Stabat Maters from across the ages

Ahead of the London premiere of Dillon’s brand new Stabat Mater Dolorosa on Wednesday 21 January, we’ve been looking back at some other interpretations of this iconic text. Here’s a playlist of twelve Stabat Maters from across the ages:

1. John Browne

2. Antonin Dvořak

3. Franz Joseph Haydn

4. Herbert Howells

5. Zoltán Kodály

6. Frank Martin

7. Arvo Pärt

8. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

9. Gioacchino Rossini

10. Antonio Vivaldi

11. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

12. Francis Poulenc


When talking about the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, James Dillon says that “as per usual with my work there’s a lot of secret things going on”. We’ve compiled a collection of nine composers, including Dillon, who have introduced the notion of ‘secrets’ into their work:

Johann Sebastian Bach used the B-A-C-H motif, followed by his contemporaries and many other later composers.

Robert Schumann used S-C-H-A (E-flat, C, B-natural, A) to represent himself in Carnival. 

Johannes Brahms used B-A-H-S (B flat, A, B-natural, E-flat) for his surname in the Organ Fugue in A-flat Minor.

John Field, an Irish composer born in the 18th century, wrote melodies on the themes of B-E-E-F and C-A-B-B-A-G-E.

Oliver Messiaen used entire quotations from Thomas Aquinas in his organ work Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Edward Elgar‘s Enigma Variations were 14 musical sketches about his friends. In naming his theme he posed a question that is unanswered to this day, saying “The ‘Enigma’ I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart included many messages in his music about his involvement as a Freemason.

Dmitri Shostakovich left hidden political messages in his work in opposition to Stalin’s dictatorship.

James Dillon says that “one of the secret things [within the Stabat Mater Dolorosa] is that I am imitating gospel guitar, pop staples.”

Click here for more information and to book tickets.

Eight Extracts

Dillon’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa intricately uses eight pieces of text to tell it’s story on Wednesday 21 January. Dillon describes the extracts as holding the same themes of weeping, lamentation and eroticism.

New Image

1. The original Latin text from the Stabat Mater Dolorosa;
(Full text can be found here.)

“Stabat mater dolorosa
juxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.”

“At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.”
(approximate translation)

2. Julia Kristeva’s essay Hérétique de l’amour
Dillon describes how Kristeva’s essay plays “on a double meaning of heracy and eroticis. It’s a kind of radical reading of the Stabat Mater and the problems behind it, as well as the embedded politics to do with feminism.”

3. Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Visions of Christ
Dillon says “There’s a kind of illusion to eroticism, this imagery around Mary Magdalene.”

4. A letter to Picasso from his Mother
Picasso’s Mother wrote to him from Barcelona that smoke from the burning city during the fighting made her eyes water in May 1937. It turns out the letter was fictional, made up by one of his biographers.

5. John Donne’s poem ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’
Full poem can be found here.

“As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, No:”

6. Quote from Joseph Mallord William Turner
“If I could find anything blacker than black, I’d use it.”

7. Quote from John Keats
“I want a brighter word than bright.”

8. Quote from Charles Baudelaire
“Strangeness is a necessary ingredient in beauty.”

Click here for more information and to book tickets.

7 Intriguing Facts About Dillon’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa

Dillon’s new Stabat Mater Dolorosa is no ordinary piece of music. We’ve put together a list of seven interesting facts you may not have known, to give a little more insight before the London premiere on Wednesday 21 January.

1. Alongside the ensemble and choir, Dillon’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa uses an electric guitar and amp. He says, “I’m imitating gospel guitar, pop staples. As someone who played the electric guitar, I think you have to keep going back to the 50’s, that’s the heart of the symbolism of electric guitar and I really wanted to take it back there.”

2. One of the texts Dillon weaves through his Stabat Mater Dolorosa, along with the original Latin text, is a fictional letter from Picasso to his Mother. Dillon reveals a “fascination” with one particular quote from Picasso which describes women as “weeping machines”. This has been structurally influential with “machine-like repetition that [the piece] seems to lock into occasionally.”

3. Although the Stabat Mater Dolorosa in its original form is a religious text, Dillon explains “I’m not setting it as a religious work, I think the whole idea of a sacred work today is highly problematic for me.”

4. Dillon creates a lot of questions within his music, leaving room for individual interpretations. The texts in the Stabat Mater Dolorosa are left to hover as “sonic materials” depicting something that does or does not belong, “bringing tension to the piece” and leaving it up to us to decipher.

5. Geometrical shapes influence the musical shape of his Stabat Mater Dolorosa at times. For example, the image of the cross, a chiasmus, is illustrated through the direction of voices crossing each other at different moments.

6. The original Latin poem and secondary texts are mixed and shredded into a concept Dillon describes as “low level chatter.”

7. Dillon was interested in the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, not only for its obvious sentiment, but the imaginative space it opens up. He says his work is like “stepping into the magic circle”.

Click here for more information and to book tickets.

(Un)easy Listening? James Dillon

Our latest (Un)easy Listening post uncovers the music of one of the UK’s most celebrated but under performed composers, James Dillon. Philip Cashian, Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, unearths the complexities of Dillon’s Nine Rivers ahead of our London premiere of his new Stabat Mater Dolorosa on Wednesday 21 January.

Despite international critical acclaim and major performances worldwide James Dillon (born Glasgow, 1950) remains on the fringes of the British music scene. You could say this is to be expected from a self taught composer who has always very much chosen his own path and avoided the main stream establishment, but I think it’s because of the fundamentally conservative nature of the British music scene and the lack of rehearsal time in the UK that makes composers of complex music like Dillon difficult to put on.

Growing up in the early 1960s listening to The Rolling Stones, Beatles and Frank Zappa and dropping out of Art College after a year and going to live in a commune in Cornwall (where he took acid) I can’t help thinking of Dillon as belonging to the generation of Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis even though he despises prog rock as being phony. He describes his epic Nine Rivers project as ‘a mythos of imagined waters, of fairies and snake-gods, a melancholy of flow, a requiem for poisoned rivers, an odyssey, a theatre of memory’.

Uneasy image

Dillon gives a couple of interesting insights into the complexity of his music in a recent interview with Igor Toronyi-Laiic Dillon:

‘The Baroque interests me because of the function of ornamentation in music. I’m fascinated by ornamentation. Ornamentation for me is like a particular type of movement, a flutter. I love it. I don’t think ornamentation is something of a surplus. And I’ve always been fascinated by how you deal with it in a structural way rather than merely as decoration.’ For example:

‘I was fascinated by the act of performance as a visual spectacle in itself.’ For example:

Nine Rivers (1982-2000) is over three and a half hours long and consists of nine works for a huge variety of forces, ranging from La coupure for solo percussion and electronics to Oceanos for voices, large ensemble and live electronics.

East 11th St. NY 10003 is the first work in the cycle and is scored for six percussionists. At 4:27 listen to the rattles and trills passing through different types of percussion like a melodic thread being passed around on the surface of the music. From 5:24 the timpani start to very slowly rise up through the ensemble to a climax at 8:46.

La femme invisible (1989) is part four of Nine Rivers and is scored for an ensemble of percussion, piano and wind. There’s real clarity in this bristling, busy music and musical ideas are easy to follow – such as a clarinet solo at 0:39 and an oboe solo at 0:52. I particularly like the rhythmic, dance-like interjections at 1:54 and 2:13 and the piano solo at 2:46.

Other composers who, along with Dillon, belong to the so called British school of new complexity include Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy and Richard Barrett.

Early influences on Dillon

Webern: Bagatelles
Varese: Ionisation
Xenakis: Thallein
Muddy Waters

Reviews of Birtwistle: A Celebration

Our celebration of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday on Friday 5 December was just as special and memorable an occasion as we’d hoped for. Read the press reviews below to see what others thought.

© Aylin Elci

© Aylin Elci

Violute and Echo add to the ongoing series of duets Birtwistle is writing for the London Sinfonietta’s inspiringly can-do players. Violute is a restless, insistent stream of notes for flute and violin that seems almost mechanical, like one of Nancarrow’s player piano pieces. Echo finds horn and trombone trading full-toned and muted sounds as if from neighbouring mountainsides.”

The Guardian
By Erica

“Theseus Game is held together by the golden thread of melody; the history of the London Sinfonietta is similarly braided by the thread of Birtwistle’s music, present in the ensemble’s DNA, and worthily celebrated in this concert.”

The Arts Desk
By Bernard Hughes

“At the end of the concert the sizeable audience broke into justly enthusiastic and prolonged applause for the performers, and for Harrison Birtwistle, who had enjoyed a triumphal evening.”

Classical Source
By Alan Sanders

“This was one of the most stimulating concerts of the year. Having a whole concert of Birtwistle is like Christmas coming early, a throwback to the good old days where every Birtwistle performance was a major event and there was a feeling of infinite possibility in the air (I refer back to my student days in the 1980s and early 1990s, in fact).”

Seen and Heard
By Colin Clarke

“The audience seemed very much persuaded already. But the atmosphere was refreshing. For the people in the auditorium, Sir Harrison’s music is not to be dismissed for being too difficult. It’s very complexity is what makes it worth engaging with.”

The Economist
By Hazel Rowland


This season, three photojournalism students from London College of Communication Aylin Elci, Clelia Carbonari and Tamara Craiu have been working with us to document the life of the London Sinfonietta in rehearsal, performance and backstage.

Last week they joined us as we rehearsed for Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday celebration at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. Take a look at their work below:


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