In composer’s Sistine heaven

To hear my Stabat Mater sung in Michelangelo’s chapel was the high point of my musical life

James MacMillan

My Stabat Mater was performed in the Sistine Chapel in Rome on Sunday April 22. The concert was given by the original performers, The Sixteen and the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Harry Christophers. It was premiered by them in the UK a few years ago, a commission from John Studzinski’s Genesis Foundation. This extraordinary man had then convinced everyone right up to Pope Francis that the work should be performed (with a live feed on Classic FM) in the Vatican.

He had invited an audience of about 500. Many were British, and the Genesis Foundation had flown out the choir and orchestra for the event. The previous day there was a private Mass at the tomb of St Peter underneath the Basilica, celebrated by Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster. I can be deeply and unexpectedly affected by sacred places — when I visited the tomb of St Clare in Assisi I didn’t want to leave. Something similar happened when I visited the Basilica built over the tomb of St (Doubting) Thomas in Chennai, a place associated with miracles. His friend Peter is buried in Rome, and not only has a huge building emerged around and above it, but the entire edifice and history of Christendom itself.

Singing has been at the heart of Christian liturgy since the Last Supper, and the Roman authorities of the Church curated a special tradition of sacred music in the centuries since. Most significant was the creation of the Sistine Chapel in 1471 by Pope Sixtus IV. The names associated with it form the establishment and development of sacred Western polyphony — Dufay, Josquin, Morales, Palestrina, Allegri.

 At the dress rehearsal on the Sunday afternoon an English member of the present-day Sistine Chapel choir showed me the balcony where the papal choirs have sung since the late 15th century. Josquin dés Pres had even carved his signature on the wall, perhaps bored during a four-hour Vespers. I was in composer’s heaven — and pinching myself. For me, a Catholic composer with a deep love and connection to this musical and liturgical tradition, this was a dream come true. To hear my music performed  in such a place was the summation of a lifetime of musical endeavour and aspiration.

The Stabat Mater is a 13th-century Marian hymn, meditating on the suffering of Mary, the Mother of God, as she stands at the foot of the Cross. Stabat mater dolorosa (“The grieving mother stood . . . at the  foot of the Cross”) — these are the first words of a long poem, some 20 stanzas in full, whose subject is the Virgin Mary as she beholds her dying son. For devout Catholics, and the many great composers who set these words, this is a kind of ultimate, spiritual Kindertotenlied. The poem goes beyond mere description and invites the reader and the listener to partake in the mother’s grief as a path to grace, and as part of a believer’s spiritual journey.

I wrote it in the months preceding the death of my little granddaughter Sara Maria. Her death in January 2016 was a sudden, devastating shock, but she had lived with multiple disabilities all her short five years. The early years were full of emergency dashes to the hospital and she had many formidable problems for a baby to cope with. But she was always patient and happy and filled us with delight. We will never get over her passing. Perhaps in the months before she left us I sensed, subliminally, what was about to transpire as I put the musical clothing to this tragic tale of Mary’s trauma at the foot of the Cross, as her own child died.

When the musicians began their final rehearsal, there was a palpable sense of delight among them at the incredibly intense acoustic in the chapel. Not for the first time I felt myself in the embrace of something beyond us. Composers and clergy, saints and sinners, ordinary and extraordinary men and women had passed through this space. The performance later was powerful and unrelenting. Under the Michelangelo frescos, including his gigantic painting of the Last Judgment, my Stabat Mater unfolded as one of the most significant spiritual moments of my life. The last movement asks Mary to intervene on our behalf before God on the Day of Judgment. As we listened we looked up at Michelangelo’s Mary beside her son as the judging unfolds.

After the performance an elderly gentleman approached me and told me that his wife had died three weeks before. He had just seen her soul rising into Heaven, and asked me if I had ever experienced the grief he was going through. Yes, I replied, my little Sara Maria alive in my heart again for a brief, fleeting moment, as I dissolved in hidden tears of sadness. And joy.

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