SOUTH BEND — Soon after Jorge Muñiz moved to South Bend, he and Wishart Bell developed the sort of friendship that involves meeting for coffee several times a year.
At one of those coffee get-togethers last year, Bell mentioned that Musical Arts Indiana, the choral and orchestra organization he founded in 1993 as the Vesper Chorale and continues to oversee as its artistic director, wanted to commission a new work from a local composer.
A composer and professor of music at Indiana University South Bend, Muñiz responded the way Bell seemingly hoped he would: Yes, he had a piece that hadn’t yet been performed and that he could revise to fit the instrumentation and size of Musical Arts’ orchestra.
And now, on March 25, the Vesper Chorale and Vesper Chamber Orchestra will premiere Muñiz’s “Stabat Mater” at St. Matthew Cathedral, as the centerpiece of a program that also includes works by Bach, Rachmaninoff and Morten Lauridsen.
Possibly written by Pope Innocent III, the 13th-century “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” poem uses the perspective of a first-person observer to describe Mary’s grief as she watches Christ die on the cross and then receive his body.
Dozens of other composers have set the “Stabat Mater” to music, including, most famously, Haydn, Pergolesi and Dvorák — Muñiz, in fact, will conduct a performance by IUSB and South Bend area high school students of Pergolesi’s on April 1 at Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church as a benefit with the Rotary Club to raise money for polio care.
But, Bell says, Muñiz’s “Stabat Mater” adds new dimensions to the tradition that make it a relevant contribution to the setting of the poem.
“Simply put, it’s in 21st-century musical language,” he says. “Each of those other composers wrote to the best of their ability to capture the text in the musical language of their time, and Jorge’s does the same thing.”
By describing it as a 21st-century work, however, Bell doesn’t mean Muñiz’s composition is “experimental,” but it is “a very persuasive musical language” that he continues to develop as his own.
“One of his stylistic traits is to start with a thin texture and expand from it,” Bell says. “He does that several times in this piece. The ‘Stabat Mater’ starts and (the first theme) repeats and repeats and repeats as voices are piled onto the sound.”
The work, Bell says, also uses a complicated rhythmic structure.
“He has the strings in some places playing on the second 16th note,” he says. “It’s syncopation. It’s another way he piles on sound. He’ll have somebody playing on the downbeat and someone else on the second 16th note. … He creates this piling of sound, and it’s all descriptive of the pain of the Crucifixion.”
A defining moment
Muñiz wrote the “Stabat Mater” in 2001 and he discussed a possible premiere of it with an ensemble in his native Spain, but nothing materialized from it.
For Musical Arts’ premiere, he scaled down the orchestration to fit the Vesper Chamber Orchestra’s size, and he now sees this version as the “first and original” score.
“I don’t consider this a change I did for this concert,” he says. “I think it works better now. Because the orchestra is simpler, it made me think more about the harmonic language. This has become the ‘Stabat Mater’ for me.”
The piece has also become a defining moment for him, the first to point to the direction he has since taken as a composer with an emphasis on large-scale and faith-based works. The most prominent of those so far has been his “Requiem for the Innocent,” a work Muñiz composed in response to terrorism in general and the Sept. 11, 2001,al-Qaidaattacks on the United States in particular that the South Bend Symphony Orchestra premiered in September 2010. In it, he used Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious texts in an effort to represent the common tenets of the three major monotheistic religions and to provide a basis for hope for a peaceful future.
“(The ‘Stabat Mater’) helped me to define better my compositional direction in the sense of bringing social issues — terrorism in the case of the Requiem, loss in this case — to bring that within a faith perspective,” he says, “but that it’s more than that (one religion) and will reach other audiences. … They have a religious setting, they both use classical texts, one from the Requiem Mass and in this case the ‘Stabat Mater’ text. They both have become texts for Christians and Catholics, specifically, but like the ‘Requiem,’ I wanted a piece that would go beyond the religious and be transcendental.”
Compassion, empathy and reflection
“His thematic structures are designed to describe the text, to describe the emotion of the text,” Bell says about the “Stabat Mater.” “It’s a pretty stark text. There’s real pain in this text, and that gets into the music.”
With such lines as, “Who is the person who would not weep seeing the Mother of Christ in such agony?” Muñiz says, the “Stabat Mater” conveys compassion and empathy.
“It’s us humans, humanity, experiencing that image of the mother and her son Jesus on her arms,” he says. “It’s that image that us, humanity, watches and how we react to it. We react to it with compassion and grief. … It experiences what she saw when her son was dying, the affliction he felt. The whole poem goes through the different steps in her grief. That’s what makes it so powerful to me, that empathy.”
But with lines such as, “Lest I burn, set afire by flames, Virgin, may I be defended by you, on the Day of Judgment,” Muñiz says, it also conveys contrition.
“An important component is us reflecting on ourselves in what we have done and what we have failed to do,” he says. “It’s about acknowledging our own sins, our own mistakes, our own shortcomings. I think that sort of reflection is the natural next step after empathy and sorrow.”
In addition to his use of a “21st-century musical language,” Muñiz puts his own stamp on the “Stabat Mater” by incorporating into the composition the Spanish text from one of the early- and mid-20th-century Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral’s “Sonnets of Death” poems as the part sung by the contralto soloist.
“I wanted to include a poem that’s closer to our time that reflects on any mother that has lost a child,” Muñiz says. “I think she really captured that tragedy in words that are very powerful, very raw in very strong words. I think this piece goes between the human and the transcendental.”
In the first-person poem, a mother bewails the death of her son and questions God as to the justness of his death.
The two works, the “Stabat Mater” poem and Mistral’s poem, Bell says, make for a complementary contrast in the work.
“It’s the poet describing the death of a loved one and how unfair it is,” he says. “That sense of loss and grief and even anger goes wonderfully alongside the text of the ‘Stabat Mater.’ In the case of the ‘Stabat Mater,’ it’s somebody observing this scene. It’s not Mary. The poet is speaking her own grief, whereas the narrator is describing Mary’s grief.”
The choir represents humanity, Muñiz says, while the orchestra represents Christ and the deceased son, and the contralto represents the grieving mother of Mistral’s poem.
“This is almost like an opera, because you can imagine the moment the son dies in the hands of Mary and her cry,” he says. “This (first Mistral) stanza, she cries, ‘Why, why did these hands take you from me?’ … I think when the audience listens to the piece, they’re going to hear a lot of conflict and drama. The text does explore different sides of grief. Some (stanzas) will be more contemplative, some are very hard and personal.”