Giving new voice to 18th century women

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Giving new voice to 18th century women

Centuries later, music brought to life by Stanford conductor

by Adrienne Rose Johnson on Wednesday, July 8, 2015 - 11:47am

More than three hundred years after its creation, a forgotten music treasure exclusively set for women’s voices was performed at the Clayman Institute Spring Artist’s Salon by a group of Stanford students under the direction of Dr. Marie-Louise Catsalis. After finding an incomplete early 18th century manuscript held at Stanford Green Library’s Special Collections, Catsalis, a conductor and lecturer in the university’s department of music, worked with her students to complete Neapolitan composer Francesco Durante’s Stabat Mater. Durante’s version provides a unique window into women’s chorale performances in the early 18th century. 

Stabat Mater

The Stabat Mater is a 13th century Catholic hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus, mourning the death of her son. Widely considered one of the best strophic (also called "verse-repeating" or chorus) hymns of the period, the Stabat Mater has been set to music by Vivaldi, Haydn, Dvořák and dozens of other well-known composers. Durante’s rendition remained obscure, however, until Catsalis resurrected the manuscript and embarked on the challenge of preparing it for performance. Speaking at the Artist’s Salon, Catsalis noted that Durante’s Stabat Mater was originally written—not later adapted—for women’s voices alone, which sets it apart from earlier adaptations of the hymn. 

“I felt that the women’s voices were very important,” Catsalis said. “Motherhood is central to the Stabat Mater—a beautiful, moving exposition of a mother’s mourning the death of a child.” In conveying the depth and intensity of these emotions, “Durante’s Stabat Mater explores the range of women’s voices.”

Catsalis believes there is a strong possibility this was written as a convent piece, part of a growing body of music composed for nuns. In his book, “Divas in the Convent: Nuns, Music, and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy,” Craig Monson, professor of music at Washington University St. Louis, notes that during that period, “a good deal of the best sacred music resounded within convent chapels.”

In these smaller women’s choirs, Catsalis explained, “the technique was always to set the lowest voice as an alto, singing the bass (or continuo line) up an octave. So, apart from the sheer beauty of the work, the Stabat Mater features women in treble voices only.” 

Catsalis performanceClayman artist-in-residence Valerie Miner, who selects artists to showcase at the Artist Salons, commented on the importance of the arts in broadening our perspectives on gender and feminism. “Marie-Louise Catsalis added to the diversity of the salons we host quarterly at Clayman, where Stanford faculty and staff artists are invited to read, perform or talk about their work,” she said. “Each guest expands our consciousness about the kinds of questions we ask about gender and feminism. Since so much of the work at Clayman is explored in the context of the social sciences, these excursions into the arts expand that conversation.”

Catsalis shared the challenges of performing an incomplete manuscript. Durante’s version was missing pages, and Catsalis set about trying to find the missing material from archival sources in Europe. Despite finding folios in Bologna, Milan and Paris, the missing pages remained a mystery. However, a very satisfactory solution was found internally from the piece, supplying ten measures, with rhythmic modification to fit the missing text. By examining the overall rhythm of the Stabat Mater in the context of Durante’s earlier work, Catsalis contributed the missing measures. Unknown for centuries, Durante’s Stabat Mater can now be performed as a complete work.

The Stabat Mater has endured as a hymn to Mary’s sorrow, sanctifying the dignity of maternal love and expressing its deep anguish and emotion. In the 18th century, Durante transformed the piece to showcase women’s voices. Now, Catsalis and her Stanford students have brought this music to life, making an important contribution to the current concert repertoire of sacred music for women’s voices. 


Durante’s Stabat Mater was performed in the Stanford Memorial Church on February 26, 2015, with the Philharmonia Chorale under the baton of Dr. Bruce Lamott. They were joined by undergraduate students Christina Smith, Vivian Ho and soloists Alaina Brown, Hannah Pho, Danielle Smith and Shu Chen Ong. The performance edition was prepared by Catsalis with music students Daniel Gonzalez and Ethan Williams in the class "Editing and Performing Baroque Music."


Marie-Louise Catsalis
Lecturer, Stanford Music Department

Marie-Louise Catsalis is a conductor, vocal coach and keyboard accompanist (piano and harpsichord). She also currently teaches courses at Stanford University. Initially trained as a pianist, she completed a graduate opera repetiteurâ course at the Sydney Conservatorium in 1993. That year she also took part in the Pacific Music Festival,...

Ph.D Candidate, Program in Modern Thought and Literature

Adrienne Rose Johnson is a PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Literature. She studies American popular culture with particular attention to the body, labor, and the landscape, and has done research on the history of American vacationing, frugality, and dieting. She is a 2008 graduate of UC Berkeley's American Studies program and has taught in the American Studies, English, and the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at...