Mary Finsterer is the 2023 Composer in Residence for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO). She is also the curator of their upcoming concert at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Wednesday 27 September, which will feature the world premiere of her composition for the Stabat Mater, a 13th-century Marian hymn. The concert promises to take people on a journey through the history of Western music, from the very beginning of Gregorian chant to the modern day.

‘The wonderful aspect about Western art music is that we have such a long tradition and such a legacy,’ Mary says, ‘and the composers of today who still work in this field are very fortunate to be able to delve into what is such a rich resource in this long-standing tradition.’

The Stabat Mater itself is a well-known Marian hymn, one that immerses the listener in the sorrows of Mary, the Mother of God, at the crucifixion. The first line, Stabat mater dolorósa, means, ‘The sorrowful mother was standing …’

The hymn has 20 verses. Many composers have set it to music, typically allowing the verses to inhabit small, discreet sections of music. Mary says she wanted to do something a bit different, structuring the work ‘according to an orchestral and symphonic form’. What this means is that those verses will be separated out into three movements, prefaced by a special section ‘in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary’.

Mary says she has always wanted to compose something Marian. ‘I have an interest in sacred music and have so ever since I studied it at university,’ she says. Mary’s creative and academic accomplishments are impressive, having completed three degrees at the University of Melbourne and spent time studying in the Netherlands. When ideas for concert programs were being brought to the table at the MSO, her suggestion of sacred Marian music was met with ‘enthusiasm’.

230916 mary 0073 by Dean Golja93 2
Mary Finsterer, 2023 Composer in Residence for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Dean Golja.

Performing with the MSO will be the Trinity College choir, whom she considers ‘an excellent choir’. St Patrick’s Cathedral was an appropriate venue too.

It’s iconic, really. Not only in terms of its grandeur, but it is actually the tallest church in Australia. The space within is [also] the largest in terms of space.

‘There are not many venues in Australia that have such an impressive space and also have organs,’ she says.

She is also excited that the performance will take place in St Patrick’s Cathedral because of its Gothic architecture, since the Gothic tradition dates back to the same century as the Stabat Mater.

Preceding the premiere of Mary’s composition, six other pieces will be performed as part of the concert program, beginning with Gregorian chant and journeying through the Renaissance and Baroque eras to today.

‘From the reverent Gregorian introit for Mass on the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Assandra’s angelic Duo Seraphim and Victoria’s contemplative melodies, these works resonate with the profound depth of Mary’s grief at the cross,’ Mary explains. ‘Gorczycki’s Omni die dic Mariae, a devotional tribute to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Garau’s plea for mercy in Parce Domine and Praetorius’ cherished Christmas carol all contribute unique threads to this rich and varied palette of sacred expression.’

It will be an opportunity to experience a truly unique concert, one that pays homage to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the extraordinary legacy of Western and sacred music.

Katharine Bartholomeusz-Plows, Head of Artistic Planning for the MSO, says they are trying to open new pathways for people of every age to come and experience the beauty of classical music. ‘It’s not easy,’ she says, ‘and especially for those who haven’t been exposed to classical music through their family or education, it can feel intimidating … It doesn’t have to be.’

Katharine points out that classical music is everywhere: it’s still used in contemporary music, but it’s also found in advertisements, films and even video games. The reason is that this form of music can be a deeply immersive and emotional experience. ‘It’s everywhere to evoke emotion. It’s no different on stage.’

‘What’s really important for me is the idea of storytelling,’ Mary says, pointing out that they have curated the concert so that the audience is drawn into a story. ‘Within the Stabat Mater itself, there is a poignant story that actually reflects the other works that are presented in this program.

Each one is interconnected, and the story itself has an arc. And I think that people, especially young people, they love stories. We all love stories.

‘It’s a universal longing that human beings have, to be connected to story. And just because music does not have words per se doesn’t mean that the music itself doesn’t have a story.’

You can book tickets for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Stabat Mater concert here.