A grieving mother stands at the feet of her dying son as an observer condoles with her: “O Mother, fountain of love, make me feel the power of sorrow, that I may grieve with you.” The Stabat Mater has been a key figure of Roman Catholic Mariology for centuries, and a steady topic for composers of sacred music since at least the 15th century. Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Schubert, Haydn, Rossini, Dvořák, Verdi, Poulenc, Pärt, and dozens of contemporary composers have set it to music. But what makes the 800-year-old story relevant today? Audiences at this year’s White Light Festival will find out for themselves when they attend the U.S. premiere of Scottish composer James MacMillan’s 2015 version on November 7.

“Cuius animam gementem contristatam et dolentem pertransivit gladius.” (“Through her weeping soul, compassionate and grieving, a sword passed.”) These lines, which first appeared in a 13th-century Latin hymn to Mary, immerse believers in the sufferings of their Lord, and give the pious an outlet for understanding their Holy Mother’s human agony at the loss of her child. Even without knowledge of Catholic lore, the universality of the subject is intuitive. Buddhists, for instance, place great value on the lessons that can be learned from suffering. For even the most skeptical nonbeliever, MacMillan’s choral setting, which will be performed by The Sixteen and the Britten Sinfonia under the baton of Harry Christophers, can move any listener to empathetic tears.

Still, why would one choose to go to a concert to experience suffering? “The death of Mary’s child has a powerful reach into modernity, into the lives of people now,” MacMillan explains via email. “Especially the lives of mothers losing their children in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or in the upheavals of enforced flight from danger. The media images of Alan Kurdi, the three-yearold Syrian refugee boy who drowned in 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea, haunted my mind at this time.”

More recently, there was an outpouring of outrage and horror at images of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly two-year-old daughter, Valeria, who both drowned in the Rio Grande while trying to cross the U.S.–Mexico border. When we relate to the suffering of others, it makes us humbler and more understanding; we become gentler and more humane. Mary’s story teaches us compassion, and MacMillan’s score allows us to reflect upon and channel these severe and complex emotions in a public space. As another verse from the source asks (in translation), “Who would not be able to feel compassion on beholding Christ’s Mother suffering with her Son?”

Maternal Instincts at the White Light Festival
Photo by Simon Jay Price
The Sixteen

Humanitarian considerations aside, one might ask if belief matters in the appreciation of MacMillan’s work. The origins of the text are certainly religious, but New York audiences are bound to have a diverse range of faiths. The venue, Alice Tully Hall, is secular and neutral; it can adapt to any performer. In contrast, sacred spaces often resonate with hundreds or thousands of years of tradition and provide an environment suitable for the faithful who gather to explore their perspective as they uncover answers to further their understanding of this confusing world.

For a work like Stabat Mater—premiered at London’s Barbican Centre in 2016 and livestreamed from the Vatican in 2018—does the performance space change the effect of the piece or inflect its meaning? MacMillan doesn’t think so. “The emotional impact and essence of any piece of music, secular or sacred, has to lie in the music itself,” he says, “in the way the notes are moved about the page, in the way that a composer sets this text, in the way that he or she shapes its design, and so on. Music lovers know what this means—they can cope with any space, good or bad, if the music is coherent and fluently communicated.”

MacMillan’s musical language is in fact passionate and forceful, so audience members are sure to feel intense emotions. His musical choices emphasize the drama throughout the score: cloudy dissonances cast a shadow behind the chorus from the offset; the pace of the text overall makes the scene seem frozen in time; repetitive, pointed eighth notes interrupt moments of solace; and the chorus nearly abandons the orchestra before the final crystalline chanting of the “Amen,” which offers an almost hypnotic opportunity for contemplation.

Most New Yorkers are removed from the hardships and suffering refugees face, but music can change the way people think, and MacMillan’s work opens a space for us to meditate on deep, spiritual pain and strive to sympathize with friends and strangers alike.

Maternal Instincts at the White Light Festival
Photo by Phillip Gatward
Composer James MacMillan

Commissioned by the Genesis Foundation and dedicated to its founder, John Studzinski, Stabat Mater was composed in 2015. “I had various conversations with Harry Christophers before the composition of the work, and then sent it to him, movement by movement,” MacMillan recalls. “He had commissioned a number of shorter works from me in the years beforehand, so he was aware of my style and musical aesthetic.” Christophers has led The Sixteen to become one of the finest choirs on the planet, and MacMillan feels a close connection with them as well as with the Britten Sinfonia. “I have developed very fruitful relationships with these musicians over the years,” he says. “I’ve worked separately with the choir and orchestra on various projects, so it was marvelous to see them come together for this, which has been a special evolution in my musical thinking in recent years.”

The November 7 program includes MacMillan’s 2009 a cappella choral work Miserere (which means “have mercy” not “misery.”) And for music lovers curious to hear another setting of the Stabat Mater, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brings Pergolesi’s 1736 setting of the medieval text to the White Light Festival on November 21. Whether you go for purely aural pleasures, or whether the mournful message of Stabat Mater holds deep meaning for you, these concerts are sure to blur the boundaries between ecstasy and pain.

Jacob Slattery is a musician and writer based in New York City. He recently founded the Orpheus Bureau to promote American composers, conductors, and orchestras.

This concert is also part of Great Performers. Lead Support for Great Performers is provided by PGIM, the global investment management business of Prudential Financial, Inc.

For more information on the White Light Festival, visit WhiteLightFestival.org