Composed in 1962, Penderecki's "Stabat Mater" for three mixed SATB a capella choruses, is an intensely moving setting of six stanzas from the famous medieval poem by Jacopone da Todi (c.1228 - 1306), a lament of the Virgin Mary over her dying Son ("Stabat Mater dolorosa / luxta crucem lacrimosa" / At the cross her station keeping, Stood the mournful Mother weeping).
Throughout most of the piece's eight and one-half minutes' duration, the composer employs a simple and very effective device: the words of a stanza are chanted on one central pitch which is then sustained while the other singers weave other notes closely around that tone, usually at a half-tone higher or lower. This procedure creates both a contemporary internal dissonance (or, better, intensiveness) between the static and the moving lines, and a sense of ancient modality.
The opening measures present a simple pattern chant and then the next chorus comes in and then the out-of-mode sustained tone comes in on even pulses with the words greatly stretched out.
Then a cluster of notes grows in both directions from the central tone, and the text is delivered using the method described above.
At the end of the first verse ("Quis est homo qui non fleret, Christi Matrem si videret in tanto supplicio?" / Can the human heart refrain from partaking in her pain, In that mother's pain untold?), the chorus slowly modulates from singing on pitches to speaking the passage phonenemically in sharp staccato punches that sound remarkably like percussive shakers.
In the heart-rending second verse, ("Eia Mater fons amons, Me sentire vim doloris" / O sweet Mother, font of love, Touch my spirit from above"), the "central tone" is now a simple chant around a single tonic. Other voices then join in with imitative gestures on varying tonics. At the end of the verse, the voices crescendo into the "Christe!" tone cluster which begins the third verse.
The voices chant unpitched in a simple unison prayer, like a church congregation: "Christe, cum sit hinc exire, Da per Matrem me venire Ad palmam victoriae" / Christ, when you shall call me hence, Be your Mother my defence, Be your cross my victory.) "Christe!" is repeated and sustained three times across the three choruses. Then the prayer chant, again unpitched, follows, overlapping across the choruses.
Then the verse begins again with the kind of writing we hear at the beginning, only somewhat denser. This texture crescendos into a final "gloria" on a D major chord.