LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

Visit La Scena Musicale Online Reviews. [Index] Critiques de La Scena Musicale Online

Dvorak and his Stabat Mater op. 58 — a Choral Masterpiece

By Tess Crebbin / May 1, 2004

One hundred years ago on this day the celebrated Czech composer Antonin Dvorak felt well enough, for the first time after one month of being bedridden, to get up in the morning and partake in the May day celebrations in his home country. In the afternoon he had a bowl of soup and the grand old man seemed on the way to recovery when he suddenly died. That day, on May 1st, 1904, the world had not only lost a great composer but also a great human being: a man who rose from humble roots as the son of a Bohemian innkeeper and butcher to becoming one of the most famous composers of his time whose music was played in England, the United States and all over Europe. Despite his fame he remained modest and never denied his Czech roots, causing him to resist the call of his mentor Brahms to move to Vienna and to refuse giving his work non-Czech titles because being Bohemian was not in vogue.

When Dvorak died, he left behind a prolific life with a compositional output of some 9 symphonies, 16 string quartets, a variety of orchestral works, choir works, a Stabat Mater that we will hear about in this article, a Requiem and several operas. On his way to the top of the music world he had tried his hand at a lot of different things to support himself. He had studied organ and viola, had taught music to rich and untalented young girls, had played a stint as a badly paid church organist at the St Adalbert Church in Prague and had always held on to his dream of becoming a composer during a time when poor boys from Nelahozeves did not stand a chance in hell of being composers. But he succeeded, eventually, for a while living on a small state grant that gave him the chance to concentrate on composing and, making best use of that opportunity, he became one of the most versatile and best-loved composers of his time.

Dvorak ended up composing everything, pretty much, and he was pretty darn good at whatever he tried his hand at. Of the nine symphonies he left behind his 9th, From the New World, is the most widely known but he also wrote acclaimed operas, chamber music, Lieder and many spiritual compositions among them Oratorios, Cantatas and the like.

It is one of his spiritual compositions, the Stabat Mater Op 58, which will be under special scrutiny today, on this 100th anniversary of his death. Among all Stabat Maters ever set to music by various composers over the centuries, this one holds a special place as the most symphonic one and as the one that was the most clearly written by a classical orchestral composer. It is also one of the most moving Stabat Maters in terms of the personal background of the composer. As such, we can only fully appreciate it by knowing something of the composer’s life in order to understand what exactly he was doing with this highly unusual piece of work that even moves the soloists performing it to the brink of tears.

When he first started composing, aided by the award of a highly competitive state grant, he came to the attention of one of the grant committee members. Johannes Brahms was so impressed with the young composer that he helped Dvorak find a publisher for his works and introduced him to Fritz Simrock in Berlin. The Moravian Duets and Slavic Dances were thus published, became a huge success and the rest is, as they say, music history.

Dvorak soon rose to international fame on the merit of his works, but he remained modest despite his success. He was a deeply religious man who loved nature and rose early to watch the birds and later incorporated their songs into his works. At his summer home in Vysoka near Pribram, he raised pigeons, but he also loved steamboats and train engines. He could often be seen at the local train station, hanging out with the train engineers or studying train schedules — that was one of his big hobbies.

As a true Bohemian, Dvorak was inspired in his music by Slovakia, Moravia, Poland and Russia and he even created a specific form of the Dumka in Russian folk tradition. He looked to Slavic music for its archaic harmonic modes and unusual modulations, which gave his own music a wealth of rhythms and melodic turnarounds and can be especially found in the Slavic dances and rhapsodies. His fame in Anglophone world started with the huge success in the UK of his Stabat Mater, in 1883.

The piece had its world premiere in Prague on December 23rd, 1880 and this led to the call to England, which, in turn, eventually brought Dvorak to the States. His fame spread to the United States via England, where he was celebrated for the Stabat Mater and then composed over the period of some 10 years several significant works, such as the 7th Symphony for the Philharmonic Society (1885), St Ludmilla for Leeds (1886), Requiem Mass for Birmingham (1890).

