Welcome back to the Oxford Pro Musica blog, this time looking ahead to our exciting concert in the Sheldonian Theatre this Wednesday (8pm, 3rd July). The centrepiece of the programme is, of course, Mozart’s sublime Requiem, which will constitute the second half of the concert. By way of prelude, we’ll sing Haydn’s robust Insanae et Vanae Curae and Astorga’s mournful but melodic Stabat Mater in the first half. The Mozart will probably need no introduction from me, and you’ve likely come across Haydn, even if not this particular work; but who, I hear you ask, is Astorga? Allow me to introduce you – although be warned that there are significant gaps in his extant biography, which have inevitably been rather inventively filled during the centuries that lie between him and us.

Image of Mary at foot of CrossThe nobleman Emanuele d’Astorga was born in 1680 and may have died in 1757. Though of Spanish descent, he was born in Sicily, and by all remaining accounts led a colourful life that included the attempted murder of his mother by his father, hobnobbing with Habsburgs, quarrels, debt, and desertion of his family. Well educated, he nonetheless seems to have had a natural talent for music, composing an opera at 18, and later writing another, Dafni, which earned him a job at court in Vienna. He attained almost cult status in a nineteenth century enamoured of his extra-musical exploits, but since then his popularity has steadily drained away.

However, his fortunes have recently been revived with the critical rediscovery of his Stabat Mater, his only surviving sacred work. A setting of the evergreen medieval hymn to the sorrowing mother of Christ standing at the foot of the cross, Astorga intersperses movements for full chorus with characterful solos and duets, and skilfully captures both the tenderness and melancholy of the text with elegant melodic writing coloured by searing suspensions and unexpected chromaticism. The concluding chorus is exuberant and upbeat, reflecting the final verse’s hope of triumphing over death by joining Christ in paradise – listen out for the smile-inducing virtuosic solo Amens in each voice part.

We hope that you enjoy discovering this baroque gem with us, and agree that it deserves to be better known. Hope to see you on Wednesday!

©Alice Stainer