The Stabat Mater Dolorosa first appeared in the second half of the 13th century as a lengthy poem set to music, generally attributed to Jacopone da Todi (d. 1306), an Umbrian Franciscan friar. It is one of the countless expressions of the affective piety that characterised Western late-medieval Christianity, encouraging intense and emotional identification (as fellow suffers) with Christ, his mother and other characters in the Christian story, often in minute detail.
The Stabat Mater focuses closely on Mary’s abject sorrow as she stands at the foot of the cross, on which hangs the crucified body of her son. It has received many musical re-settings over the centuries, most famously by Palestrina in around 1590, and Pergolesi (1736), but also by Dvorˇák and Rossini, and in the 20th century, by Szymanowski (1926), Poulenc (1950) and Pärt (1985).
James MacMillan (b. 1959) has a long history of writing in religious musical forms, and his 21st-century Stabat Mater is scored for choir and string orchestra. It was written with the particular strengths of Harry Christopher and The Sixteen in mind. It’s an intense, personal and captivating work, beautifully recorded in the Church of St Augustine’s in Kilburn, London. The interplay between voice and strings is particularly ethereal, with some stunning writing for soprano voice, and this important new work is a welcome addition to the centuries-old canon of religious choral writing.