Music review: a new setting of the Stabat Mater by the Marian Consort

by
06 April 2018

Roderic Dunnett hears a new setting of Stabat Mater in Oxford

ISTOCK

Merton College, Oxford

Merton College, Oxford

THE Marian Consort, one of the many gifted young ensembles that have emerged in the past decade, are celebrating their tenth anniversary this year. To celebrate it, they have commissioned, aptly, a new setting of the Stabat Mater, given its world première as part of the thriving annual Passiontide at Merton festival, at Merton College, Oxford.

Their choice of composer, like their choice of Passiontide text, was inspired. Gabriel Jackson has made an impact like few others for his commitment over three decades to sacred choral music. Indeed, Latin texts figure prominently in his output: O nata lux and O sacrum convivium were among his earliest; Aquinas’s O salutaris hostia and now O quam gloriosum, famously set by Victoria, are among the most engaging of his recent settings.

His Evening Canticles (for Norwich, Truro, and later Tewkesbury) exemplify his growing and, perhaps, unique recognition as a top-ranking church-music composer. All the great Marian texts have been set by him, with great delicacy and patent understanding. A former chorister of Canterbury Cathedral, he composed Thomas, Jewel of Canterbury in 2004. Recent substantial works are The Lamentations of Jeremiah, The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and a recent Mass for All Saints.

Jackson’s musical voice is so bold and fresh that it is essentially his own. One might make allusion to the current Baltic composers, but that would be to undervalue his daring and originality. He stands outside any mainstream. Perhaps, if one wanted to make a comparison for his courage to plough his own furrow, one might mention his friend Howard Skempton, to whom Jackson wrote a touching tribute on his 70th birthday last year. But Jackson is his own man.

One has only to hear the first few stanzas of Jackson’s Stabat Mater to realise that we are being led into new paths and fresh insights. One of the most satisfying elements in his treatment of any text is that, though he may draw on a rich kaleidoscope of ideas and techniques, he always ensures that they are deeply relevant to the words that he sets, not purely gratuitous or decorative.

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The poem Stabat Mater dolorosa, attributed to the 13th-century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi (though this has been disputed), is replete with angst, grief, yearning, anguish, and empathy. All of these summon forth different forms of musical expression, which today (unlike the setting by Palestrina, which was heard earlier and which the Marian Consort’s conductor Rory McCleery deliberately kept forthrightly declaimed) suggest a range of emotive colourings and contrasts.

Jackson’s great success is that he gives us these — the prolonged anguish and intermittent solace are both palpable — and yet he still manages to preserve an underlying consistency. He controls his material like a Renaissance master. It requires a fine art and meticulous skill to achieve that.

One can only begin to give some feel of this wholly engrossing work. The urgent cries at the outset, the weeping effect, skilfully pared to reduced forces, the pleading upper voices, and the striking semi-staccato of “Quis est homo” include an addi­tional effect, small appoggiaturas or melismata in the middle voices, not prominent but subtly enclosed, and modulated with refinement.

The surprise sudden rise at “subditum”, and the beauteous decoration of “Vidit suum dulcem natum”, supplemented by a wonderfully tragic appendix from the men, “Dum emisit spiritum”, all give some vague feel of the beautifully thought-through intensity of this well-designed first part.

With ten individual voices to draw on, Jackson is able to generate rich chordings; but he still manages to keep them pure: we are spared the slightly spurious added notes that many other composers favour. His use of parallellings, not least in the upper voices, helps to maintain a measure of simplicity at “Eja Mater” and “Fac ut ardeat”. Some splendid, deliberately sonorous men’s singing, with notable crescendi and diminuendi, culminates in a decried, if not quite shouted, “Poenas mecum divide”. Once more, at “Fac me vere”, Jackson makes his effect by the sopranos’ coasting above while tenors and basses sing in broken, jagged sections below; and the men, gently wailing at “In planctu desidero”, again have the grieving underlay at “Fac me tecum plangere”, a background that gradually grows more intense, and possibly complex, but not needlessly so.

The next stanzas are fed by growing hope, and Jackson, responding as ever not just to the words, but to their underlying implications, feeds “Fac me plagis” with growing rapture, cleverly punched out at a repeated “Ob amorem Filii”. It prepares the way for a mighty appeal at “Inflammatus et accensus”, surely the climax in its invocation to the Virgin. The finale is one of the most magical moments in the whole work: “When my body dies”. There is a gentle, tender, exploratory growth as the almost silent choir feels its way to a gloriously expressive resolution, at “Paradisi gloria”.

Varied and eloquent, and beautifully fitted to the text and the drama, this work, devoid of cliché, rich in invention and apt at every stage, is one of those sacred settings that will live on; for it evinces not just eloquence, insight, and an acute sensitivity, but wisdom.

Jackson’s Stabat Mater is to be performed by the Marian Consort at Bath Abbey (15 May); St John’s School, Leatherhead (16 May); the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, Penzance (18 May); St George’s Priory, Dunster (26 May); and St Mary’s, Richmond (2 June). Details of these and other forthcoming works can be found at http://gabrieljackson.london

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