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Maria Mater Meretrix

Patricia Kopatchinskaja plays her violin - it's held in front of the right hand side of her face

For the final concert of her Artist Spotlight series Patricia Kopatchinskaja, together with Anna Prohaska and Ensemble Resonanz, explores music celebrating the two Marys: the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene.

Few, if any, women have inspired as much art as the Virgin Mary. The figure of the Madonna, holding the baby Jesus, has been painted and sculpted by artists from Botticelli to Dali. Her story has been told and retold by writers over the centuries, inspiring metaphysical poets such as John Donne and modern novelists like Colm Tóibín. And then, of course, there’s the wealth of music written about her, whether its oratorios or operas, Magnificats or Stabat maters.

Religious importance aside, it’s not simply as image, name and icon that the Virgin Mary matters in wider western culture today. Over the past 2,000 years, she has become the archetypal mother – the Mater of this recital’s title. She is the ultimate symbol of maternal love, suffering and sacrifice; in 2014, Pope Francis described her ‘as the model of maternity for the Church’. If, like violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and soprano Anna Prohaska, you want to ask how composers have portrayed women across the centuries, then musical depictions of the Virgin Mary provide fertile ground.

Yet that’s far from the whole story. Alongside this thread of caring devotion runs a counter-narrative, epitomised by another woman present at the crucifixion: Mary Magdalene. She was the closest disciple of Jesus, the first person to see him after his resurrection. A real-life historical woman, her identity has morphed through time, refracted by society’s views. She has been cast as both saint and sinner. She is the Meretrix – the Latin word for sex worker – who opposes the Mater. ‘The whole history of western civilisation is epitomised in the cult of Mary Magdalene,’ writes The Smithsonian magazine. ‘In one age after another her image was reinvented, from prostitute to sibyl to mystic to celibate nun to passive helpmeet to feminist icon to the matriarch of divinity’s secret dynasty.’

A simple reading of tonight’s programme reveals a rich seam of Marian music, full of variety even when it’s focused on pieces featuring solo violin and soprano. Different historical periods, countries and styles collide in an energisingly eclectic programme. Yet the recital also asks bigger questions. What do the two archetypes – or stereotypes – embodied by the two Marys tell us about how women are viewed? How has western classical music responded to their stories? And what does it mean for two female musicians to perform works about them today? Questions to bear in mind, perhaps, rather than to answer definitively.

At the heart of the programme, like an altarpiece in a Renaissance church, stands Frank Martin’s Maria-Triptychon. Martin was one of the leading Swiss composers of the 20th century, but is often unfairly overlooked. He composed music of concentrated expressive power – and this is one of his finest works. In the preface to the published score, he describes how he wrote the ‘Magnificat’ first but soon realised it ‘required a surrounding musical frame’. He added two other traditional Marian texts – the ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Stabat mater’ – either side to create a triptych. Across three movements, Martin tells Mary’s story. The distilled ‘Ave Maria’ is a prayer, said to quote the words of the Archangel Gabriel at the annunciation, when Mary learned she was to be a mother. The central ‘Magnificat,’ or the Canticle of Mary, is her hymn in praise of Christ – here an explosion of energy. Lastly, we hear the anguished astringence of the ‘Stabat mater’, and a mother’s suffering as her son dies on the cross.

Other composers explore various elements of the Virgin Mary’s story. From medieval pilgrim songs to George Crumb’s ‘God-music’, Haydn’s Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (‘Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross’) to Lili Boulanger’s Pie Jesu, layers of meaning are built up with music from across the ages. We begin with Holst’s ‘Jesu Sweet’ from Four Songs for voice and violin, in which Mary sings a haunting ‘song of love longing’. Holst was reputedly inspired to write the piece after hearing a woman at church singing while playing the violin – one of the countless musical women only glimpsed in canonical retellings of music history, adding another layer of meaning to this programme.

Both Marys were present at the crucifixion, an event musically represented here by Lotti’s eight-part setting. And if the mother of Jesus represented all that is chaste and pure, Mary Magdalene’s reputation was soon subject to myth-making. In 591, the pope called her a ‘sinful woman’; she became known, falsely, as a ‘prostitute’. Unpicking the patriarchal attitudes surrounding her would require many more words, but here the music takes over. The sexual allure – and its price – of Mary Magdalene are explored in Kurtág’s fleeting ‘The sexual act as punishment: Canticle of Mary Magdalene’, one of three settings from his extensive song-cycle Kafka-Fragmente in this programme, and in Hanns Eisler’s ‘Kuppelied’, in which ‘good girls are never sweet’. Yet it’s in ‘Per il mar del pianto mio’ (By the sea of my tears) from Caldara’s oratorio Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo that we hear Mary Magdalene’s pain at the cross. ‘You, Jesus, are my guiding star’, she sings, ‘before you I cast all my desires, my chains are at your feet.’

© Rebecca Franks

Programme and performers

Gustav Holst ‘Jesu Sweet’ from Four Songs for voice and violin
Walther von der Vogelweide, arr Michi Wiancko Palästinalied
George Crumb ‘God-music’ from Black Angels
Guillaume Dufay, arr Michi Wiancko Ave maris stella
Frank Martin ‘Ave Maria’ from Maria-Triptychon
Tomás Luis Victoria, arr Michi Wiancko Ave Maria
György Kurtág ‘Berceuse’ from Kafka-Fragmente
Anon, arr Wolfgang Katschner Maria durch ein Dornwald ging
Frank Martin ‘Magnificat’ from Maria-Triptychon
Antonio Lotti, arr Michi Wiancko Crucifixus
Lili Boulanger, arr Michi Wiancko Pie Jesu

Hildegard von Bingen O rubor sanguinis
Joseph Haydn ‘Mulier, ecce filius tuus’ from Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze
György Kurtág ‘Wiederum, wiederum’ from Kafka-Fragmente
Frank Martin ‘Stabat Mater’ from Maria-Triptychon
Hanns Eisler, arr Michi Wiancko ‘Lied der Kupplerin’ from Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe
György Kurtág ‘Coitus als Bestrafung’ (Canticulum Mariae Magdalenae) from Kafka-Fragmente
PatKop Danse macabre
Joseph Haydn ‘Il Terremoto’ from Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze
Antonio Caldara ‘Per il mar der pianto mio’ from Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo

Ensemble Resonanz
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
violin & concept
Anna Prohaska soprano & concept

Song texts

Artist biographies