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JAMES CONLON conductor
ELIZABETH DeSHONG mezzo-soprano
MAY FESTIVAL CHORUS Robert Porco, director




Stabat Mater, Op. 58


ANTONIN DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)

Stabat Mater, Op. 58

Composed in 1876–77. Premiered on December 23, 1880 in Prague, conducted by Adolf Čech.

In his biography of Dvořák, John Clapham titled the chapter concerning 1876-1877, the time of the Stabat Mater, “A Genius Emerges.” Only three years before, Dvořák’s income from his compositions and as organist at St. Adalbert’s Church in Prague had been so meager that the city officials certified his poverty, thus making him eligible to submit his work for consideration to a committee in Vienna awarding grants to struggling artists. The members of the selection committee were a distinguished lot—Johann Herbeck, Director of the Court Opera; the renowned critic Eduard Hanslick; and that titan of Viennese music himself, Johannes Brahms. Their report noted that Dvořák possessed “genuine and original gifts,” and that his music displayed “an undoubted talent, but in a way which as yet remains formless and unbridled.” They deemed his work worthy of encouragement, however, and, on their recommendation, the Minister of Culture, Karl Stremayer, awarded the young musician 400 gulden, the highest stipend bestowed under the program. It represented Dvořák’s first recognition outside his homeland and his initial contact with Brahms and Hanslick, both of whom proved to be powerful influences on his career through their example, artistic guidance and professional help. An excited burst of compositional activity followed during the months after Dvořák learned of his award, in February 1875: the G Major String Quintet, the Moravian Duets for Soprano and Tenor, the B-flat Piano Trio, the D Major Piano Quartet, the Fifth Symphony and the Serenade for Strings all appeared with inspired speed.

Dvořák’s rapidly accumulating good fortune of the mid-1870s was not unalloyed, however, since he suffered the death of a new-born daughter, Josefa, in December 1875, a distressing and painful experience for this deeply pious man who was devoted to family life. During the following weeks, he found solace in the liturgical words describing the pity of the Mother of Christ at the cross, the Stabat Mater, and on February 16, 1876, he began a musical setting of the text for soloists, chorus and orchestra to vent his grief. The Stabat Mater, Dvořák’s first important sacred work, was largely sketched by May 7th, when he had to put it aside to return to more pressing projects, including the Moravian Duets (which he needed to help secure a renewal of his Viennese stipend), the Piano Concerto, the comic opera The Cunning Peasant and the Symphonic Variations. It was another tragedy in Dvořák’s life—a double one, this time—that compelled him to again take up his Stabat Mater. The composer and his wife had lost their two other children within the space of just three weeks: Ruzena, their 11-month-old daughter, accidentally swallowed phosphorous and died on August 13, 1877, and three-year-old Otakar succumbed to smallpox on September 8th. Dvořák, now childless, worked feverishly on the score of the Stabat Mater and, by November 13th, he had rounded out the sketches of 18 months before and completed the orchestration.

The Stabat Mater was one of the two principal vehicles—the Slavonic Dances, published by Fritz Simrock at Brahms’s insistence in 1879, was the other—by which Dvořák established his international reputation. The work was successfully premiered in Prague on December 23, 1880, under the direction of Adolf Čech, one of the composer’s staunchest champions, and given its second performance in Brno on April 2, 1882, by Leoš Janáček, whom Dvořák had met in 1876 and regularly accompanied on walking tours of southern Bohemia during the summers thereafter. These performances, however, did little to prepare Dvořák for the unstinting acclaim that greeted the Stabat Mater in Britain following its London premiere by Joseph Barnby on March 10, 1883. So great was the demand to hear this new choral masterpiece that Dvořák himself was brought to England the following year to lead an orchestra of 150 and a chorus of 900 in its performance at the Albert Hall on March 13, 1884. “I had the most tremendous success,” he reported to Simrock. “Everywhere I appear, whether in the street or at home or even when I go to a shop to buy something, people crowd round me and ask for my autograph. There are pictures of me at all the booksellers, and people buy them just to have some memento.” He returned in September to conduct the Stabat Mater as part of the celebrations marking the 800th anniversary of the founding of Worchester Cathedral, and thereafter became a frequent and welcome visitor to the country. The Stabat Mater’s American premiere, conducted by Theodore Thomas at New York’s Steinway Hall on April 3, 1884, laid the foundation for Dvořák’s renown in this country, which culminated with his tenure as director of the National Conservatory in New York City from 1892 to 1895. When he was awarded a doctorate honoris causa by Cambridge University in June 1891, Dvořák conducted the Stabat Mater and the Symphony No. 8 in G Major at the investiture ceremony. “It was all frighteningly solemn,” he recalled, “nothing but ceremonies and deans, all solemn-faced and apparently incapable of speaking anything but Latin. When it dawned upon me that they were talking about me, I felt as if I were drowning in hot water, so ashamed was I that I could not understand them.… However, when all is said and done, that Stabat Mater of mine is more than just Latin.”

The Stabat Mater is a 13th-century sequence (i.e., a sacred Latin poem with most of its lines paired in end-rhyme), usually attributed to the Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi, which tells of the piteous anguish of the Mother of Christ as she stands before the Cross. Though regularly used for personal and communal devotions from the time of its creation, the Stabat Mater was not officially accepted into the Roman Catholic liturgy until 1727. In addition to the setting by Dvořák, the text has also been treated by Josquin, Palestrina, Lasso, Pergolesi, Vivaldi, Haydn, Rossini, Schubert, Verdi, Poulenc, Dohnányi, Thomson and others. Dvořák’s setting, spread across 10 expansive movements, takes as its dominant mood the expression of the grief of the Mother for her lost Son, but tempers this melancholy emotion with passages of brighter countenance that suggest the optimism of the composer’s personal religious beliefs. Indeed, such balancing of emotions provides for the grand organizational plan that underlies the Stabat Mater: four movements (Nos. 1-4) of solemn grieving music, four (Nos. 5-8) of consolation, and two (Nos. 9-10) that round out the cycle by returning to the mood and even the music of the opening. This tripartite structure, affirmed by tonality (major in the central movements, minor at the beginning and end) and by vocal scoring (the brighter voices of soprano and tenor soloists in Nos. 6 and 8, the darker bass and alto in Nos. 4 and 9), arises from the flow of sentiment across the text, which focuses on the event of the Crucifixion in its opening stanzas, and Judgment Day and the death of the individual at its end, while seeking consolation in shared sorrow (“let me weep beside you”; “let me share His passion”) in its middle verses. Informing this sweeping architectonic design is Dvořák’s melodic abundance, harmonic richness and darkly beautiful scoring expressed with his characteristic sincerity of utterance. The Stabat Mater is one of the great monuments of 19th-century vocal music—a work grand in scale yet intimately poignant in effect, a composition that transcends sectarian bounds to touch on the universal truths that bind us all in a common humanity.

Dr. Richard E. Rodda