“Make Me a Bearer of the Death of Christ”

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The Holy Virgin at the cross. © Charles Thibo

History is not without remarkable coincidences. In the year 1685, three great Baroque composers were born: Johann Sebastian Bach in the German town of Eisenach, Georg Friedrich Händel in Halle, some 140 kilometres north-east of Eisenach, and Domenico Scarlatti in Naples, Italy. Domenico Scarlatti was the sixth child of Alessandro Scarlatti, composer of a wonderful “Salve Regina” and the oratorio “O di Betlemme altera”. Tale padre, tale figlio – the French musicologist Adelaïde de Place believes that the son inherited the talent from his father with the additional benefit of genius.

Domenico Scarlatti achieved  fame in the field of sacred music, while his operas are now forgotten and the sonatas for harpsichord and piano he wrote are known mainly to professionals or scholars. He composed one liturgical piece that is praised as one of the ultimate choral works of the 18th century: a “Stabat mater” for ten singers (4 sopranos, 2 altos, 2 tenors and 2 basses) and basso continuo*. It was written most likely in 1715, two years after Scarlatti had been appointed maestro di cappella of the Basilica Giulia in Rome.

Technically speaking, the composition surprises by the well-developed counterpoint* and harmony, rivaling that of contemporary German composers. At times meditative, at times dramatic, at times lyrical, Scarlatti’s “Stabat mater” is a prayer to the Holy Virgin reflecting the different emotions of the believer i. e. the singer. The first stanza* (Stabat mater dolorosa) gives us the setting: Mary is weeping at the foot of the cross, she sees Jesus in pain as he dies.  This merely serves as  an introduction, the perspective shifts from the one of a neutral observer to the one of the believer praying for the strength that Mary displayed at the death of her son (Eja, mater, fons amoris).

Through the mourning (Juxta crucem tecum stare), the singer implores the Holy Virgin: “Make me a bearer of the death of Christ, make me a sharer in his Passion and to ponder his wounds.” Finally the singer asks Mary to protect him at the moment of his own death (Inflamatus et acensus/Fac ut anime donatur Paradisi gloria): “When the body dies, grant that my soul may enter the glory of paradise.” At this point male and female voices alternate to sing the text of the final stanza and an “Amen” that does not belong to the actual prayer “Stabat mater”.

When Scarlatti wrote this piece, his career had not yet started. For sure, Rome was an important post. He was a protégé of the influential Cardinal Ottoboni, who was also Arcangelo Corelli’s patron as we have seen in an earlier post. During this time, he wrote a dozen operas and an oratorium. He met Händel for a musical competition: He and Händel would perform at the organ and the harpsichord. In Rome, he became acquainted with the ambassador of Portugal and in 1719, he left Italy. He was to educate the children of the Portuguese royal court.

A year later he moved on to Spain, where he would stay until his death. In Spain, while serving the Spanish court, he developed his own keyboard style and wrote over 500 sonatas for piano and harpsichord, along with 17 symphonies and concertos. His distinct style made him a very modern composer, who had ventured well beyond the traditional forms of Italian instrumental music. It also made him a demanding composer, as many of the pieces he wrote in Spain require a high degree of virtuosity.

© Charles Thibo

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