Stanford students discover an 18th-century music treasure in Green Library

Music lecturer and students edit and finish an incomplete manuscript by Francesco Durante for a modern-day première in Memorial Church.

L.A. Cicero Stanford music lecturer Marie-Louise Catsalis and students.

Stanford music lecturer Marie-Louise Catsalis, left, and her students rehearse a newly discovered setting of the hymn "Stabat Mater." They will perform the piece Thursday during a 7:30 p.m. Lenten concert in Memorial Church.

This week, Marie-Louise Catsalis and her music students will present what is likely the first performance in over 300 years of Neapolitan composer Francesco Durante's Stabat Mater.

Last spring, Catsalis and her students discovered an incomplete Latin music manuscript by Durante in Stanford Library's Special Collections and undertook the challenge of finishing the work, editing it from original notation and performing it with the Philharmonia Chorale.

Durante (1684-1755) was a devoted teacher of sacred music, and it is fitting that his Stabat Mater is being prepared and performed by students at a Lenten concert in Memorial Church. The performance is Thursday, Feb. 26, at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Stabat Mater is a 13th-century strophic hymn that depicts Mary, the mother of Jesus, during his crucifixion. The poetic text has famously been set to music by Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Baroque composers Antonio Vivaldi and the Scarlattis (Alessandro and Domenico), and later by Giaochino Rossini. Joseph Haydn and Antonín Dvořák each composed a version. Perhaps the most famous setting is by Durante's student, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, composed in 1736.

Durante's earlier version was not widely performed and is virtually unknown, most likely because of its missing manuscript pages.

"This Stabat Mater provides a link in the tradition of Stabat Maters produced in Naples at the early 18th century, in particular sitting between teacher and student, namely the highly regarded Stabat Maters of Alessandro Scarlatti and Giovanni Pergolesi," said Catsalis.

Students Daniel Gonzalez and Ethan Williams started working on the undated manuscript with Catsalis last spring as part of her course Editing and Performing Early Music. The work involved transcribing the music from its original clefs/handwritten notation and interpreting Durante's markings. Catsalis and the students intend to submit the edition for publication before the end of this academic year.

"When we looked at the most complete manuscript held by Special Collections, we realized that considering the da capo [return to the music of the opening movement] there were only two words of the poem missing," explained Catsalis. "From analyzing the structural and rhythmic flow of the piece, I was able to supply 10 measures to complete the penultimate movement. These measures are taken internally from the same movement and only slightly modified to fit the rhythm of the remaining words." Finis!

The manuscript is part of the Memorial Library of Music, a collection of musical treasures formed to pay tribute to Stanford alumni who lost their lives in World War II. The Stabat Mater manuscript will be fully digitized and will join the small, but increasing, number of significant musical scores from the Memorial Library of Music that may be accessed by the public through SearchWorks, the online catalog.

There are eight students involved in the performance: editors Gonzalez and Williams, and voice students Alaina Brown, Danielle Smith, Shu Chen Ong, Hannah Pho, Vivian Ho and Christina Smith, who will perform with the Philharmonia Chorale conducted by Bruce Lamott, a Stanford alumna. In addition, instrumental solo sonatas will be played in between the vocal works by faculty Herbert Myers on recorder, Anthony Martin on violin and Catsalis on continuo harpsichord.

Ho said of her experience with the project, "Learning the piece was comparable to discovering uncharted territory. Because we have never seen the work performed, we have the creative flexibility to interpret the music in the manner that the composer would have wanted. As a musician, I believe it is important to approach the piece from its historical background while simultaneously presenting it to the audience in a new light."

The performance preparation started with a public master class last spring with artistic director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan, in which the students held a workshop on two of the solo movements. McGegan declared the unfinished manuscript a treasure that should be completed and performed. "We took him at his word and dedicated ourselves to seeing the project through," Catsalis said.