Contrasting choral settings of the 'Stabat Mater' by Lennox Berkeley and Francis Poulenc

Conductor Peter Broadbent analyses settings of the 'Stabat Mater' by Francis Poulenc and Lennox Berkeley – and finds reflections of their personalities and faith.

The long friendship between Berkeley and Poulenc is as well-known as their mutual respect as composers. Whilst their musical styles clearly occupy different worlds, their shared faith unites them, and it is not surprising that both chose to set perhaps the most human of all sacred texts, the 13th Century Stabat Mater, which identifies with the suffering of the Mother of God in seeing her son crucified. Both were prolific composers whose output embraced many different genres, and neither could (or should) be described as predominantly composers of religious music. In fact, it seems that for them both, Roman Catholicism was a completely natural part of their lives, and that they simply responded to different situations by choosing to write sacred works.

Between the ‘cradle’ Catholic and the convert, one senses that those who are brought up as Catholics seem to have a more relaxed attitude to their faith. Poulenc, despite lapsing for some years, returned to his faith after his fellow-composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud was killed in a car accident in 1936. Hearing of this, Poulenc made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, which became a regular practice thereafter, inspiring him on several occasions, as in the composition of the Stabat Mater. When, in 1949, his friend the painter and set designer Christian Bérard died suddenly, Poulenc, wanting to memorialise him, turned to this text rather than the Requiem, describing it as a ‘Requiem without despair’. By contrast, Lennox Berkeley converted to Catholicism at the age of 26, and there is possibly a more spiritual side to his religion than to his friend’s, but the sincerity of both composers in their setting of this ancient text is clearly apparent.

In an interview with Peter Dickinson in 1978, Lennox Berkeley talked about his relationship with sacred texts and said, ‘Being a Catholic has meant that I feel at home with the Roman liturgy …. I felt attracted to these texts because I believed what they were about’. 1 Poulenc, in conversation with Claude Rostand in 1954, said, ‘I am religious by deepest instinct and by heredity … so it seems quite natural to me to believe and practise religion. I am a Catholic. It is my greatest freedom’. 2

When he came to write his Stabat Mater Poulenc had already produced a substantial repertoire of unaccompanied choral music, but this was his first large choral and orchestral work. He uses a five-part chorus, with separate Baritones and Basses, providing a darker hue, a Soprano soloist and a full orchestra with triple woodwind, full brass section, timpani and 2 harps.

Lennox Berkeley, 1943 (BBC)
Lennox Berkeley, 1943 (BBC)

The impetus for Berkeley’s Stabat Mater came from a commission from Benjamin Britten in 1947 to write a concert piece for his newly-formed English Opera Group, which was touring his opera Albert Herring. The specific requirements of the commission were that the piece should be written for six solo singers and a chamber ensemble of 12 players, based entirely on the scoring for the opera. This was a very productive period for Berkeley, who seized the opportunity and produced a superbly concentrated and immaculately scored work, which looks forward to his operas and demonstrates a growing confidence in his ability, following his recent marriage and the success of the Serenade for Strings and his first Symphony. Unfortunately, the unusual demands of the scoring of the Stabat Mater have clearly limited the number of subsequent performances of this piece, which is so often referred to by scholars as one of his finest, which I too believe it is.

One can see from my chart at the end the very different approach each takes to grouping the twenty stanzas of the poem. Berkeley was perhaps drawn not only to the rhyming scheme which links each pair of stanzas together, but also to the way in which the emotions are linked in this construction. The allocation of the solo voices also seems to personalise the meaning of the text in his setting, despite the apparent formality of approach. Poulenc on the other hand responds to a different rhythm of the text – perhaps less interested in the rhyming scheme than in building blocks of intensity. There is a touch of the theatrical about his piece, whereas Berkeley’s is closer to the Oratorio tradition, despite his operatic singers.

Francis Poulenc, c. 1950 (Photo Collection Francis Poulenc)
Francis Poulenc, c. 1950 (Photo Collection Francis Poulenc)

Evidently the biggest difference between the two works is that Poulenc’s is largely choral, for he was by this time a very experienced composer in this metier. His predilection for short phrases, with the text emphasised by repetition, and by passages in which the order of the words is transposed, is supported here by his orchestration, which often features the various sections separately. Berkeley’s work was clearly written for soloists, and his handling of the instrumental ensemble – in effect a small chamber orchestra – demonstrates the transparency and subtlety one might expect from a student of Nadia Boulanger. Structurally too, Berkeley is more formal, often using ternary structure, and with much less repetition of text, although Poulenc uses ternary form in some movements. As the work progresses it seems to generate a greater intensity, and having fitted five stanzas in one movement, the final three are effectively one movement, with attaquer marked between them.

