Stabat Mater Dolorosa


Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week – that time between the triumphant entrance of our Saviour into Jerusalem and his Crucifixion – and we attended a crowded church at Corsena for the event. Palms are not normally used in this part of the world – olives are, yet another symbol of peace. We could have taken our olives from our orto but they were readily available at the church entrance. There were, however, some beautifully knitted palms available too.


There was no sermon – the Gospel of the Passion of Christ took up all that space and it was eloquently read out by four speakers – simple but effective and very moving in this beautiful Romanesque church, which is Bagni di Lucca’s old parish church.

The previous evening we’d gone to a premiere of our friend Piero Nissim’s Stabat Mater set in the splendid great hall of the archbishop’s palace at Lucca. Piero (who I have already mentioned in my post at comes from an old-established Jewish family from Livorno. He is a singer, balladeer, puppeteer, author and much more. We had not realised that he was also a composer on a considerable classical scale.

How wonderful it is that it was this Jewish person who set that most wonderful poem Stabat Mater, about the sorrows of the Virgin Mary at seeing her dead son at the foot of the cross, written by Jacopone da Todi, and that it was the Archbishop of Lucca who provided the setting for its first performance! True ecumenicist thinking here!

Jacopone da Todi born in Umbria near Perugia wrote that most moving of verses of which is this English translation:

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
and now at length the sword has passed.

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

Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.

Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?

Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?

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

She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hangs in desolation,
and Till His spirit forth He sent.

O thou Mother! Fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above;
make my heart with thine accord:

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.

Holy Mother! Pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Saviour crucified:

Let me share with thee His pain,
which for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.

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

By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.

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

Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.

Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away;

Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
lest in flames I burn and die,
in His awful Judgment Day.

Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
be Thy Mother my defence;
be Thy Cross my victory;

While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.

(Translation by Edward Caswall)
The hymn, or sequence, is certainly one of the most powerful of all religious poems and is a meditation on the suffering of MaryJesus Christ‘s mother, during his crucifixion. Liturgically, it is sung on the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Dolorosa has been set to music by many composers, with the most famous settings being those by Palestrina, PergolesiAlessandro Scarlatti and Domenico ScarlattiVivaldiHaydn, Rossini, Poulenc, and Dvořák.

Let me say emphatically that you do not have to be a religious person to be affected by this most poignant of poems ever written. For me it is addressed to all mothers who have lost their sons through disease, war or crime. It is a truly inspirational universal work and it is no wonder that it has influenced the greatest of composers to set it to music. In my collecting passion I have amassed no less than forty-six different version of it and at the moment am listening to Bononcini’s setting, a musician from Modena, who composed his version for Vienna in 1711. My all-time favourite remains Szymanowski’s Polish composition.

Piero Nissim’s version for four voices and organ set Jacopone’s verses in a lyrical, meditative strophic frame and was profoundly felt by both singers and audience

As if I couldn’t get enough of the “Stabat Mater” next evening we went to Viareggio to hear another première of this unearthly work, that by Marco Trasatti. This was set for chorus, soloists, flute and organ and presented a quite different aspect of this work – more dramatic but equally intensely moving. So moving, in fact, that there didn’t seem to be an eye that wasn’t red in the church when the work ended. That is not being sentimental about the music – it is about the music having incredible sentiment.

Piero’s work will soon be on CD and I hope Trasatti’s too will be there for all to hear.

What was especially remarkable about Marco Trasatti’s  version was the amalgamation of the Stations of the Cross with the verses of the Stabat Mater. In addition, the most wonderful lithographs by Franco Anichini were projected on the church walls with just three colours: black, white, and bright carmine for everything associated with Christ.

It took both of us some time to come down to earth after this wondrous performance of a supremely uplifting work. As it happened, we didn’t come down to earth at all but walked out to the edge of Viareggio’s sea shore to witness a beautiful sunset across the town’s still uncrowded beaches – concluding our evening, of course, by eating a delicious mango, tiramisu and coconut ice-cream on the promenade.

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At this rate, by the end of Holy Week we’ll be completely emotionally exhausted, but contended too, as this week is all about the greatest story, truth, myth, whatever name you like to give to it which surely resounds within the heart of any sentient person, no matter what colour class or creed they may be, who has any pretention of being called human.



3 thoughts on “Stabat Mater Dolorosa

  1. (Reblogged from Francesco Cipriano)
    purtroppo non ho potuto assistere allo Stabat Mater di Nissim perché il concerto a Porcari del nuovo CD di Girolamo Deraco (compositore e socio della Cluster), è iniziato alle 19,30 per concludere alle 21,15.
    Mi fa piacere leggere le tue positive note illustrative come pure quelle dello Stabat Mater di Viareggio, conclusosi con un bel gelato in passeggiata.
    Al solito: una bella pubblicità per la città di Lucca e per la Versilia.
    Un caro saluto.

  2. Pingback: Ask not what your Pumpkin can do for you, ask what you can do for your Pumpkin. | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and Beyond) Part Two

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