From the early 1890s he spent several years in the US where he became director of the New York Conservatory of Music, being paid the then-huge salary of 15 000$ per annum, and where he composed his famous 9th Symphony (From the New World), the String Quartet in F, the String Quintet in E flat and the Cello Concerto.

Upon his return to Prague, he found success with his opera Rusalka, based on a fairy tale (1901), and at the time of his death in 1904 had become one of the most important late Romantic period composers as well as being a founding member, together with Smetana (1824-1884) of the New Czech School. Dvorak was the first Bohemian composer to achieve worldwide recognition and to this day, he remains the most played Czech composer. In his music we find unusual styles such as the furiant, a bohemian dance rhythm that changes abruptly between _ and 2/4, and the pentatonic scale, a scale consisting of five notes and generally being found in folk music.

Dvorak changed music history as he united the old and the new world and his music acted as a go-between for the two sides of the big pond. All of this, if we are to believe the significance of his Stabat Mater’s impact on the English audiences, was because of his Opus 58.

So it warrants a detailed look on this important day. For Dvorak, the Stabat Mater was a work brought about by personal tragedy of almost incomprehensible proportions. He lost all three of his then living children. In 1875, his young daughter Josefa died at only two days of age. The grieving father began work on the Stabat Mater, as a means of coping with his beloved child’s death. It was to become a work of mourning and a work of healing, for the Stabat Mater is based on an ancient Roman Catholic poem, in Latin, that tells of the Virgin Mary’s grief over the crucifixion of Jesus as she is standing under his cross.

In mid 1876, Dvorak lay aside his work on this piece and then, tragically, on August 13th, 1877, he lost yet another child when 11 month old Ruzena (Rose) accidentally drank a phosphorus solution and died. Overwhelmed by this new loss, Dvorak once more sought solace in the Virgin Mary and took up work on his Stabat Mater once more. Less than one month later, on September 8th, his 3-year old son Otakar died of smallpox, leaving Dvorak and his wife completely childless. They subsequently had other children but at the time, their grief must have been overwhelming. The composer’s only means of emotional survival was by burying himself in his Stabat Mater, completing it on November 13th of that year.

It is a profoundly moving work, perhaps more so than any other of the same name, for it is saturated by the composer’s grief although the grief never overwhelms the piece but rather remains an ever-present background note. Especially haunting is the five-minute Wagnerian orchestral intro. The piece opens quietly on a single note that soon cumulates into a falling melody filled with tragedy when the orchestra gains strength while the melody becomes more intense. After a brief switch to a major key it returns to minor again and then the chorus quietly comes into the picture. The opening movement is extremely long, lasting some quarter of an hour in total, a fifteen minute lament on personal loss, and the second movement builds on themes introduced in this opening movement with its affecting orchestration and melodic inventions.

Dvorak has always been considered to be a composer whose work is characterized by intense harmonies, but with this oeuvre, the thrust and urgency of the phrasing, the vivacious wind contributions and the unusual use of scales, a most exceptional work has been created even by Dvorak’s own standards. It is impossible to consider just what he has achieved without understanding the concept of the Stabat Mater first, so we need to digress for a while.

The Stabat Mater, a 13th Century devotional poem, is generally attributed to the Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi (1228-1306) although some controversy persists over his authorship. It consists of 10 verses at 6 lines each with 8-8-7-8-8-7 syllables per line. The rhyme scheme is AAB CCB and from verse 5 a to the end the poem changes view point from third into first person as it turns into a prayer to Mary, for her to reunite the writer with Christ. The first person prayer closes with the text "when my body dies, grant that my soul be given the glory of paradise."

The natural conclusion in setting such a poem to music would be to turn its 10 verses into 10 movements. Dvorak did nothing of the sort. Instead, he combined and divided the verses as he moves from grief to acceptance and, finally, to jubilation over the received grace of God. He retained the basic idea of 10 movements but their length varies. Instead of allocating one movement to one verse, he used two full verses for the lengthy opening movement but then, there are times when he uses all of 3 lines to make up an entire movement (for example movements 5 and 7). Movement 4 to 9 portrays the prayer of the wayward Christian caught in his grief and hence the soloists feature prominently.