The use of unaccompanied voices is also a feature – when Berkeley writes for his solo voices in ensemble, they often sing a cappella, frequently in straightforward homophonic declamation, sometimes sounding more choral with imitation, and not until the final movement do they all sing together. Poulenc frequently contrasts his fully-scored sections with the chorus alone, with one movement almost entirely so. The choice of texts for the solo voices is clearly carefully considered by Berkeley, who knew who would be performing the piece. He had just written the Four poems of St. Teresa of Avila for Kathleen Ferrier, and the singers on the EOG tour who were to perform the Stabat Mater were Margaret Ritchie, Lesley Duff, Nancy Evans, Peter Pears, Frederick Sharp and Norman Lumsden, all of whom were superb soloists. Berkeley matches the character of the stanzas with great sensitivity – one might imagine for example the Soprano Duet sung by the two Marys named in St. John’s Gospel, and the Tenor who sings ‘Eia Mater, fons amoris’ to be St. John himself. (Pears loved this aria, and sang it often in concerts.) Poulenc uses his one soloist with great economy, but in each case to great effect. One only has to hear Régine Crespin on the recording with Georges Prêtre to appreciate that.

Both composers have harmonic styles which are rooted in tonality, but with much chromaticism and many changes of key which make description difficult. Berkeley’s harmony is more austere than Poulenc’s, whose jazz-inflected chords – sometimes described as ‘fruity’ – tend to surprise in a religious work. Only one movement of his work has a key signature, whereas several of Berkeley’s do. The endings of movements make an interesting comparison. Berkeley closes on a unison, an open fifth or a major or minor chord except in two movements. ‘Quis est homo? ’ ends with an unresolved 7th, and the Contralto solo is the only one to end with a chromatic chord. Poulenc has some unusual cadences, sometimes ending on seventh chords which bear no relation to the following movement, and the work ends with a massive chord of E flat major, again with a flattened 7th.

The influence of both Stravinsky and Ravel can be heard in both orchestrations. The opening of the Bass solo, ‘Sancta Mater’, in Berkeley’s piece anticipates The Rake’s Progress, and there are occasional glimpses of Ravel and his Introduction and Allegro. Poulenc’s fifth movement too, particularly in its final ‘Prestissimo’, is redolent of Stravinsky, and the Harp glissandi in ‘O quam tristis’ provide a very Ravelian colouring. There are many other similarities, in particular the solemnity and almost processional character of the two opening movements, and the return to these figures at the very end of the piece. The recurring use of the key of B minor, which has been described by many musicologists since the 18th century as a melancholy, patient acceptance of fate or God’s will is an interesting feature.

The comparison between settings of the third & fourth stanzas vividly demonstrates the contrast between the two composers’ styles and approach, although ‘O quam tristis’ draws a sympathetic response from each. The duet for the two Sopranos in Berkeley’s piece (II in the chart) opens in B minor with the two voices unaccompanied in canon in a soulful phrase, and then supported by the strings they join to state the main theme, which consists of a two-bar rising phrase followed by two bars falling, and closing with a four-bar phrase with a melismatic treatment of ‘Unigenite ’. The middle section of this ternary structure sets the text of the fourth stanza, when, over tremolo strings, the word dolebat (sorrowing) is given a falling semitone in three against the two beats of the compound time, and then a more expansive phrase which leads to a restatement of the opening material, first over a pedal figure from the strings, then accompanied by clarinet, bassoon and double bass, before an altered version of the main theme returns us to the tonic key.

