The Psalms feature strongly, prefiguring the life of Christ, and particular festivals bring into focus scenes such as the Nativity and the Passion of Christ which were then the subject matter of hymns and sequences. The major festivals of Christmas and Easter create the setting for the composing of new sacred music, and many of the great composers produced multiple settings of the same texts, giving the world a rich collection of variations which, when compared, give an insight into the subtle changes in Christian musical and religious sensibility through the ages. This paper considers in particular three settings of one of the world’s favourite Latin hymns known as Stabat Mater Dolorosa. The origins of the text itself are obscure, but scholars date it to the thirteenth century. The essence of its meaning is a reflection on the sorrowing figure of Mother of Christ, standing beneath the cross and weeping for the death of her son. The subject matter is emotive, and yet in its linkage of suffering with the path to salvation, it has a positive message for believers, encouraging them to bear their troubles bravely and look to a blessed future with Christ in Paradise. This text has been reworked many times, using elements of secular music through the ages to enhance its relevance in successive generations. The reasons for the diverging approaches to Church music in different parts of Europe are linked to the cataclysmic events surrounding the Reformation. At the heart of this debate lay fundamental differences in the way that the Biblical text was perceived. In the protestant parts of Europe there was a growing desire to centre the literal text of scripture as the source of fundamental truth, and to place human additions such as preaching, music and the use of other devotional aids including the liturgy as secondary aids to the interpretation of this main truth. Polyphony in this context was an opportunity to explore hidden meanings in a text, having different voices express different aspects of its message for example. Emphasis and amplification could be achieved in this way. In the Roman Catholic tradition, on the other hand, the holy scripture was combined with apostolic traditions as the source of truth, leading to a higher status for the liturgy and a tendency for musical contributions to become bearers of the doctrine as much as the readings from the Bible itself. It is this emphasis on the importance of the liturgy that caused the Roman Catholic Church to clamp down on secular influences creeping into worship. The lively motet tradition, with its celebration of secular and even bawdy themes was seen as a negative influence, and this is why a return to the purity of Gregorian chant was advocated by the Church authorities. The role of the Stabat Mater was a cause of much debate in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries because it was at the same time much loved by the population but also clearly non-Biblical in content. It became part of the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows at in 1413 at the Council of Cologne and this hymn became part of the liturgy in Northern Europe from that time onwards. In the south, however, the piece was sporadically performed, but did not become such a firm part of the liturgical programme. It has been noted also that some such pieces were performed on the edge of the formal ...
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