The Fac ut ardeat, part of the forth movement, is a fine bass solo that mingles with the rest of the orchestra. It is an extremely difficult piece to sing and requires an exceptional performer, capable of capturing the intrinsic merit of soft-spoken grief while also strong enough to hold his own without being drowned out. Whenever the Stabat Mater is being performed, the search is on for a bass capable of coping with the intrinsic difficulties of the piece. One of these is the German Wagner and Verdi singer Harald Stamm, a Professor of Music who usually sings for the Hamburg National Opera and has kindly provided his insights on the work for the appendix to this article.

Dvorak’s is the largest Stabat Mater imaginable and is full of repetitions of sentence or even entire stanzas, as though the composer were trying to make us focus not on the text and his composing skills, as is usually the case with a Stabat Mater, but to make us understand and re-feel his basic moods during his personal journey from grief to acceptance and, ultimately, to his unshaken faith.

The prominent chorus reflects the choral tradition of Dvorak’s homeland but we also find in this compelling, intricate work the influence of Wagner that hits us head on in the opening movement. One must not forget that Dvorak actually met Wagner and played under him when the German, during a journey to Dvorak’s Czech homeland, made use of the provisional Theatre orchestra that Dvorak played in during that time. There is a series of bare intervals of rising octaves followed by a chromatic descent, reflecting, respectively, the image of Mary looking up to her son on the cross and then, the son looking down on his mother. Next, Dvorak does something unusual as though to hint at the unusual grief experience that he went through — after all, most ordinary people would find it a great tragedy to be struck with the death of one child and only very few lose all three of their children within such a short time period. An usual amount of grief warrants an unusual musical pendant: the descending chromatic scale climaxes neither on a major nor minor chord but on the most dissonant of tonal sonorities, a diminished chord, as though expressing the composer’s feeling of being completely torn apart by his grief. In other words, following the descending chromatic notes, the music builds again with short ascending phrases and then comes a crushing diminished chord and this is a thinly veiled cry of despair. Then the Opening Chorus comes in, singing its first line, "Stabat Mater Dolorosa".

Other influences to be found in the Dvorak Stabat Mater are Brahms, of course, Italian Opera, but also the Baroque school. The entire piece is intensely symphonic in nature, showing this clearly to be the work of a classical orchestral composer. The impressive orchestral figures of the opening return for the final section once more. Every mood imaginable to man is reflected in the music of this Stabat Mater: there are beautiful duets, the baroque style Inflammatus et Accensus is reminiscent of Haendel, the tenor aria Fac Me Vere Tecum with its imitating chorus response is clearly a statement of anguish and loss, the Alto’s Inflammatus is driven by such urgency that it seems to reflect the personal destiny of the composer and the final movement with its highly emotional Quando Corpus Morietur (when my body dies) affects to the core when it shifts from the predominant key of B Minor to the Paradisi Gloria in D Major, ending with ecstasy and acceptance of an all-wise God who seems to know exactly what he is doing even when we do not. Throughout the piece, there is an unmistakable Bohemian coloring but its dramatic individual design suggests that the composer was not so much counting on structure as he was on wishing to convey a sense of emotional unity and eventual serenity.

Let us just look at the emotions that proceed from in the opening scene: after the chromatic descent climaxing in a diminished chord, everything is repeated but this time with the chorus coming in. It is all about desolation, loss of hope and an overwhelming grief where there seems to be no hope, ever again, at the end of the tunnel. Then the soloists join in, continuing the prevailing mood but suddenly there are flashes, dim flashes, of hope in the form of big major harmonies.

It is a hope that cannot last, a mere glimpse, for now the chorus and orchestra come back again, bang, with hope completely gone as they bring back the main theme that climaxes not once, but twice, on a diminished chord. Clearly symphonic in nature, there is nothing but a black shroud of grief that seems to cover the entire piece. But the end brings surprise when, in the final movement, in the haunting when my body dies, grant that my soul be given to paradise the soloist is suddenly joined by the orchestra and chorus who pick up on the thread of hope and run with that hope all the way to a glorious finish. We already know that the grief of such a magnificent loss is overwhelming and expect no hope to last, but it does. We expect everything to end, as it did before, on a dissonant diminished chord and instead we are suddenly confronted with a fortissimo major chord that sets the mood for the remainder of the final movement.

Where there was no hope even for hope, not even a glimpse of it, we are suddenly hit over the head with it and this time it is a hope that is there to stay until the end. The Amen begins fugue-like as a magnificent moment of drama where we seem, once more, to draw to a close but then Dvorak hits on us with one of the most unexpected climaxes ever written in the history of music, as unexpected as was his own recovery from his devastating loss.

After the ensemble has drawn toward the supposed end, the soloists and orchestra disappear completely and we are left with the chorus that continues. It sings an a capella hymn that eventually fades away to a series of ever softer Amen. It is a chilling ending to one of the greatest oratorios ever written when the horns interrupt these increasingly fading Amen with one last statement of the Stabat Mater from the opening theme, but this time in major mode — the triumph of faith and belief over despair.

Nobody who has ever heard this can escape the chilling feeling that this might be somebody taking his final breath after a long struggle during which he moved from anguish to faith and during which faith, in the final moments of life, has banished anguish and paradise draws near. We have just witnessed a most passionate statement of grief, but also of overcoming grief, that music can possibly give us.

After the piece’s December 1880 premiere, the response in England was so great that Dvorak was invited to conduct it there and thus started his rise to fame in the anglophone world. The Stabat Mater has been put to music by many composers over the years, but this particular one is dripping with Dvorak’s religious faith and some of it cannot help but rubbing off on the listener. A truly unique Stabat Mater, with its original musical phrases and filled with the romantic settings of its time and inspired by family loss of exceptionally large proportions, it still comes across as one of the most personal settings ever and provides an inspiring though at times painful personal statement of faith and hope.


Appendix A: Some Stabat Mater Facts:

  1. By the end of the 14th Century it was extensively used in church liturgy but a dispute still exists over the authorship of the Stabat Mater poem
  2. In 1727 the Roman Catholic Church introduced the Stabat Mater text into the Roman Breviary and Missal at the Feast of the Seven Sorrows
  3. The Latin Stabat Mater Text is a vivid statement of devotional depth and faith
  4. More than 400 Stabat Mater settings exist to date, ranging from plain song to contemporary, with the earliest setting dating back to 1490 and the most recent in 2001 by the American composer William Cooper.
  5. The most familiar romantic period Stabat Mater settings are by Verdi, Dvorak and Rossini
  6. The title, Stabat Mater, is abbreviated for the first line of the poem: Stabat Mater Dolorosa. Both Dvorak and Vanhal set this first line for chorus.
  7. A brief overview of Stabat Maters reads like a Who’s Who of composers. Some of these are:
    • 1736 Pergolesi (Italy)
    • 1748 Bach (Germany)
    • 1815 Schubert
    • 1866 Liszt
    • 1877 Dvorak
    • 1898 Verdi
    • 1898 Kodaly
    • 1962 Penderecki


Appendix B: Some Dvorak Facts at a Glance

  • The composer’s name is pronounced Dworjacques
  • He came from an environment of farmers and minor tradesmen who lived in cottages around the Nelahozeves region, Bohemia, and his growing up years were marred by poverty and hardship
  • His father was an innkeeper and butcher and Dvorak was set to follow the family trade. He became a butcher’s apprentice for a while but animal-loving Dvorak hated the slaughter and blood and gave it up.
  • He first studied music with local village schoolmaster, and then went to the famous organ school in Prague.
  • To make a living, he was forced to lay his composition aspirations aside initially and play in a provisional theatre orchestra that later drew the attention of Richard Wagner when Wagner came to the region
  • Dvorak was very catholic and he worked as a church organist in his early years
  • He eventually was awarded the prestigious and highly competitive state scholarship for young composers, which gave him a small sustenance for five years that he could set time aside for his musical creations
  • Brahms, who was on the awarding committee for the scholarship, usually hated pretty much everyone, especially young composers, but he took a liking to Dvorak and decided to help him. He made sure that Dvorak’s music was published.
  • In 1892, Dvorak was invited to New York City to teach composition at the National Conservatory there. The Americans still love him and there is a Dvorak American Heritage Association because they feel very patriotic toward him.
  • The Brits loved him, too, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1891.
  • Despite his success in the United States, Dvorak was so homesick that he returned to Prague after a few years on the other side of the pond. There, he lived much poorer but he did not mind: he was home. He never denied his Czech roots even at a time when it would have been highly advantageous to do so.
  • While he was in the United States, he had lots of birds in his house there and he left their cage doors open so that they could fly freely about. Visitors were often greeted by bird wings whooshing past their faces.
  • Dvorak had to convince his family to let him study music. He initially studied organ because his very down-to-earth father deemed that this, at least, was a good trade since there would always be churches requiring an organist.
  • Dvorak was saved from ending as a church musician by his abilities as a viola player. This ended up getting him into the provisional theatre orchestra that later led to the foundation of the new Czech theatre orchestra and it was how he met Wagner when the German composer used that orchestra for a performance of his own works.
  • By 1864, Dvorak had two symphonies already written — he was 24 years of age then.
  • Hans Richter, the conductor, was also a champion of Dvorak.
  • Dvorak’s brilliant Stabat Mater resulted from the tragic loss of all three of his children. The Dvoraks later had more children but the first one to reach adulthood was Ottilie, born in 1878.
  • Because it was not chic to be Czech, Dvorak was urged to move to Vienna and become a Viennese composer. He was also urged to give his music German titles but he resisted both calls.
  • It seems that everyone liked Dvorak. Tschaikowsky, too, had taken a liking to the young man on his visit to Prague in 1888. They stayed in touch and around 1890 Tschaikowsky brought Dvorak to Russia for a visit.
  • During his time in New York, Dvorak became close to Anton Seidl, the musical director of the Met. This relationship rekindled Dvorak’s early love for Wagner because Seidl had once been Wagner’s assistant.
  • Dvorak was pretty healthy until 1904, when he suddenly started feeling a pain in his side. It became so bad that he spent all of April of that year in bed but on the first of May, when he felt better and finally got out of bed, he died after having eaten a bowl of soup.
  • Dvorak sought his inspiration in nature and, like many great composers, he composed "from nature". Upon a visit to the Niagara Falls, he stood there watching for a while and then exclaimed that this would make a great symphony in B Minor.

Appendix C: Interview with the Bass Harald Stamm


Bass Harald Stamm, one of Germany’s foremost operatic basses and also a renowned Dvorak Stabat Mater Soloist


LSM: You are an opera singer at the Hamburg State Opera since many years, where you sing everything from Wagner to Verdi. How did you first come to the Dvorak Stabat Mater?

HS: I am not limited to opera. I have always had an interest in oratorios and concerts, which stems from my love for the Italian composers. So I came to the Verdi requiem and then one thing followed the other. Since 1971, I have also been singing the Dvorak Stabat Mater. For this work, you need a singer with a more powerful voice than usual and so an operatic bass is well suited to it. In 1971, I sang Dvorak’s Stabat Mater for the first time, under Gerd Albrecht, then I sang it under Rafael Kubelick, then at several festivals and so on now I have sung it some 15 times. There are not many singers capable of singing the bass solo because you need a very powerful voice and an extensive range. Before I became an opera singer I studied sports and for me, singing is also sports, it is a physical exercise. It is my sports background and the physical approach to singing that allows me to preserve my voice as good as it has been preserved despite my age. I sing with immense power but I sing in a relaxed not in a forced manner. My students always told me: write this down and this was how I came to write a book about this method, which was just published. So, if I know that I have to sing something as challenging as Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, I have to be physically totally fit. I usually do a lot of swimming because it expands the lung volume. Only on the day of a performance I refrain from it because I would feel the chlorine in my voice that evening.

LSM: What exactly do you do on the technical front to prepare for the Dvorak Stabat Mater?

HS: I first investigate it with the conductor who tells me a bit about how to interpret it. Then I speak about the work with other colleagues to gain their insight also. With Dvorak, you don’t even need to know the background of the piece. You just listen to the music and it tells you everything. The Stabat Mater tells you what happened to him while he was composing it, whether you know it or not. It is all there in the music, the grief, the sense of hope, and then the final triumph of faith. It tells you by the harmonies he used, by the unusual scales, by the demanding solo parts. This music means so very much to me, and Dvorak was a magnificent composer of true genius.

LSM: What do you personally get out of Dvorak?

HS: I feel a great inner sense of joy when singing his music. I am not thinking of the composer’s fate when I hear the music. I enjoy the lines that I sing. You see, as a singer it might be my job to move the audience to tears but personally, I have to distance myself a little. I mean, it would show in the voice, wouldn’t it, if you allow yourself to become overly emotional. I am probably among German bass singers the one who most identifies himself with Bel Canto and I find many Bel Canto elements in Dvorak. Dvorak cannot be sung like Mozart or Bach, he must be tackled head-on with an awful lot of power but this power must be mixed with the right kind of emotion also. You have to put a lot of soul into singing Dvorak or it does not work. This is something you cannot learn by perfecting your technical skills. It is God-given, you either have it or you don’t. Singing Dvorak is not merely about producing sound and I think he is a very operatic composer, especially in this Stabat Mater and that is why it is best to fill the solo parts in this piece with opera singers. In Mozart you rarely have portamenti, in Bach you can sing in a more academic manner, but Dvorak challenges you to the core. There are so many Italian elements in Dvorak, these long phrasings in my own solo parts are something I bathe in. You have to release all your power but you also have to become active, you have to storm ahead then you have to hold yourself back again. What you cannot do is to line one tone to the other. You have to watch out for the small accelerandi.

LSM: You have been enormously successful with your performances of Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. What are your fondest memories?

HS: I enjoyed all of them, every individual performance. You have to keep in mind that there are 20 years between my first and my most recent performance. One performance that comes to mind is Madrid in 1991. The people there really liked the piece, so much that I have performed it in Madrid alone some 9 times!

LSM: Would you say that there is a specific Dvorak-style in the Stabat Mater?

HS: As far as singing it, I would say no. Not in respect to the soloists. Chorus and orchestra are more specific. There are some very unique parts with its prominent sforzati and plenty of agogism. This also affects the soli which all require an absolutely clean portamento and a beautifully crafted rubato. I always try to musically express the emotions that arise in me when I sing this piece, meaning that you have to be technically absolutely correct when singing the Stabat Mater. You have to bring a high level of physical fitness also, but you cannot distance yourself from the piece. You have to give it your all and everything on every level: everything you have, everything you are, needs to go into singing it.

LSM: Where, in your opinion, lies the special significance of Antonin Dvorak?

HS: Dvorak is one of the very few of among the great composers who has such an enormous range in their oeuvre and such an emotional depth that it is impossible to ignore his music. The music tells me about what is going on with the composer. I feel what he wants to express. If I sing Verdi Requiem, I find parallels to Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. He also wrote as a reaction to grief. His children also died.

LSM: What is the most difficult part in the Dvorak Stabat Mater for you?

HS: Frankly, if you treat the instrument in your throat with care, as I do, and if you are singing technically correctly, you should not have problems with any parts. But, yes, some pieces can be more challenging than others. I have no problems with the Stabat Mater, but in my beautiful bass solo there is F sharp, which is the highest note a bass can sing, so that is quite challenging. But it is such a beautiful piece that I look forward to singing it each time, I do not think of the difficulties. In terms of orchestration, there are other pieces that are a lot harder on the soloists in my opinion.

Visit La Scena Musicale Online Reviews. [Index] Critiques de La Scena Musicale Online

(c) La Scena Musicale 2000