Poulenc remains true to his usual homophony, and short phrases in ‘O quam tristis’ (III), the intensity of the text underlined by contrasts in dynamics – ‘Mater unigenite’ is always loud – and texture – the choir mostly unaccompanied in only four parts, but thickened to six in the accompanied phrases, sometimes joined by the strings, at other times with full orchestra. The choral writing is very typical, frequent root-position chords moving to and from totally unrelated keys. Opening in B minor, the second phrase is in E flat minor. The words of the stanza are repeated three times, before a woodwind phrase leads back to a repeat of the first line, and a return to the home key. At this point one is put in mind of the description of Poulenc by Claude Rostand as ‘Monk or Vagabond’ in trying to explain the contradictory styles of his music, because in the movement that follows, ‘Quae moerebat’ (IV), the flowing quavers of the woodwind introduction and the gentle, mainly unison choral melody over a pizzicato accompaniment, are perhaps more suited to something more pastoral than a crucifixion.

There is a more jarring juxtaposition between the sixth and seventh movements (the eighth and ninth stanzas), where Poulenc provides a lovely descending phrase for the solo soprano over repeated string chords, moving from B minor via a miraculous modulation to A minor, and some wonderfully sensitive settings of the text, sometimes changing the order of words to reinforce the meaning. The close of this movement shows the composer at his finest, when with the return of the tonic key the orchestra plays the opening motif of the work, whilst the soloist intones ‘Dum emisit’ and the choir sing spiritum unaccompanied, very quietly. Poulenc writes here ‘long silence’. This is the emotional heart of the poem, and yet the following movement is in a cheerful triple rhythm in E flat major, with repeated chords in the brass and running semiquavers in the winds, and the brief middle section reminiscent of Carl Orff. The cheeky trumpet slide in the final cadence is possibly Poulenc cocking a snook at over-religiosity.

Berkeley’s writing for the singers in the ensemble movements is largely syllabic, and at times in unison or two-part writing, which is particularly effective in the ‘Vidit suum’ passage (IV), where they are accompanied at first by unison strings, and at the words ‘Dum emisit spiritum’ the strings hold a long chord whilst the flute, clarinet and harp play an ostinato figure above. The spareness of texture highlights the despair of Mary, and, as the voices finish, the ostinato is taken up by all the wind, leading to an anguished climax, when the ostinato passes to the strings, who, along with a timpani roll, finish on F sharp – the Dominant of B minor.

All the solo arias are constructed with great awareness of range and tessitura, and the instrumental accompaniments are economically scored with deep appreciation of colour. Berkeley gives a poignant and sorrowful aria to the Baritone, ‘Quis est homo?’ The range is perfectly suited to the voice, and the rise to a top E flat on the word dolentem (grieving) is underlined by the chromaticism of the harmony lessening at that point.

The Tenor aria is also ternary, with the tenth stanza as the middle section. The writing is lyrical, with extended melismas on the last word of each line, and the accompaniment is mostly for strings only. The tonality is based around E minor, but with frequent investigations of nearby flat keys. After a short link for woodwind quartet the middle section repeats the phrase Fac, ut ardeat cor meum, each time a tone higher with rising intensity, until the third time when the phrase is extended to four bars, and the second and third lines of the text lead into a restatement of the first section, except that a striking reworking of an earlier phrase interrupts to repeat the opening words, with the strings finishing gently on a unison B.

The Bass aria follows a very different structure from the others. After the Stravinskian introduction referred to earlier, the soloist proclaims the first stanza unaccompanied for the most part, until the winds join for the last line of text, which is repeated. The gentle rising melody in the voice for the next stanza is imitated in canon by the flute and accompanied by cello and bass, and even when other wind instruments join in, the texture remains essentially three-part. The words are repeated, and then after a hesitant repetition of Poenas mecum divide on one note, echoed by the pizzicato cello and bass, the introduction of the movement is repeated.

The introduction to the Contralto aria ‘Fac me tecum’ demonstrates the subtlety of Berkeley’s ear. The cello plays a melody in long notes, whilst an urgent quaver figure is given to the violin and viola, but the viola is playing the highest part, and the violin is lower than the cello, so the effect is rather sombre. There are so many wonderful details of orchestration in this piece – the cuivré (stopped) accents in the horn whilst the soloist has long melismatic phrases on flere (weep), the constant ostinato pattern in the second section supporting a rising phrase on In planctu desidero, the second time with a military figure on the tenor drum and a flourish from the wind, and a pp cymbal roll accompanying the final bars.

