Rossini Stabat Mater – a Holy Cross celebration to remember

“Were you at Holy Cross Priory on Saturday for Rossini’s Stabat Mater? If you were, lucky you, lucky all of us. If you weren’t, I cannot begin to tell you what you missed. And we had Monteverdi’s Beatus Vir as well.” – Roger Cairns, Swannington (Leicester Mercury, Letters page, 16 October 2019)

A historic occasion

The Dominican priory church in Leicester was filled last Saturday (12th October) for a concert celebrating 200 years since the first Holy Cross church was founded on this site in 2019. Over 330 people attended the performance by the Knighton Chamber Orchestra and Coro Nostro Chamber Choir, two local ensembles, also drawing on other local talent for the soloists. The highlight of the programme was the Rossini ‘Stabat Mater’, which in a sense was coming home: in the nineteenth century Holy Cross had given the work its first complete church performance in the UK.  So it was a fitting way to celebrate the 200th anniversary.

A thoughtful programme of sacred music

The Rossini was anticipated by a first half of various sacred choral works by Monteverdi (Beatus Vir), Mozart (Ave Verum Corpus) and Bruckner (Locus Iste) among others, selected to highlight the dedication of the church and its consecration for Catholic worship. One Eucharistic motet, the Tantum Ergo text by St Thomas Aquinas, was set by Charles Guynemer, the first director of music at Holy Cross in 1819. As an exile from France, he had been helped to settle in Leicester by William Gardiner, the prolific writer and publisher of hymns. So it was appropriate that the audience all stood to sing one of Gardiner’s tunes (‘Germany’) for the hymn to the Holy Cross, Vexilla Regis. Backed up by the organ and full orchestra, the combined voices of the choir and congregation really swelled the air in the resonant acoustic of Leicester’s largest church.

The historical origins

Professor Patrick Boylan provided historical notes in the programme and expanded these in a pre-concert talk. He explained how Leicester’s Catholics in 1819 were still suffering under penal laws, yet their growing congregation developed a strong musical tradition under Guynemer’s impulse, drawing on the English Catholic style of Samuel Webbe as well as the Dominican chant repertoire. After Guynemer, a succession of outstanding music directors ensured the Holy Cross choral tradition continued through the nineteenth century. Besides the Rossini Stabat Mater, other UK church premieres at Holy Cross included Mozart’s Coronation Mass in C Major and Gounod’s Messe Solennelle St Cecilia.

‘At the Cross her station keeping’

Fr Matthew Jarvis introduced the Rossini with a word about the meaning of the Stabat Mater. This Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary as ‘Mother of Sorrows’ (feast day 15 September), standing at the foot of her Son’s cross, is well known to those who pray the Stations of the Cross. Fr Matthew invited the audience to contemplate the great crucifix hanging above the sanctuary, showing the Mother of Christ and the Beloved Disciple standing by, so that whatever meaning the music may convey in itself, or by the words of the hymn, might be framed and focused by that vivid scene of love and sorrow.

A word of gratitude

The event would not have been possible without the often hidden work of many faithful members of Holy Cross, including the Frassati Young Adults group, who turned out in large numbers to clean the church, arrange furniture, prepare and serve refreshments, and manage the welcome desks. Their efficient organisation, thanks in large part to the coordination by Jeff Henry, drew several compliments from the musicians and ensured that the large crowd that gathered on the night could relax and enjoy this musical celebration of Holy Cross in its 200th year. While the music received a well deserved standing ovation, perhaps many of those present also went home touched in some deeper way by the mystery of the Cross, the sign of God’s saving love for us.

A selection of photos of the event by Br Joseph Bailham OP:

A full house
Pre-concert talk by Professor Patrick Boylan

The grand finale
Conductors Paul Jenkins and Lydia Hind with the soloists, choir and orchestra for the final bow
Programme cover
The great crucifix over the sanctuary of Holy Cross Church, showing the Mother of Christ and the Beloved Disciple standing by