina in C minor
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Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)
A wide mouth with a pronounced lower lip; the left leg visiblyshorter than the right: the only portrait posterity has of Giovanni BattistaPergolesi is a drawing by a Roman caricaturist called Leone Ghezzi. The artistand the composer had become acquainted two years before the latter's earlydeath. Ghezzi confirmed that Pergolesi had had a serious problem with one ofhis legs. It may further be assumed, from the fact that the boy was confirmedwhen only fifteen months old, that he was then gravely ill: religiousprecautions such as this were only resorted to when a child's life was in danger.
Considering his apparently very delicate constitution, it isall the more astonishing how much Giovanni Battista Pergolesi achieved in thebrief span of life allotted to him. Born on 4 January 1710 at Jesi, near Ancona, he received his early musical education from the local cathedral organist. These lessonsmust have been extremely successful, because in 1726, when Pergolesi went to Naples, he was already a highly competent violinist. Here, at the foot of Vesuvius, heattended violin classes at the Conservatorio dei Poveri (Conservatory for thePoor) and also received training in composition. His first authenticated work,the cantata O salutaris hostia
, is dated 1729. Two years later a sacreddrama and an oratorio were produced in the monastery of Sant' Agnello Maggiorein Naples. There followed two further stage works and a Mass in F
commissionedby the city, which gave the composer's name welcome publicity. 1832 saw thecompletion of Lo frate'nnamorato
, a delightful and extremely successful comedyabout a friar in love, composed to a libretto in Neapolitan dialect.
In 1733 Pergolesi produced one of his most famous works.
Following the customs of the time he filled the interval in his first opera Ilprigioniero superbo
with the entertaining intermezzo La serva padrona
(TheMaid Turned Mistress), and this entr'acte for two singers and a silent servantproved a resounding success. Even in France, which had a completely differentperception of opera, this Italian work left a lasting impression: some twentyyears after Pergolesi's death the so-called querelle des bouffons
eruptedin Paris, dividing the partisans of French and Italian opera into two camps, adispute further exacerbated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's one-acter Le devin du village
Pergolesi was unable to repeat the triumph of La servapadrona
with his next operas. After a short period in the service of acertain Duke Maddalani in Rome in 1734 he returned to Naples. He was now 24. In1736 he withdrew into the Capuchin monastery in Pozzuoli to try to strengthenhis weak constitution, and here he wrote his last works, the Stabat Mater
forsoprano, alto, strings and organ, and the Salve Regina in C minor
forsoprano, strings and continuo. He died on 16 March 1736 aged just 26.
The Stabat Mater
was written to a commission from theConfraternit?á dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo, which made it a particularlyprestigious project. The new work was intended for use by the brotherhood asmusic for Good Friday to replace the Stabat Mater
by AlessandroScarlatti, which by now was rather old-fashioned albeit still highlyconsidered. Pergolesi acceped the challenge and completed his compositionwithin a short time, even though, as we know from a report by a Neapolitanmusician, he was confined to bed with a temperature.
The result of his efforts is impressive. Pergolesi herespeaks a simple, natural language, noticeably different from his operaticstyle. Subsequent musicians found the sheer economy of his requirements (four voices)too modest: Johann Adam Hiller (1728-1804) felt impelled to elaborate it byadding flutes and oboes, Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) considered additional windinstruments essential, and Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) introduced male voices.
The Russian composer Alexey Lvov capped them all by reworking it for soloists,chorus, and an orchestra including trumpets, trombones and timpani. It is hardto imagine the din that was imposed on Pergolesi's tender and intimate composition.
Pergolesi's original Stabat Mater
is as far as it is possibleto imagine from this rowdy Russian romanticism. It does contain operaticmoments which conservative critics considered provocative, as in the Quaemoerebat et dolebat
(Who grieved and lamented) and the duet Inflammatuset accensus
(Inflamed and set on fire). But one should never pay too muchattention to the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth of such reactionarymoralists, since even in Christian religious contexts the pendulum constantlyswings impartially between emotion and reason, between sensuality and asceticism,and Pergolesi's splendid composition marks a transition that derives itsspecial charm from precisely this blend of the old and new styles, of religionas a rational and as an emotional exercise.
Consider, after all, the type of voices the monks commissioningthe work would have had performing their new Stabat Mater
. As womenusually had to keep silent in church, the soprano and alto voices would havebeen provided by male singers in the stile antico
(the ancient Romansalready knew how to achieve this); although the topic of castration wasofficially sidelined for the best of motives, there was still a surprisinglyplentiful supply of high voices whose geographical source within Italy has apparently never been discovered. The famous English travelling musicologist anddiarist Charles Burney was one of those who were led up the garden path whenseeking more precise information as to exactly where and how these fine treblevoices were preserved into adulthood.
Today there are other and more humane ways of achieving thedesired effect, ways which are more appealing to those concerned. Theoreticalresearch into vocal techniques and performance practice, and the practicalapplication of such research, have led to astonishing achievements, as in thecase of the two singers involved in this recording, whose vocal prowess is tobe thanked for the fact that Pergolesi's Stabat Mater
can now be heardin the version in which its composer would have liked to hear it. Moving stylisticallybetween the right-angles of rationality and the rapt undulations of spontaneousfaith, this tribute to the Mother of God, sorrowing over the death of her son,has a quality that is almost astringent.
It is only human to press for absolute certainties thatcannot be attained. Some would like to establish who was the first originalgenius in musical history, and Pergolesi would certainly be amongst the most likelycandidates. It is also tempting to wonder what were the last words, or the lastmusical thoughts, of the dying man. Such considerations seem so infinitely importantthat scholars are still arguing whether Pergolesi's very last work was the StabatMater
or the Salve Regina in C minor
. Is it not enough to know that it was these two compositions, bothconcerning the Virgin Mary, that accompanied the 26-year-old's leave-taking ofthis world?It may well be true to say that in one's final moments onehas a glimpse of what lies ahead. Yet even without any metaphysical ortranscendental speculation it is clear that the young composer, in this cry forhelp to the Virgin Mary, mother of mercy, stood at the threshold of the Age ofSensibility. The chromatic sequences, sighing figures and understated operaticeffects, together with an almost Christmassy pastoral atmosphere, foreshadowthe masters of Viennese Classicism, yet the music has a thorough contrapuntalgrounding that gives a firmly baroque, and brilliant, combi