Pergolesi’s Stabat mater is a transcendently beautiful and deeply personal musical meditation on suffering and redemption, written by the 26-year-old composer as he himself lay dying.
The ‘Stabat mater’ is a 13th-century Latin poem exploring the sorrows of the Virgin Mary as she watched her son Jesus dying on the cross. The title comes from the first words of the poem: Stabat mater dolorosa / Juxta crucem lacrimosa / Dum pendebat Filius (The mother stood in sorrow, weeping beside the cross where her son was hanging).
Many composers across the centuries have set the Stabat mater text to music, from Palestrina and Vivaldi to Verdi and Arvo Pärt. Pergolesi was asked to write his version in 1736 by a group of Catholic noblemen in Naples, who wanted it to be sung as part of their private religious devotions on Good Friday — the day just before Easter when Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Christ.
When he wrote the piece, Pergolesi himself was seriously ill with the tuberculosis that would kill him only a few weeks later. He was just 26 years old when he died.
Pergolesi’s Stabat mater would go on to achieve enormous popularity — it was in fact the most frequently printed musical composition in the 18th century. But Pergolesi’s first success had been not for the church but for the stage, and his lasting musical legacy was a little one-act comic opera called La serva padrona (The Servant as Mistress), which would change the history of opera, challenging its grand traditions of oratory and musical declamation with simpler but immediately appealing tunes. This new approach, known as the style galant, reached far beyond the world of opera to touch all kinds of music, including Pergolesi’s own Stabat mater, with its pared-back orchestral writing that allows the graceful melodies to really shine.