The percussionist has much to play in the dramatic Soprano aria, where the singer is supported mostly by strings, but in the linking passage the player enters with another passage on the Tenor Drum before moving to the Bass Drum for some rolls, and then a crescendo on the Cymbal to introduce the flames of the next stanza, with a real coloratura passage for the soloist which builds to a repetition of Per Te rising to a high B flat. The final passage, slower and threatening as the Soprano sings of the day of judgement, over a three-note ostinato in B flat minor, until a final swerve to its home key of E at the end, although with no third to identify the tonality.

Poulenc fashions the two stanzas in his tenth movement into a sombre Sarabande, with double dotted rhythms and a great use of repeated pedal notes. After some time in A minor the key rises to C sharp minor, and then, after a typically brief Poulenc modulation, the Soprano soloist is introduced in B flat minor, and her melody leaps an octave to a high C flat on Et plagas recolere. In the next stanza there is a remarkable passage where the chorus support the soloist as she sings Cruce hac inebriari … and the Sopranos of the chorus are then given the identical phrase which is harmonised completely differently. The movement moves towards C sharp again, and finishes with a major chord with a minor 7th added. The direction is to attack the next movement immediately, and the Inflammatus et accensus (an alternative text to Flammis ne urar ….) is fast and energetic, underlined by repeated quavers in the timps in a somewhat Orff-like passage changing metre between 3, 4 and 5. The opening of the penultimate stanza is succinct and for unaccompanied chorus, but the orchestra join for the four repetitions of the last line ad palmam victoriae which grows in power and richness of harmony until a very loud chord (a Dominant minor 9th with a flattened 5th for those who want to know) leads to the final stanza.

Yet again the opening phrases are unaccompanied and quiet until an explosion of joy on the words Paradisi gloria accompanied by the full orchestra, then unaccompanied again, and the first two lines repeated quietly until another outburst which is a third higher, topped by the solo Soprano. The tonality so far has started in E flat minor, then moves to G minor, then C minor, then shifts quietly to A minor. The final passage is based on the heavy tread of the work’s opening, although now the harmony is more chromatic, and after a few bars returns to E flat minor, where in the final pp statement of Paradisi gloria the voices are reduced to contraltos and baritones supporting the soloist. A brief and loud unaccompanied Amen is followed by a very loud orchestral chord of E flat major, but with an added minor 7th.

For his last movement Berkeley uses his entire forces for the only time, but sparingly and with no grand gestures – the percussionist has only two pp cymbal strokes to play. The introduction features the solemn tone of the bass clarinet, and the flute intones a simple motif whilst the horn plays a slow descending chromatic scale. The flute motif is taken up in imitation by the six voices, and the second line of the stanza is also sung in imitation, but this time the voices enter in pairs, reaching f as the Soprano arrives at the word victoriae, to be followed by an instrumental repetition of the phrase. The final stanza begins with the same motif over a descending chromatic bass in crotchets whilst the upper winds move in quavers in a rising phrase. In the last line of the poem the voices sing quietly unaccompanied, ending on an ‘open’ chord as the ensemble repeat the opening phrase, with the harp playing the note E repeatedly, and the final chord of E major is sustained by strings only playing harmonics, and the harp playing the falling semitone figure, which has been heard so often, in the bass.

It is clear from everything one reads about these two composers that the principal characteristic they shared was, as the Poulenc scholar Sidney Buckland so effectively summarises, that particular purity of always being themselves, and there is no doubt that these two works thoroughly reflect both the personality and the religious conviction of each composer. In Lennox Berkeley’s music one can hear the French influence of his upbringing and study, but also something of the typically English reserve, his response to his faith being essentially spiritual. Julian Berkeley, has written that his father’s ‘faith permeated not just his liturgical work, but almost all the music he wrote – and his entire life’. 3 Tony Scotland, describing Berkeley’s preparation for his reception into the Roman Catholic Church, writes in his biography of the composer: ‘It was not a dramatic conversion … Lennox’s regeneration, like Lennox himself, was private, quiet, slow and profound’, 4 and this sensitively-structured and impeccably-balanced setting fully expresses his belief. On the other hand, Poulenc’s Catholicism was earthbound and sensual. Pierre Bernac quotes him as saying: ‘My conception of religious music is essentially direct and often informal. For me, the spirit of religion manifests itself in broad daylight, with the same realism that we see in Romanesque capitals’. 5

Writing a review of two Poulenc biographies, Oliver Soden’s delightful phrase, ‘Poulenc was a composer who melded the incompatible’, aptly describes the way in which his natural flamboyance sits alongside a genuine reverence in this work’. 6 The fact that this piece sits comfortably alongside other choral works of symphonic scale, thus allowing for easier programming, has helped to ensure its popularity. Berkeley’s setting for six soloists, doubling chorus, and chamber orchestra has made it more difficult to build into a concert programme but in no way limits the magnitude of this beautiful, powerfully moving piece.

