About this Recording
8.557447 - PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater / Salve Regina in C Minor

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)
Stabat Mater
Salve Regina


A wide mouth with a pronounced lower lip; the left leg visibly shorter than the right: the only portrait posterity has of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi is a drawing by a Roman caricaturist called Leone Ghezzi. The artist and the composer had become acquainted two years before the latter's early death. Ghezzi confirmed that Pergolesi had had a serious problem with one of his legs. It may further be assumed, from the fact that the boy was confirmed when only fifteen months old, that he was then gravely ill: religious precautions such as this were only resorted to when a child's life was in danger.

Considering his apparently very delicate constitution, it is all the more astonishing how much Giovanni Battista Pergolesi achieved in the brief 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 lessons must 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, he attended violin classes at the Conservatorio dei Poveri (Conservatory for the Poor) and also received training in composition. His first authenticated work, the cantata O salutaris hostia, is dated 1729. Two years later a sacred drama and an oratorio were produced in the monastery of Sant' Agnello Maggiore in Naples. There followed two further stage works and a Mass in F commissioned by the city, which gave the composer's name welcome publicity. 1832 saw the completion of Lo frate'nnamorato, a delightful and extremely successful comedy about 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 Il prigioniero superbo with the entertaining intermezzo La serva padrona (The Maid Turned Mistress), and this entr'acte for two singers and a silent servant proved a resounding success. Even in France, which had a completely different perception of opera, this Italian work left a lasting impression: some twenty years after Pergolesi's death the so-called querelle des bouffons erupted in Paris, dividing the partisans of French and Italian opera into two camps, a dispute further exacerbated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's one-acter Le devin du village in 1752.

Pergolesi was unable to repeat the triumph of La serva padrona with his next operas. After a short period in the service of a certain Duke Maddalani in Rome in 1734 he returned to Naples. He was now 24. In 1736 he withdrew into the Capuchin monastery in Pozzuoli to try to strengthen his weak constitution, and here he wrote his last works, the Stabat Mater for soprano, alto, strings and organ, and the Salve Regina in C minor for soprano, strings and continuo. He died on 16 March 1736 aged just 26.

The Stabat Mater was written to a commission from the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo, which made it a particularly prestigious project. The new work was intended for use by the brotherhood as music for Good Friday to replace the Stabat Mater by Alessandro Scarlatti, which by now was rather old-fashioned albeit still highly considered. Pergolesi acceped the challenge and completed his composition within a short time, even though, as we know from a report by a Neapolitan musician, he was confined to bed with a temperature.

The result of his efforts is impressive. Pergolesi here speaks a simple, natural language, noticeably different from his operatic style. Subsequent musicians found the sheer economy of his requirements (four voices) too modest: Johann Adam Hiller (1728-1804) felt impelled to elaborate it by adding flutes and oboes, Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) considered additional wind instruments 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 hard to imagine the din that was imposed on Pergolesi's tender and intimate composition.

Pergolesi's original Stabat Mater is as far as it is possible to imagine from this rowdy Russian romanticism. It does contain operatic moments which conservative critics considered provocative, as in the Quae moerebat et dolebat (Who grieved and lamented) and the duet Inflammatus et accensus (Inflamed and set on fire). But one should never pay too much attention to the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth of such reactionary moralists, since even in Christian religious contexts the pendulum constantly swings impartially between emotion and reason, between sensuality and asceticism, and Pergolesi's splendid composition marks a transition that derives its special charm from precisely this blend of the old and new styles, of religion as a rational and as an emotional exercise.

Consider, after all, the type of voices the monks commissioning the work would have had performing their new Stabat Mater. As women usually had to keep silent in church, the soprano and alto voices would have been provided by male singers in the stile antico (the ancient Romans already knew how to achieve this); although the topic of castration was officially sidelined for the best of motives, there was still a surprisingly plentiful supply of high voices whose geographical source within Italy has apparently never been discovered. The famous English travelling musicologist and diarist Charles Burney was one of those who were led up the garden path when seeking more precise information as to exactly where and how these fine treble voices were preserved into adulthood.

Today there are other and more humane ways of achieving the desired effect, ways which are more appealing to those concerned. Theoretical research into vocal techniques and performance practice, and the practical application of such research, have led to astonishing achievements, as in the case of the two singers involved in this recording, whose vocal prowess is to be thanked for the fact that Pergolesi's Stabat Mater can now be heard in the version in which its composer would have liked to hear it. Moving stylistically between the right-angles of rationality and the rapt undulations of spontaneous faith, 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 that cannot be attained. Some would like to establish who was the first original genius in musical history, and Pergolesi would certainly be amongst the most likely candidates. It is also tempting to wonder what were the last words, or the last musical thoughts, of the dying man. Such considerations seem so infinitely important that scholars are still arguing whether Pergolesi's very last work was the Stabat Mater or the Salve Regina in C minor. Is it not enough to know that it was these two compositions, both concerning the Virgin Mary, that accompanied the 26-year-old's leave-taking of this world?

It may well be true to say that in one's final moments one has a glimpse of what lies ahead. Yet even without any metaphysical or transcendental speculation it is clear that the young composer, in this cry for help to the Virgin Mary, mother of mercy, stood at the threshold of the Age of Sensibility. The chromatic sequences, sighing figures and understated operatic effects, together with an almost Christmassy pastoral atmosphere, foreshadow the masters of Viennese Classicism, yet the music has a thorough contrapuntal grounding that gives a firmly baroque, and brilliant, combination of structure and emotional content. Small wonder that Pergolesi's Salve Regina and Stabat Mater became extraordinarily popular from early on: their multi-layered Janus-like quality could not fail to satisfy connoisseurs, amateurs and dreamy enthusiasts alike.

Cris Posslac
English version by Celia Skrine

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