Giovanni Battista Pergolesi: Stabat Mater

Pergolesi, Palestrina and Offenbach are all composers with names adopted from their home towns. In Offenbach’s case, it was his father who took the name of the small city near Frankfurt.

For Pergolesi, born in Iesi in Italy’s wonderful Le Marche, the name had been his family’s for at least two generations. It was acquired from the small and beautiful commune of Pergola, almost equidistant from Iesi and Urbino.

Just before the end of his extremely successful yet tragically short life, Pergolesi was commissioned by a band of artistic gentlemen to provide music for an annual Good Friday service in honour of the Virgin Mary. His Stabat Mater was the response. Its famous plaintive introduction, in which two singers sing so close to each other in pitch as to cause temporary dissonances, was meant to portray the pain of the subjects: each time the two singers come just one note apart, it creates a piercing sound, with each occasion representing the hammering of a nail into the body of Jesus. Poignantly, Pergolesi wrote these notes while in the throes of the tuberculosis that claimed his life.

Recommended Recording
Emma Kirkby (soprano); James Bowman (alto); Academy of Ancient Music; Christopher Hogwood (conductor). Decca: 4256922.

Illustration: Mark Millington