Religious poetry and song have long been associated with Franciscan spirituality. St. Francis himself was a poet; indeed he is considered to be one of the pioneers of Italian vernacular poetry. Likewise, many of his followers were composers of religious verse and music in a tradition that continues to this day. The program at hand explores some of the earliest and most important contributions to this tradition: texts written by or attributed to St. Francis, and the Stabat Mater dolorosa, attributed to Jacopone da Todi.
Stabat Mater dolorosa is a poem attributed to Jacopone da Todi, a Franciscan friar born approximately four years after the death of St. Francis. Following the tragic death of his wife, Jacopone (born Jacopo dei Benedetti) abandoned a successful secular career and embarked on a life of severe penance and asceticism. His behavior was so bizarre, in fact, that he earned the nickname Jacopone (Crazy Jim). It was due precisely to his reputation that Jacopone was originally refused admission to the Order of Friars Minor (the order founded by St. Francis). The Franciscans only relented after being deeply moved by one of Jacopone’s poems – a meditation on the vanities of the world. He joined the Friars Minor in 1278.
The Stabat Mater dolorosa is an extended meditation on the sufferings of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross during Jesus’ crucifixion. Comprised of twenty stanzas, the Latin poem has been popular since the late fourteenth century. Since 1727 it has been an official part of Roman Catholic liturgy, sung as a sequence (a Latin poetic text sung on important feast days) on the Feast of the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin Mary and later on the Feast of Our Mother of Sorrows. Franciscan piety places significant emphasis on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: his humanity and the intense physical suffering endured during his Passion. Stabat Mater dolorosa can be seen as an extension of that devotion. Here the suffering of Jesus is reflected and magnified through an emotive and heart-wrenching depiction of the unimaginable suffering endured by a mother witnessing the torture and death of her son.
The intense pathos of the text has made it a favored vehicle for countless composers to display their most expressive writing. The collection of verses presented here allows the listener to experience how composers approached the text from the Baroque period through the middle of the twentieth century. The various nationalities and time periods represented, along with new and unique orchestration, make this collection itself a new composition of sorts: a collective response of three hundred years of musical development to this timeless, sublime text.
The tradition represented by the Stabat Mater dolorosa verses is continued in the second half of the program, comprised of three new settings of Franciscan texts by Russian-born Israeli-American composer Eli Tamar. These bold, majestic, and utterly sublime works continue the great European tradition of dramatic sacred music, while also revealing a unique vision through their musical language, treatment of voice and organ, and intimate sensitivity to text.
It is quite common for humanity to conjure legends about and falsely attribute quotations to our most revered spiritual figures. Thus is the case with St. Francis, who is credited with many sayings and ideas which, however much they might reflect his spirituality, nonetheless were most likely written by others. Thus is the case with the Prière de Saint François d'Assise. While it does resemble a text written by Blessed Giles of Assisi (c.1190 – 1262), one of the original companions of St. Francis, its origins are unknown and its authorship anonymous. It first appeared in the French spiritual magazine La Clochette in 1912 and in 1916 was published in the Vatican newspaper. Its popularity was ensured, no doubt, by countless recitations by European Christians during World War I. The prayer first reached American soil in 1927 and soared in popularity during and after World War II. Tamar’s setting of the prayer for alto and organ takes a unique place among the many settings of the French text. Avoiding all-too-common sentimentalism, Tamar takes advantage of the prayer’s dramatic qualities, particularly its juxtaposition of states of being. Its tender moments are treated with unparalleled delicacy and sensitivity, matched only by the overall profundity of the music.
Perhaps the most unjustly obscure text of the program is St. Francis’ poetic discourse on virtues and vices, Salutatio Virtutum. In this text, St. Francis reflects on the confrontation between virtues (represented by sister virgins) and vices (desire of riches, greed, bodily and carnal temptations, etc.). Tamar’s music, extraordinary in its range of emotional and dramatic expression, moves freely between a sacral, gothic character and vehement expressions of the “demonic”, ultimately transcending to apotheosis. Scored for soprano and organ, the piece was given its world premiere by the performers on this recording in Pittsburgh in September, 2014.
The concluding work and pinnacle of the entire program is Tamar’s monumental setting of St. Francis’ Canticum Fratris Solis for soprano, alto and organ. The text is presented in its original language—the Umbrian dialect of Italian. Indeed it is due to this text that St. Francis is numbered among the first great Italian poets. As a prayer, a poem, and a song of thankfulness, the Canticum is beloved the world over by Christian and non-Christian alike. In his setting of the text, Tamar combines and transforms features of Gregorian chant, medieval polyphony, Renaissance modal harmony, impressionistic word painting and Italian verismo into a powerful and original artistic statement. The work was given its world premiere in September of 2013 at De Boni Arte foundation’s concerts in Moscow, (Russia), and its American premiere being given in Pittsburgh in June of 2014.
- Nicholas J. Will
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