Stabat Mater / The Dying Child


Stabat Mater is a 13th-century Christian text portraying the suffering of Mary during Christ's crucifixion. It has been set by many composers over the centuries, including famous works by Palestrina (c.1590), Pergolesi (1736), Dvořák (1877), Verdi (1897), Poulenc (1950), and more recent settings including those by Karl Jenkins (2008) and James MacMillan (2015).

Given the illustrious musical history of this text to which it was proposed that I add, I wanted to find something new in it. Reading the words, I was immediately struck by the dramatic context. It begins "Stabat Mater dolorosa...", i.e., "The sorrowful mother was standing...", and it describes Mary standing at the foot of the cross on which Jesus Christ - her son, of course - was dying. Therefore, even leaving aside that this is not simply another victim of Roman capital punishment, but Christ himself, this is a tragic scene: a mother weeping over the untimely death of her child. That is the aspect of the text I wanted to explore in this work.

The most obvious thing to say about the Stabat Mater text is that it's in Latin (and indeed most other composers' settings have stuck to the untranslated Latin). The ancient language gives the words a timelessness and dignity - of being not dead, but monumental or carved in stone, to paraphrase Stravinsky's comments on the sung part of the text for Oedipus Rex. I wanted to keep that ancient text, but also illuminate it in two ways: by offering a translation (a sort of musical subtitling) and an interpretation (a parallel text, a sort of musical director's commentary). This achieves the same end, through somewhat different means, as the spoken part of the Oedipus Rex text (originally in French, and often translated into a non-Francophone audience's local language).

Therefore, in my setting of Stabat Mater, I have included a poetic English translation of the text (assembled and tweaked by me from the many translations publicly available. The Latin words are sung, with the music sounding perhaps somewhat ancient and deliberately culturally distant (I'm assuming a contemporary listener who understands English better than Latin, basically!). The English translation is spoken - or rather declaimed, in a dramatically heightened way (I previously used this idea in my incidental music for Aeschylus's Agamemenon, as performed in the 2008 Oxford Greek Play). So these form the original text and its musical "subtitles".

For the musical "director's commentary", between the stanzas of the Latin/English Stabat Mater, I have included the verses of The Dying Child, by John Clare (1793-1864). The music for this poem's setting is markedly different in style to the music for the Latin text, intended as it is to be a new voice speaking to the audience. Clare's poem is rich and moving and almost unbearably poignant in itself, describing the death of a child. In the poem, the death occurs in Spring (as do the events of the Passion in the Christian calendar), and the unnamed child's death is contrasted to the abundance of new life at this time of year.

Overall, I found that the combined emotional effect of these texts made them very difficult to set to music, a process which requires a sustained and deep personal investment in the emotional content of a set text. On reaching the end of my setting (the final "Amen"), I experienced a kind of catharsis, perhaps aided by the sense in both texts that the soul of the child has achieved peace denied to him in life.


12 minutes


Choir (SATB) unaccompanied.


Stabat Mater / The Dying Child was commissioned by Kantos Chamber Choir

First performance

Kantos, Christ Church, West Didsbury, Manchester, 8th April 2021

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