Stabat Mater for soprano, alto, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra op. 53 (1914-1916)

“It is one of those musical revelations of the highest order, which fully deserve to be classed as a masterpiece,” says Stanisław Golachowski in his monograph. The work was written for a number of reasons. One of them was a commission placed with Szymanowski by a patron of the arts, Bronisław Krystall, to compose a Requiem in memory of his wife, the violinist Izabella Krystall, who died prematurely. This idea fitted in with the composer’s earlier intention, which was to write a larger religious composition – this was to be a work which combined religious content with Polish folk motifs.
In his correspondence with Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, the composer mentioned a Chłopskie requiem [Peasant requiem], through which would echo his favourite Gorzkie żale [Bitter Sorrow], sung somewhere in a little rustic church. Later, the composer’s attention was drawn to the exquisite – in his words – Polish translation of the Latin sequence Stabat Mater (which after the Trent Council was included in liturgy as a hymn). This translation, by the poet Józef Jankowski, enchanted the composer by its directness of expression, simplicity and particularly Polish sensibility. He decided to create music to this text, which would be nationalistic in character, but far removed from both the “official” liturgical music, and literal borrowings from folklore.
However, direct inspiration for writing this work was the tragic death of Szymanowski’s niece, Alusia Bartoszewiczówna (hit on the head by the falling figure of St Stanisław Kostka during a visit to a Lvov monastery, on 23 June 1925). The composer talked about all these matters in an interview given to Mateusz Gliński in “Muzyka”, in November 1926: “My decision to write a religious work was influenced by a whole range of reasons, from inner personal experiences to external life circumstances which, last winter, made me put aside for the time being other “secular works” which had already been started, and devote myself exclusively to Stabat Mater.”
The first drafts of the work were written in the Spring of 1925. The score was being written from 20 January to 2 March 1926.
The work was dedicated Pamięci Izabelli Krystallowej [To the Memory of Izabella Krystall] (nb. Szymanowski did not consult with Bronisław Krystall, who commissioned the work, about the change of the originally planned composition from a Requiem to Stabat Mater, which the latter originally resented; the composer dedicated his Rymy dziecięce [Childrens' Rhymes] to the memory of Alusia. The autograph of the score which, by the terms of the contract between the composer and the commissioning party belonged to Bronisław Krystall, fortunately survived the war and was purchased in 1961 by the National Library. It is written in black ink (the Latin text in red ink). The manuscript, bound in brown leather, underwent conservation in the 1980s. Apart from the authograph held by the National Library, drafts of the work have also been preserved; these are held at the Archive of Polish Composers at the University Library in Warsaw; the manuscript of the piano reduction is held in the collection of the Iwaszkiewicz Museum in Stawisko; there is also a copy of the score held by the Library of the Polish Musical Publishing House in Kraków. The work was published in volume seven of the Works of Karol Szymanowski.

Stabat Mater for soprano, alto, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra makes use of the words of the famous medieval sequence, which meditates on the despair of the Mother of the crucified Jesus, present during his torment. Szymanowski used the text of the contemporary Polish translation by Józef Jankowski (1865-1935), but outside Poland the work tends to be performed with the original Latin text. Stabat Mater has a particular and important position in Szymanowski’s creative development, in view of the great artistic effect achieved here through a very sophisticated selection of means of expression. The great emotional power of the music is revealed here without recourse to exuberant gestures, impressive timbral effects or an accumulation of sophisticated chords. The deep, penetrating feeling seeks a direct outlet through simplicity – melody, harmony, facture, often even rhythmic pulse – and concentration. In striving for such an ideal, Szymanowski turned toward archaisation; work on the composition was preceded by an examination of the music of the Renaissance, and Polish Renaissance in particular. Traces of this are clearly discernible in the harmonic language of the work, in the preference for triads (not linked according to the classical convention), single thirds and empty fifths, although the archaic timbre is mixed here with contemporary, fresh combinations of sound. The exceptional sparsity of musical devices and avoidance of brilliance are strikingly apparent even at first glance of the score, which is very modest. However, and this should be strongly emphasised, the external, at times ascetic severity of the musical shape and manner of expression are exquisitely combined with the inner warmth and subtle tenderness of the content. It is perhaps exactly that special, attractive combination of apparent oppositions – severity of form and tenderness of expression – which so easily moves the listener and makes audiences react to Stabat Mater with greater warmth than to any other of Szymanowski’s works. The perfect union of all these features, together with a masterly proportion of each sound, can be heard particularly clearly in the magnificent first part – for solo soprano, female voice choir and orchestra. The 17-bar orchestral introduction immediately rivets attention by the original beauty and depth of the ascetic passage based on the Arabic-Persian scale, with tightly woven flute and clarinet parts; a few notes create an unforgettable mood. Each successive element of this developing musical thought – the sound of the chord at the end of a sentence, the oboe colour on the note E sharp which begins a variant of the theme, the entry of the strings with the solo of the violin together with an unexpected turn of the melody, the gloomy descent of parallel thirds in the clarinet – each of these seems to be of enormous importance, and enraptures with a rare, noble beauty and expression. Out of this introduction grows the modest, modal, and grief-filled melody of the soprano (subtly coloured by the choir) with the words:

Stała Matka bolejąca
koło krzyża łzy lejąca,
gdy na krzyżu wisiał Syn.