Peter Broadbent and his Joyful Company of Singers (Photo Carol Hartfree)
Peter Broadbent and his Joyful Company of Singers (Photo Carol Hartfree)

Comparisons of the Berkeley and Poulenc settings of the Stabat Mater







Stabat Mater dolorosa Iuxta crucem lacrimosa Dum pendebat Filius

The sorrowful Mother stood full of tears by the Cross while her Son was hanging there




5 Singers



Chorus & Orch


Cuius animam gementem Contristatam et dolentem Pertransivit gladius

Her soul, sighing, anguished and grieving, was pierced by a sword


Chorus & Orch


O quam tristis et afflicta Fuit illa benedicta Mater unigeniti!

O how sad and afflicted was that blessed Mother of the Only-begotten!




2 Sopranos



Chorus (largely a cappella)


Quae moerebat et dolebat, Pia Mater, dum videbat Nati poenas incliti

For she grieved and sorrowed, the pious Mother, as she witnessed the pains of her great Son.


Chorus & Orch


Quis est homo qui non fleret, Matrem Christi si videret In tanto supplicio?

Where is the man who would not weep to see the Mother of Christ in such suffering?



Solo Baritone



Chorus & Orch


Quis non posset contristari, Christi Matrem contemplari Dolentem cum Filio?

Who would not share her sorrow, seeing the loving Mother grieving with her Son?


Pro peccatis suae gentis Vidit Iesum in tormentis, Et flagellis subditum.

For the sins of His people she saw Jesus in torment and subdued with whips.




4 Singers


Vidit suum dulcem natum Moriendo desolatum Dum emisit spiritum

She saw her sweet Son dying, forsaken, as He gave up the spirit.


Sop Solo

Chorus ATBarB


Eia Mater, fons amoris Me sentire vim doloris Fac, ut tecum lugeam

O Mother, fount of love, make me feel the strength of your grief, that I may mourn with you



Solo Tenor


Chorus & Orch


Fac, ut ardeat cor meum In amando Christum Deum Ut sibi complaceam

Make my heart burn with love for Christ, my God, that I may be pleasing to Him


Chorus SAT (largely a cappella)


Sancta Mater, istud agas, Crucifixi fige plagas Cordi meo valide.

Holy Mother, this I pray, drive the wounds of the Crucified deep into my heart.



Solo Bass



Chorus & Orch


Tui nati vulnerati, Tam dignati pro me pati, Poenas mecum divide.

That of your wounded Son, who deigned to suffer for me, I may share the pain.


Fac me tecum, pie, flere, Crucifixo condolere, Donec ego vixero.

Make me weep with you lovingly, to feel the pain with the Crucified, as long as I live.



Solo Contralto


Iuxta crucem tecum stare, Et me tibi sociare In planctu desidero

To stand with you beside the Cross, and to share your grief is my desire


Virgo virginum praeclara, Mihi iam non sis amara Fac me tecum plangere

Virgin of virgins, resplendent, do not now be harsh to me, let me weep with you



Ensemble 4 Singers


Fac, ut portem Christi mortem Passionis fac consortem, Et plagas recolere.

Let me bear the death of Christ, be a sharer of his Passion, and contemplate His wounds.



Soprano Solo Chorus & Orch


Fac me plagis vulnerari, Cruce hac inebriari, Et cruore Filii

Let me be wounded with his wounds, let me be inebriated by the cross and your Son’s blood



Solo Soprano


Flammis ne urar succensus
Per Te, Virgo, sim defensus In die iudicii

Lest I be consumed by flames, Virgin, may I be defended by thee at the day of judgement



Chorus & Orch


Christe, cum sit hinc exire, Da per Matrem me venire Ad palmam victoriae

Christ, when from hence I have to go, grant that by Thy mother I may come unto victorious palms





Quando corpus morietur, Fac, ut animae donetur Paradisi gloria. Amen

When my body dies, let my soul be given

the glory of paradise. Amen

12 Tutti