The brothers Giovanni and Antonio Bononcini were among the most popular composers of the 18th century, although few know their works today. They came from a highly respected musical family, their father a well-known composer and theoretician. The elder brother, Giovanni, is remembered today mostly for his operatic rivalry with Handel during the 1720’s in London. The younger brother, Antonio, remained in Italy, spending his last years in Modena as maestro di capella. Antonio Bononcini’s setting of the 13th century hymn Stabat Mater was probably composed in 1721, while his brother Giovanni was entertaining London audiences with his operas.
The Stabat Mater opens in desolation, with falling gestures in the strings and voices conveying the tears of the sorrowful Mary. The depiction of weeping continues in the rich string counterpoint of the soprano aria and tortured dissonance of the duet for soprano and alto. The next chorus, to the text of “pro peccatis suae generis,” (for the sake of his people’s sins”) is in the somber stile antico style. Of particular interest are the repeated sobbing chords in the strings while the soprano and alto voices commence a slow canon with the tenor and bass on the text “vidit suum dulcem natum morientum desolatum” (She saw her sweet child die desolate).
An expansive aria for solo violin obbligato and alto paints a dual image of the fount of love and the flowing tears of grief. The second section of the aria abruptly shifts to a vivace with fiery melismas to suit the text. The chorus that follows is particularly reminiscent of Vivaldi in its simple, straightforward delivery of text and harmonic outline in the strings. In the second aria for alto, “Fac me teum flere,” the unique combination of two solo violas prepares a meditative soundscape for the particularly long vocal lines. The first bass aria with chromatic continuo line implores the believer to join the sorrowful mother in her mourning.
The chorus returns with a prayer to the Virgin accompanied by “Vivaldi-like” dotted rhythms in the strings. The listener might be reminded of the “Domine fili unigenite” chorus in the Vivaldi Gloria. The hectoring aria for tenor, “Fac ut portem,” underscores the agony of Christ’s wounds (“plagas”) through repeated use of the tritone interval, known to 18th century listeners as diabolus in musica - the Devil in music. The chorus responds with a capacious plea that is given over in the second half to fiery, virtuosic passages for the tenors and altos, as the strings vividly depict the leaping flames awaiting sinners on the day of judgment. This animated mood is carried into the striking jumps of the violin line in the second bass aria. Notice how the bass soloist joins the “skipping” with intervals of the 9th on the text “gratia.” The Stabat Mater closes with a sensational chorus that begins with a muted Largo on the image of the death of the earthly body, followed by a syncopated fugue on the final two words of the hymn: “paradisi gloria,” – the glory of paradise.