Feature Article

From Volume 27, No. 4 (Fall 2018)

The Mother, the Sinners, and the Cross: Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Bach’s Tilge, Höchster

Chiara Bertoglio

1.  Introduction

This paper analyses the theological, spiritual, confessional, artistic and cultural issues posed by Johann Sebastian Bach’s adaptation of Pergolesi’s setting of the Stabat Materas a German Psalm paraphrase suitable for use in the Lutheran Church. These twin compositions actually represent four distinct and yet intertwining works: the Medieval Latin lyrics of the Stabat Mater, which obviously predated Pergolesi’s setting by several centuries; the musical features of Pergolesi’s masterpiece; the lyrics of Bach’s Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden, taken from the Biblical Psalm 51 (50) but purposefully adapted to Pergolesi’s music, whose text they replaced; and Bach’s own musical interventions and changes to the score. Thus, this topic is as fascinating as it is difficult to treat in an organic fashion: indeed, so numerous and diverse are the factors at stake, that it is indispensable to treat them somewhat separately as introductory remarks, before delving into the theological analysis proper. One could even say that theological conclusions surface almost inevitably when the complete cultural and artistic frame is set.

A number of pressing questions need to be answered in order for that indispensable background to be established. I will give an account of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater first: the history of this eighteenth-century music work needs to be traced back to the Middle Ages, when its lyrics were written within the framework of the devotion to the Mater Dolorosa; later, the historical context and musical features of Pergolesi’s work will be discussed. I will then need to move back in history again: in order to understand the nature of the changes made by Johann Sebastian Bach to Pergolesi’s work, the theological understanding of the Virgin Mary within the Lutheran tradition needs to be clarified. At the same time, it is fundamental to discuss, albeit briefly, which kind of “Mariology” can be gathered from the examination of Bach’s compositional output. As we will see, although the basically Lutheran shape of Bach’s vision of the Virgin cannot be questioned, it somehow transcends confessional boundaries and represents a fascinating perspective for modern hearers from an ecumenical viewpoint. Only at that point will the ground be laid for a comparison of the two works, starting with consideration of the lyrics, continuing with an examination of the musical details, and concluding with a theological interpretation of both works.

Read the entire essay here.