As the choir approaches its next concert on March 16th the final draft of the programme notes is underway. But how do you pin down a composer like Emanuele Rincón d’Astorga whose life, depending on which version one latches onto, resembles an operatic plot? Indeed it became so for Johann Albert and librettist Ernst Pasqué: Astorga the opera was premiered in Stuttgart in 1866. The hero Astorga becomes deranged and is restored to sanity when his wife plays him a few bars of his Stabat Mater.

Extract from the last scene of the opera libretto Astorga

While many composers in the time of Bach and Handel tended to stay more or less in the same area, Astorga’s biography supposedly takes in Augusta, Palermo, Naples, Rome, Vienna, Lisbon, Barcelona, London, Astorga (a monastery near León), Rudnice (Bohemia) and Madrid. The paper trail supporting any of those locations remains scant.

Even his name can take various forms. The family name Rincón d’Astorga, is the preferred form in Spanish reference sources: cataloguing rules deployed in the national libraries of Europe and the USA use this arrangement:

Meanwhile, the Italian variant d’Astorga or even D’Astorga, suffices in most instances.

His birth, 20 March 1680 in Augusta, Sicily, is not disputed, but one report has him dying in Madrid in 1757 while Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed.) states that he died in a castle in Rudnice in 1736. Indeed, his biography, real or made up, would make a good round in the TV panel show Would I lie to you? So, here’s one version (assume voice of David Mitchell): at a young age I was forced to watch the execution of my father, whereupon my mother, who was with me, collapsed and died from the shock. I would later compose my Stabat Mater in memory of that horrific moment to a commission from the Society of Antient Musick in London during a visit in 1709 (or was it 1720: my memory is not clear on that!). There was even, I am told, a performance in Oxford in 1713 but by then I was in Vienna. Another voice (assume voice of Lee Mack): in my lifetime I was a musical nobleman who got into a number of financial and amorous entanglements but the Spanish Court knew how to make best use of my skills. In the 19th century. largely thanks to the music critic Johann Rochlitz, I became a folk hero, a bit like Lord Byron. But after a 2-volume study of my life and work by Dr Hans Volkmann was published (1911-1919) my name has fallen into near oblivion, although I hear that a new edition of my Stabat Mater by Robert King in 2012 has been taken up enthusiastically by choirs in many countries.

Does any of this matter to a performer getting ready to sing the Stabat Mater? Is it, for instance, of any interest to know that there were dozens of contemporary settings of the 13th-century hymn to the Virgin Mary of which at least two, by Alessandro Scarlatti (1724) and Domenico Scarlatti (1715) begin with exactly the same notes and in the same key: G to A-flat and C to B? Well, no, it does not because it’s the sound, not the notes, that really count in performance and the Astorga Stabat Mater has its own sound qualities (timbre) as do the Scarlatti settings. Astorga’s sorrowful chromaticism, especially in the opening movement, is mild compared to the unsettling chromatic lurches deployed by Alessandro Scarlatti, and there is a sense that strong emotions are being suppressed, or objectified, by the the use of Germanic part-writing and motivic development while Neapolitan cantilena are allowed to surface, especially in the duet and solo movements, to add warmth. In the final chorus he appears set sorrow aside as fanfares pronounce a surprise ‘palm of victory’.

Did Astorga write the Stabat Mater to a commission? It would not have been for liturgical use as the sequence had been suppressed by the Council of Trent and was only re-instated in 1727, which, incidentally, is yet another date proposed for its composition. Or did he, like Fauré with his Requiem and Stravinsky with his Mass, write it for himself, because he wanted to?
Let’s just get on and sing it!

Emanuele d’Astorga – unattributed image from a Romanian website.

X