As I mentioned before, I think, in a blog about the International Music Score Project, that service of uploaded public domain music has been quite valuable in getting ready for concert reviews.
Most of the time I know the pieces I’m going to be hearing, but I always learn something by studying them. So yesterday afternoon, I downloaded Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater to get a closer look at it before a concert I’m going to next week.
My usual practice is to bang through the score on the piano as best I can, as well as study it with a recording or just in silence. And today, as I was going through the piece on my trusty beat-up old George Steck, I could only think of one thing: Mozart.
Now one of the things that doesn’t get talked about enough is the influences older composers had on those who followed after them. It’s never really a question (unless it’s Handel) of people actually lifting something; it’s just interesting to find the antecedents to a composer’s style and seek it out, especially when it’s someone little known, or known for the wrong things.
This Stabat Mater was written in 1736 by Giovanna Battista Pergolesi, who also would die that year of tuberculosis at the age of only 26. After his death, many compositions were attributed to him that later scholarship has been able to assign to others.
But not this piece, which was so popular after its composer’s death, and which ultimately became the single most frequently reprinted composition of any kind in the 18th century. One obvious reason must be is that it calls for relatively small forces and it’s not that long, so if you’re the music director of an out-of-the-way church it might have been just the ticket when you needed something special for Holy Week.
Aside from Pergolesi’s annoying formula habits of doing the surprise false-cadence thing (going to VI when you expect i) in his introductions and endings, and of always leading in with a incomplete broken chord before the singers come in, this is indeed a little masterpiece, bold in its semi-operatic arias (Quae moerebat et dolebat) and harmonic richness (Fac ut portem Christi mortem), and a beautiful reading of the dark but passionate poem that serves as its text.
One other thing it seems to have, and this is before Michael Haydn (the first movement of whose Requiem had to be the model for Mozart) and Florian Gassmann, to cite another composer scholars have pointed to as progenitors of Mozart: A moody kind of sacred style, one in which there’s a kind of harmonic flavor that’s sad but not depressing, mournful but not hopeless. You can hear it in the O quam tristis et afflictis, and this very same kind of writing seems to have been absorbed into Mozart’s bones, because that very quality of sound is all over a work such as the Mass in C minor.
Other little things here strike me as Mozartean, too, such as the dramatic chord sequences after the back-and-forth 16ths in the Sancta mater, and even the idea of the Quae moereabat, the choice to go bouncy and cheerfully virile there seems very like the kind of off-the-wall thing our man from Salzburg would do.
I know a lot of the things in this piece and Mozart’s were common possessions of all composers, but as I played the Pergolesi it just seemed to me logical that a piece this well-known in Mozart’s lifetime would become part of his compositional DNA. It’s probably time for me to do some more research on the other composers that came before Mozart and see where I might be wrong about Pergolesi.
And yet I can’t help but think that somewhere in the matrix of music that underlay not just the sacred music but all of Mozart’s music was this lovely church work written by another man who died far too young but left a little something for us to remember him by.
Here’s the first of several parts of the Stabat Mater from a YouTube upload, apparently the 1983 performance by Rene Jacobs and Concerto Vocale: