The well-known medieval poem ``Stabat Mater Dolorosa'' has given rise to innumerable settings over the past 500 years. Composers as disparate as Palestrina, Haydn, Dvorak, Poulenc and Patterson have all been drawn to the challenge of realising in musical terms the wealth of imagery in this meditation on the Crucifixion and the sorrows of the Mother of Christ. The Christmas ``Stabat Mater Speciosa'' is much less well-known. It probably dates from the 13th or 14th century, and is a direct paraphrase of the Good Friday poem, with the scene changed from the anguished atmosphere of Golgatha to the simplicity of the stable in Bethlehem. The only setting which I have come across is the hymn-like one which Liszt includes in his huge oratorio ``Christus''.
While not of the same poetic distinction as its more famous model, it nevertheless offers a good deal of scope to a composer. From the scene-setting of the opening verses, through the description of the Adoration, to the more meditative later sections with their references to Christ's eventual suffering and death, the poem opens up a wealth of musical possibilities. As in many of my works, I have taken the poem as the starting-point and connecting thread for a large-scale construction to explore related ideas through contrasting poetry. The medieval Latin text is placed in relief by four early English carols, and the universality of the Christmas message is reflected in two carols from Italy and France (together with their traditional melodies).
The musical fabric is held together by the melody of the medieval carol ``Angelus ad Virginem''. For much of the cantata reference to the tune is more structural than audibly apparent. But in the second half of the work it becomes ever clearer, until, at the climax of the last movement, the solo soprano sings it complete over the full choir and orchestra.
The six movements, which run without a break, are:
I Stabat Mater speciosa. ``Radiant was the Mother, standing by the stall. Who could not share the joy of Christ's Mother playing with her baby?''
Carol: ``Sweet was the song the Virgin sang''
II Pro peccatis suae gentis. Chorus: ``Aging man by young girl standing. They were dumb-struck in their hearts.''
Solo: ``Thus rockyd she hyr chyld, By by lullaby.''
III Eia, Mater, fons amoris. Solo: ``Mother, source of love, take the blows He suffered for me.''
Chorus: ``Sleep lovely babe. So soon you will learn to suffer.''
Carol: ``Behold, a silly tender babe.''
IV Fac me vere congaudere. Chorus: ``Let me join thy joyous singing.''
V Virgo virginum praeclara. Solo: ``Peerless maiden, I am burning and on fire. Let me leap and dance for joy.''
Chorus: ``Between the ox and the donkey sleeps the little child. Thousands of angels fly around this great God of Love.''
Carol: ``Oh, my dear hert, young Jesus sweit.''
VI Fac me nato custodiri. ``May thy Son shield me. When my body dies, may my soul see a vision of thy Son.''
© Christopher Brown 2008