Grieving and healing: Julia Perry's "Stabat Mater"

The U.S. continues to mourn the massacre of nine African Americans in a South Carolina church.  At the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral service, President Barack Obama drew on the healing power of words melded with music, as he sang “Amazing Grace.”  This was a remarkable moment – I can’t remember another President turning to music in this way.  The effect was evocative, as the President grasped what was needed and brought people together through this simple musical expression.

I had my own thoughts about a musical work that would be effective as a response to this tragic event, a work expressing pain, anguish, despair, anger, and some sense of resolve and perhaps healing: the “Stabat Mater” (1951) by Julia Perry (1924-1979).

That women composers do experience sexism is a given in our blog, and Perry as an African-American lived with an additional set of hurdles, those of racism; and racism has been so clearly present in many tragic events in recent months.  To my ear, the “Stabat Mater” is such a monumental and moving work that its absence from the performing canon must surely result from some combination of the factors of racism and sexism.  Perry had a long struggle with ill health before dying at age 55, which also was a factor.  Women composers often lacked the support network that might have helped them in such situations – male composers were much more likely to have a wife or female relative who would be devoted to working to promote their music, even after their death (I discuss this issue, with several examples, here).

“Stabat Mater,” at least, was recorded and also published.  Very few works by Perry have been recorded, and many have been lost (including her Viola Sonata, which received a prize from the American Academy at Fontainebleau in 1952.)   The recording of the “Stabat Mater” (issued in 1960 on CRI) has been reissued (without re-mastering) by New World Records.  The original  notes that accompany that recording might illustrate some of the prejudice that Julia Perry encountered.  The recording features music by two composers, Perry and Douglas Moore.  The notes refer to “Miss Perry,” which contrasts distinctly with “Dr. Moore,” and strike me as as casting a condescending tone. Interestingly, another CRI recording with music by Moore, along with works by Charles Ruggles and Robert Ward, does not use any titles in referring to the composers.  On the original LP of the “Stabat Mater,”  Moore andPerry each had their piece on their own side of the record.  Yet in the note, the discussion of Moore is nearly twice the length  of Perry’s.  While much younger than Moore, Perry did have her own achievements by that time which are not mentioned: publications and awards (including two Guggenheims!)   Moore had the benefit of several opportunities that were not available to Perry, including Ivy League education – two degrees from Yale — and a tenured position at another Ivy League institution, Columbia.  Some oft hese may seem like small, but they do represent the pervasive chilly climate that women and African-Americans faced (and often continue to face).

Unfortunately, despite the very promising start to her career, Perry later had difficulty finding performances of her works.  The most detailed study available, in Helen Walker-Hill’s From Spirituals to Symphonies, reports that nothing she wrote after 1963 appears to have been performed. Given her very poor health, the determination she had to continue to compose and work to promote her music is awe-inspiring.  For instance, following a stroke she was unable to write with her right hand, and she painstakingly learned to write with her left hand, (although unfortunately many of the works she wrote from that period are difficult to decipher).

Composed by an African-American woman, on a traditional Catholic text, the “Stabat Mater” is a profoundly universal expression, a deeply human meditation.  Beyond that, it is an expression of anger. The section beginning at 6:30,  with the cascading string lines and muscular leaps at the end of the vocal phrases, conveys anger in the face of injustice, rage at the death of an innocent. It is anger which we – Americans grieving a senseless slaughter — have the right to feel.  At 8:08 we turn to a simple compassion for the grieving mother, as the unison strings follow the voice.

Written for string orchestra and mezzo-soprano soloist, the string playing  (in this recording) is very sensitive, but the singer is lacking in nuance and focus (and is sometimes shrill).  In spite of this flaw, the work does come across.  A solo violin often echos the voice part, and a rich variety of contrapuntal textures are employed with (for instance) craggy melodies over repeating kernels of ostinato.  While, at the conclusion, we do perceive a shimmer of the glory of heaven, a ray of hope, it is layered over the broader mood of sorrow and even despondency.  The grief and anguish are respected and illiminated as our shared emotions. The “Stabat Mater” is an effective, sorrowful, but cathartic healing process.


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