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.

In the middle episode the bass ostinato with harp, maximally sparse but extremely effective, becomes the background for a touching, wave-like wail – singing with a repeated marvellous dissonance of the soprano F over the choral F sharp:

O, jak smutna, jak podcięta
była Matka Boża święta,
cicha w załamaniu rąk.

O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest
of the sole-begotten One.

The second part (baritone, choir and orchestra) introduces a harsh and threatening orchestra ostinato on secundal harmony. The scanty melody of the soloist would be reminiscent of a Gregorian plainchant if it were not for the overlapping simple, persistent rhythm of the accompaniment.

I któż, widząc tak cierpiącą,
łzą nie zaćmi się gorącą…

Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep…

After a moment, the choir joins in with harsh, rhythmic chords which sound like the shout in highland chants. After a polyphonic episode which intensifies the dramatic tension, there follows a powerful culmination: the baritone and the choir, accompanied fortissimo by the whole orchestra, in a monotonously pulsating rhythm, eject the words:

Za ludzkiego rodu winy
jak katowan był jedyny,
męki każdy niosła dział..

For the sings of His own nation,
she saw Jesus wracked with torment,
all with scourges rent…

The emphatic striking of the choir’s persistent tertian motif G-E-G-E, the powerful sound of the chords and the unchanging, march-like rhythm, create an impression of some kind of ecstasy – harsh, barbaric, frightening.
While the text of the first two parts, which describes the tragedy “close up”, imposes a music which is full of living, real, purely human feelings, the later parts have more of the character of a prayer and Christian reflection on the drama of Golgotha, and a desire to get closer to it. The lyrical third part (soprano, alto and female choir) draws one’s attention through the cantilena melody of the alto in a focused, polyphonic dialogue with the clarinet:

O Matko, źródło wszechmiłości,
daj mi uczuć moc żałości,
niechaj z Tobą dźwignę ból.

O thou Mother! fount of love!
touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:

Both voices are within B-major or B-minor, although their harsh interplay is far from the traditional style and taste. However, this harshness gives way later – with the entry of the strings and the choir – to a growing softness and sweetness, in spite of the more modern sonorities appearing in the orchestra. At the end there is an attractive return to the thin, sparing facture and quiet melody.
In the fourth part the orchestra grows silent: the base is provided by the a cappella choir, overlapped by the solos of the soprano and the alto:

Spraw, niech płaczę z Tobą razem,
krzyża zamknę się obrazem
aż po mój ostatni dech.

Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live

This is the most archaized part of the work, clearly reminiscent of the style of the Renaissance, particularly that of Wacław of Szamotuły, although not devoid of bold chromatic steps. It also contains phrases closer to the Medieval style as in the first sentence, where apart from triads there appear empty parallel fifths – however, used in such a way that they do not in any way spoil the aesthetic unity of the passage. In order to appreciate the taste and artistic quality of this fragment, so rich in detail, one would have to halt at every successive phrase and progression of voices and chords. The fifth part (baritone, choir and orchestra) strikes one with its “masculine” character, similar to the second part. It begins with the powerful, threatening and harsh basses of the strings in the Lydian scale. The baritone part, on narrow material (pentatonic scale, among other elements) with the words:

Panno słodka, racz mozołem
niech me serce z Tobą społem
na golgocki idzie skłon

Virgin of all virgins blest!
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine.

is surrounded by rough timbre, shorn of any sweetness. The choir repeats in a recitative, in minor rhythmic values, monotonous notes and chords which sound like peasant prayers in a country church, or perhaps even an Orthodox church. The sung parts are threaded through with intrusive orchestral dissonances. The emotional peak is reached in the final segment – the whole orchestra, choir and the soloist fortissimo, in rough parallel chords and simple rhythm, create a severe, caustic sound image, like a vision of some gloomy march with archaic-folk colouring; the last powerful chords of the choir evoke associations with the communal singing of Polish highlanders. The sixth part (all the soloists, choir and orchestra) provides an example of maximal lyrical simplicity. The initial melody of the soprano:

Chrystus niech mi będzie grodem,
krzyż niech będzie mym przewodem

Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
by Thy Cross my victory

is the most popular, and the easiest to remember, theme in the whole work. It is made all the more enthralling by the accompaniment of two clarinets, and at the end of the sentence – the sudden soft entry of the strings. This theme is contained in D-flat major, but one refined hord progression not following traditional principles is sufficient to make the whole melody sound fresh and original. After a somewhat richer polyphony of the alto with the soprano, and again an ascetic baritone episode, the work is crowned with the full, soft sound of the choir, evoking once again the style of the fourth part. The world premiere of Stabat Mater took place, in the absence of the composer, who was ill, on 11 January 1929 at Warsaw Philharmonic; the soloists were: Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska, Halina Leska and Eugeniusz Mossakowski; the conductor was Grzegorz Fitelberg.