Composer Honored to Have His Setting of ‘Stabat Mater’ Performed in Sistine Chapel

Acclaimed Catholic composer Sir James MacMillan explains to the Register the meaning behind his composition, set to the famous 13th century poem on the suffering of Mary.

The orchestra and choir at the end of their performance of 'Stabat Mater' by Sir James MacMillan, Sistine Chapel, April 22, 2018.
The orchestra and choir at the end of their performance of 'Stabat Mater' by Sir James MacMillan, Sistine Chapel, April 22, 2018. (photo: Edward Pentin photo)

Contemporary composer Sir James MacMillan has said it was an “honor and delight” to have his setting of the Stabat Mater performed in the Sistine Chapel on Sunday evening.

In front of an audience of mostly British and Vatican dignitaries and hosted by Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, the acclaimed Britten Sinfonia and The Sixteen choir performed MacMillan's contemporary setting of the famous 13th century Marian poem that meditates on the suffering of Mary, the Mother of God.

Speaking to the Register after the concert (see below), MacMillan said that connected with the Marian dimension, the music was meant to convey the reality of the suffering of so many mothers today, experienced through abortion, the loss of their children through migration, and other tragedies.  

MacMillan’s composition was first performed in London in 2016 and last night’s performance was dedicated to John Studzinski, a Catholic philanthropist and humanitarian, who sponsored the event and initially suggested MacMillan compose the piece.

Studzinski’s Genesis Foundation has been working since 2001 to support young artistic talent and develop the link between art and faith.

The concert, the first to be “live-streamed” on the internet from the Sistine Chapel, attracted largely mixed reviews. Many warmly appreciated it and the performers were given rapturous applause at the end. Others thought it “too modern,” “dissonant,” and “harrowing” but perhaps suitably reflective of the current time. Still others thought it would have been better performed around Good Friday rather than during Eastertide.

The Stabat Mater is a 13th century poem most likely written by Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306), but sometimes ascribed to Pope Innocent III. In comments prior to the concert, MacMillan said 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.”


What is your reaction to having your composition performed in the Sistine Chapel?

Well I feel as if I’ve been pinching myself all through the performance. It was such an honor and delight to have my music played in such a place, considering Michelangelo of course, but also the great musicians who have stood on that balcony and sung, like Palestrina and Allegri — Allegri’s Miserere which Mozart heard here. And I was up there just before the concert started and I noticed that Josquin des Prez had scribbled his name on the wall. It’s just unbelievable. So it is a wonderful context.


How did this concert come about?

Well John Studzinski is a great supporter of the arts and especially The Sixteen asked me to write a Stabat Mater a few years ago and it was premiered in the UK. He then suggested the idea of bringing the performers here and performing it here, and he got permission from the top. He worked with Cardinal Vincent Nichols and of course Archbishop Georg Gänswein to let us do this, which was incredibly generous. It’s turned into a wonderful occasion.


The Stabat Mater prayer is meant to convey the pain and suffering experienced by Our Lady in particular – is that what you intended with the music?

I think so – it’s the ultimate musical Kinder Toten Lied as they say, this relationship between mother and son. It’s the Crucifixion story and there are many ways of telling that, Bach of course wrote two wonderful Passions. But to be able to see the narrative through Mary’s eyes in this way is a very special thing and that’s why it has drawn composers through the ages to set it. [Giovanni Battista] Pergolesi, of course, was probably the most popular and well known setting but many before and after Palestrina — [Karol] Szymanowski in the 20th century. So I’ve always wanted to try it myself. 


Listening to the performance tonight, one was reminded of how much suffering there is today due to the holocaust of abortion, the loss of so much life and the pain of mothers, and then the current Alfie Evans case. Would you agree the music conveys the reality of this pain?

I would agree with that totally. John Studzinski is of course a great humanitarian and has helped with the refugee crisis and so on, women who’ve lost their children in the Mediterranean, trying to get away from suffering and war. I certainly identify as a parent, and I know what it is to lose a life, to lose someone close to you. A granddaughter died a few years ago and so I actually wrote this Stabat Mater before that happened, so there are strange pre-echoes of our grief in the music. But it’s a universal thing: any parent, any child who loves their parents knows what those bonds are and how difficult they are to break.


Do you have plans to do any more concerts like this?

Well I’m in the middle of writing another piece for The Sixteen, and it’s come from John Studzinski’s instigation and conversations. It is a piece exploring the mystery of the Holy Spirit and I’m writing that for my sixtieth birthday which is next year, next summer.


Here below is short audio clip from the concert: