This Saturday we are singing a very emotional, almost melodramatic piece: Verdi’s Stabat Mater. To plumb the depths of its rich emotional content, I’ve found, requires a combination of individual effort and a unifying vision by our conductors.
Regardless of your religious upbringing, there’s something fundamentally primal about the scene set forth: Mary standing beside Jesus’s cross as he dies. Everyone has been a son/daughter, and many of us are either parents ourselves or have taken care of someone we love. We know the fear, the anguish, of a loved one suffering and not being able to do anything to prevent it.
Singing is about communicating. And so each of us in the chorus has to find that dark place within us, that fear and anguish – as well as the longing and hope for an end to that suffering through salvation – and tap into those emotions enough to bring it out in the notes we sing. You’d think it wouldn’t matter: a C-sharp is a C-sharp is a C-sharp, right? Wrong. The difference in emotional context is noticeable even to an untrained ear.
But 120 individual connections to the music doesn’t give us a unified sound. That’s where John Oliver and Bramwell Tovey come in. They use metaphors and describe situations to bring our interpretations together. Let me cite some examples.
The very first note of the piece is this strong dissonant C-sharp leading tone in unison. It’s a forceful entrance that also has to double as that powerful initial outpouring of a mother’s grief.
In a later section, Maestro Tovey asked us to sing proudly, as if we felt privileged to share that mother’s grief by standing with her. I definitely didn’t have that going in
As we sing about Jesus – her sweet son, dying, abandoned, his last breath escaping – Tovey asked for a quieter and more mournful sound. “Who would ever want to be a mother,” he commented, after rehearsing that package.
The end of the piece is us pleading that when our bodies die, we ask to be granted passage into heaven (paradisi gloria). We first sang it a little too happy; “when our bodies die, yay!” But besides correcting that, Maestro Tovey asked us to sing it as if we weren’t sure we were gonna make it. The result is this trembling, doubtful unspoken question hanging over the hesitating request for salvation, followed by a glorious representation of heaven in the finale. Strings and brass blare as we crescendo, literally ascending to musical heights. This morning he did one better, asking us to observe the triple-piano at the beginning of the ascension to heaven. The result is this truly magical moment, right after the trepidatious prayer, where it just feels like the whole world is glittering with sunlight in the morning. It’s the transformational moment when The Beast becomes the prince, when Excalibur comes out of the stone, when Dorothy clicks her heels and goes home. It’s the ultimate reveal.
Verdi, perhaps more so than any other Romantic era composer, is prone to extreme dynamics and overtly dramatic passages to highlight emotional extravagance. This piece perfectly captures his style, and I’m looking forward to delivering it wit h the chorus on Saturday night (8:30pm, WCRB and live streamed.)