According to a note at the end of the autograph score, Joseph Schuster (1748-1812) completed his Stabat mater on March 7, 1782; the first performance probably took place at the Dresden Hofkirche on the Feast of the Seven Dolours on the Friday before Passion Sunday, which in that year fell on March 22. Thus this work was composed in a time when Saxony and also the Dresden court chapel had more or less recovered from the hardships of the Seven Years‘ War and the sacred music at court was just entering one of its heydays. Schuster and his contemporary Franz Seydelmann (1748-1806), both sons of singers in the court chapel, in 1765 had been sent to Italy for their further education together with the young church composer Johann Gottlieb Naumann (1741-1801). After their return in 1768 they both received appointments as church composers (on May 1, 1772), just like Naumann and Johann Georg Schürer (ca. 1720-1786) before them. Apart from the weekly rotating direction of the church music they had to conduct, from the harpsichord, the opera performances at the Kleines Kurfürstliches Theater; in addition, every few years they were given the opportunity to offer their new church compositions to the court for sale and thus to augment their rather low basic salary. In the following decades in matters of status and salary Schuster and Seydelmann on principle were treated as equals by the court, even when Naumann (kapellmeister since 1776) in 1786 was offered life employment at Dresden with particularly favorable conditions and from then on was responsible for the church music only on high feast days. Schuster and Seydelmann were made kapellmeisters in the following year. Naumann and Schuster, however, were granted frequent leaves of absence so they could follow invitations from other courts or spend time in Italy at their own expense in order to compose operas, whereas Seydelmann year by year without interruption fulfilled his duties at church and opera house.
The Stabat mater was performed at the Dresden Hofkirche within the framework of the Miserere prayers during Lent. Such prayers on Fridays during Lent have been recorded for the Dresden Hofkirche as early as 1710, and for the next 200 years their conduct remained unchanged: At the beginning the sanctissimum was revealed and the penitential psalm Miserere (psalm 50 according to the Vulgata numbering) was sung to figural music, then the Lent sermon followed, during which the sanctissimum was covered by a sacramental cloth. This was followed by another chant usually not specified in the sources, by the priest‘s versicle and oration, the hymn Pange lingua, the sacramental blessing and finally the hymn O Lamm Gottes unschuldig. From 1730, these Miserere prayers during Lent were celebrated daily with the exception of Saturdays, Sundays and holidays; Lent sermons with music, however, were given only on Fridays and on Sundays after vespers. Concerted music for the Stabat mater in place of chant after the Lent sermon is documented for the first time in such a prayer service on the Friday before Passion Sunday of the year 1735. Thus there is only a loose connection between the introduction of the medieval hymn (which goes back to a Franciscan tradition) into the liturgy of the Dresden Hofkirche and the well-known decree of Pope Benedict XIII of 1727. The pope had extended the formerly regionally restricted Feast of the Seven Dolours to the entire church, and the Stabat mater received its proper place in the liturgical books as a sequence in mass and a hymn during hours. For Dresden, however, one rather has to assume a connection with the older tradition of using this hymn during prayer services, which was still alive in Italy and at the Viennese Imperial court. The Electress of Saxony and Queen of Poland Maria Josepha (1699-1757) as a member of the Habsburg family was familiar with custom at the Viennese court from her own experience. It is thus plausible that at Dresden the Stabat mater was introduced into the Miserere prayers on Friday before Passion Sunday on her initiative as well. The two Stabat mater settings by Giovanni Alberto Ristori (1692-1753) are probably the first compositions of this text by a musician employed at the Dresden court; unfortunately they were lost in World War II, and it is unclear whether or how long after the composer‘s death they remained in the repertoire. There are no settings of this hymn by Zelenka, Hasse, Breunich or Schürer, and thus it is possible that Schuster‘s composition of 1782 marks altogether a new beginning of Stabat mater performances at Dresden after the Seven Years‘ War. This work sets the extensive text in only three parts, which corresponds perfectly with the demands of its position within the Miserere prayers. In the two framing movements the strings together with the organ and sustained chords in the winds create a sound pattern over which five soloists alternate with woodwinds that are at times treated solistically. Only later the choir enters with a simply chordal setting. The middle section is dominated by a melodious three-part string setting with the upper violin parts occasionally doubled by the flutes and bassoons in the octave and the latter sometimes taking the lead alternating with the strings. A strong effect is reached when the last segment of the introductory ritornello suddenly breaks off at the end and after a general pause the music of the first part is taken up again. Even more characteristic for the particular style of the Dresden Hofkirche are the restrained endings of the third and the last parts, which in the extremely resonant church sound particularly enchanting.
At the time of the first performance in 1782, the church music could rely on a vocal ensemble of eight choir boys, several church singers and the male members of an opera ensemble directed by the impresario Antonio Bertoldi and subsidized by the court. There may have been occasional extras, but still the overall number of available singers can hardly have exceeded twenty. Apart from the castratos leaving after 1832 and the number of choir boys being raised to twelve, these numbers stayed roughly the same and probably were considerably enlarged only in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
The more extended Stabat mater by Franz Seydelmann, composed after 1794, probably was performed only when the composer had to direct the church music in the week before Passion Sunday. When after the death of Schuster and Seydelmann the church repertoire was reviewed by its custodian Franz Anton Schubert (1766-1827) in order to decide upon its further use, Schuster‘s Stabat mater was given preference and from then on was a fixed part of the Hofkirche repertoire. It even was not affected by the the court chapel‘s reduced church duties in the last third of the nineteenth century. Although the orchestra after 1888 ceased to participate in the Miserere prayers during Lent, the afternoon prayer service on the Feast of the Seven Dolours constituted an exception, and Schuster‘s Stabat mater continued to be performed annually at the Dresden Hofkirche until the end of the Saxon monarchy in 1918.
(translation by Stephanie Wollny)