Quis est homo? "Who is he that would not weep, to see the mother of Christ in such despair?" These words were first uttered in thirteenth century Italy in an affective and emotional Latin deovtional lyric; the obvious answer to its rhetorical question is that no true believer would not mourn with the Virgin over the dying Christ. The poem is the "Stabat mater," thought to be the work of the great Lauda-poet Jacopone da Todi. Its plangent strophes affect an emotional connection between the meditating believer and the mother of the Crucified, and first emerged from the intense strains of popular devotion following the Black Plague. In the eighteenth century, however, the text took on new life in popular devotional practice through the influence of one musical setting: the Stabat mater dolorosa of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.
The Roman Catholic Church officially added the "Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin" to its calendar in 1727, but the "Stabat mater" text was already ensconsed in many local liturgies. According to Pergolesi's first biographer, a famous monastery in Naples comissioned a musical setting of the text from the great Alessandro Scarlatti in 1725. Soon thereafter, they sought a new setting from Pergolesi mandating that he had to compose for two high voices (sopranos or male castrati). He accepted the task, despite his then-current illness: the 25-year-old Pergolesi was already suffering from the tuberculosis that would claim his life. The legend goes that he composed in a devotional frenzy on his deathbed. Whether or not the story was true, Pergolesi's Stabat mater was quickly an international hit, drawing inevitable comparisons to Mozart's deathbed Requiem. This cantata was published more often than any other single piece of music in the entire eighteenth century.
Musically, Pergolesi sets the successive tercets of his poetic text to alternating duets and arias. From the very opening measures, he carefully sets a mournful affect. The violins (answered later by the vocal duet) open with a drawn-out chain of suspensions and a painfully extended pedal tone. Later movements similarly use overtly "sad" musical devices: the second duet features strong dissonant clashes for "O quam tristis et afflicta," and the third appears above a chromatically descending bass line. Surprisingly, however, Pergolesi also includes several arias that clothe the mournful text in much lighter musical raiment; he was, after all, the famed composer of light opera interludes (including La serva padrona).