"Both singers are intensely sensitive in the six descriptive and six pleadingly prayerful verses of the Stabat Mater. They have no inhibitions about Pergolesi's operatic roots...Blaze displays his wide and even vocal range in the Salve Regina, particularly effective in his lowest register." BBC Music Magazine, July 2010
Pergolesi Stabat Mater
Elin Manahan Thomas soprano
Robin Blaze counter tenor
"No sooner had he ceased to live than he became the object of an interest only equal to the indifference shown him in his lifetime."
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was born in Jesi in January 1710, and lived near Naples during the period in which Italy was
a complicated patchwork of small states. After receiving an early musical training at home, the young Pergolesi was sent to the
Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo in 1722, where he could enjoy the thriving musical life of Naples. He studied violin
under Domenico Matteis, Francesco Durante and Francesco Feo, the latter who wrote of his student's exceptional technical and
improvisational skills as a violinist. During this time the Bourbon Prince, Charles iii, settled in the region to re-establish the
Kingdom of Naples as an independent state after fifteen years as an Austrian vice-realm. Pergolesi's music was especially highlighted in the various masses held throughout the city to celebrate this momentous event.
The young composer worked for a number of patrons in the vicinity, and spent the last two years of his life serving Domenico Marzio Caraffa, the Duke of Maddaloni. At this time he devoted himself almost entirely to the interpretation of liturgical texts. Pergolesi sought respite from his debilitating illness of tuberculosis in a Franciscan monastery in Pozzuoli, on the Bay of Naples. He most likely composed his four chamber cantatas at this monastery, which were edited immediately after his premature death in 1736, and included the Salve Regina in C minor and the Stabat Mater.
Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, which depicts the moving image of Mary grieving at the foot of the cross, is highly dramatic in its
narrative and musical style. The sequence of Latin verses was originally composed by Jacobus de Benedictis in the 13th century, in commemoration of the sorrows of the Virgin Mary. The work unfolds in a series of twelve solos and duets for two high voices with string accompaniment. Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), also a native Neapolitan composer, used the same forces in his Stabat Mater written around 1700. It is believed that Pergolesi's setting was commissioned by the Duke of Maddaloni to replace Scarlatti's work, which was considered a little old fashioned for the nobleman's contemporary taste. Pergolesi's version clearly attests to his abundant melodic gifts, a contrapuntal ingenuity, in addition to a demonstration of profound harmonic skills. The frequent suspensions and the gradual blending of one chord into another contrast greatly with the cleaner harmony changes favoured by the more austere North European approach of Buxtehude, Bach and others. Following Pergolesi's death, the Stabat Mater became one of the most widely disseminated and frequently printed manuscripts of the 18th century. Johann Sebastian Bach's German setting of Psalm 51 (Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden), a tribute to Pergolesi in the form of a musical parody, is an example of the numerous arrangements and adaptations it inspired.
Pergolesi's posthumous celebrity status was such a magnet in the music world that, hoping to reap large financial profits, publishers and opera directors alike attributed his name to hundreds of vocal and instrumental works by lesser-known composers. For instance, the only extant manuscript of the Flute Concerto in G major is housed in the Library in Stockholm, quite a distance from Naples. Initially linked to Pergolesi, this G major concerto and the Flute Concerto in D major are most probably compositions by some other Italian compatriots who hoped the hallowed name would help promote and sell their music. Nonetheless, the G major concerto is an instantly appealing work with its lively and virtuosic outer movements, conveying the real essence of the baroque Italian concerto style. The expressive richness of the slow movement with its haunting melody passed between the flute and violin manifests itself in a gleaming lyricism that cannot fail to leave a memorable impression.
Pergolesi followed the Neapolitan tradition of his predecessors, composing primarily vocal works for the stage and church. However, of the some sixty-odd instrumental works falsely bearing his name (and now known to have been written after his death), the Sinfonia in F major for cello and continuo is undoubtedly authentic based on extensive research of his handwriting and the manuscript's watermarks. The piece was most likely intended for the Duke of Maddaloni, who was an amateur cellist. Sinfonia as a title for a solo instrumental work may be misleading, but it follows essentially the sonata di chiesa format of four contrasting movements, here: ComodoAllegro-Adagio-Presto. It possesses an unmistakeable charm and spontaneity, and gives the cello compass to sing and be incisive. The final movement of the Sinfonia may be particularly familiar to 20th and 21st century ears from the Pulcinella score Igor Stravinsky composed for the Ballets Russes production at the Paris Opéra in 1920. The impresario Sergei Diaghilev persuaded Stravinsky (after Manuel de Falla declined) to arrange and base his music on manuscripts he believed to be entirely by Pergolesi. The Italian baroque composer's influence and mystique were still an inspiration some two hundred years later! After Stravinsky viewed the manuscripts, he "fell in love." Stravinsky re-orchestrated the Presto for trombone and double bass solos in the ballet, yet each note of Pergolesi is still present.
Like the Stabat Mater, the Salve Regina was also a product of Pergolesi's final few weeks at Pozzuoli. The Salve Regina is one of the four great Marian antiphons sung every day to close the liturgical offices. In the early part of the 18th century in Italy, these antiphons eulogizing the Virgin were normally set in the style of solo motets, the prose text being divided into several sections to produce a series of stylistically and texturally contrasted movements. Pergolesi originally wrote his Salve Regina for soprano in C minor, but it was soon adopted in a version in F minor for alto, as heard on this recording. In fact, so popular was this work, one can research its ninety-two sources, transposed into six different keys. There are no fewer than thirty-eight sources for the version in F minor alone.
Although Pergolesi's fame was restricted during his lifetime to the confines of Rome and Naples, his reputation certainly eclipsed most other composers in the second half of the eighteenth century. Ever the observant music critic, Charles Burney commented: "The instant [Pergolesi's] death was known, all Italy manifested an eager desire to hear and possess his productions." This turned out to be the case throughout Europe.
© Ashley Solomon & Jennifer Morsches