The Kennedy Center

Stabat Mater, Op. 58

About the Work

Antonin Dvorak Composer: Antonín Dvorák
© Peter Laki

Of all the great 19th-century composers, Dvorák was probably the most devout. Born into a simple family in a small Bohemian village, he was raised Roman Catholic and kept his faith his entire life. It is not surprising, then, that sacred music plays such an important part in his output. One of his earliest compositions, written when he was still a student at the Prague Organ School, was a Mass (now lost); over the years, he composed another religious oratorio (St. Ludmila), a Mass, a Requiem, a Te Deum and what many regard his religious masterpiece, the Stabat Mater of 1877.

All of these Latin liturgical texts have been set multiple times by composers over the years. While the Mass and the Requiem represent entire church services through some of their most important sections, the Te Deum and the Stabat Mater are performed within longer services but are self-contained poems, divided into movements only by the composers who set them for large vocal and instrumental forces. While the Te Deum is a hymn of praise, the Stabat Mater is a hymn of mourning, evoking the pain of the Virgin Mary upon the death of her son, Jesus Christ. The poetry was written in the 13th century by a Franciscan friar named Jacopone da Todi.

Dvorák wrote his Stabat Mater during a time when the idea of a parent lamenting the death of a child hit home with particular force. The composer made his first sketches on the work after his newborn daughter Josefa died in 1875. Then in August and September of 1877, the Dvoráks lost both of their other children (ten months and three-and-a-half years); the full score of the Stabat was completed soon afterwards. (The composer and his wife immediately started a new family: their daughter Otilka was born in June 1878, followed by five more children in ten years, all reaching adulthood-although Otilka, who married the composer Josef Suk, would die at the age of 27, only a year after her father.)

Dvorák's personal investment in this intensely emotional religious poem is apparent from the fact that, of all the known settings of the Stabat Mater, his is by far the longest, squeezing every ounce of expression out of the text. He divided the hymn into ten movements, alternating choral sections with solo arias and ensembles, and bringing all the voices together at the beginning and at the end of the work.

I. Quartet and chorus ("Stabat Mater dolorosa"). The first movement is by far the longest and the most complex: it is here that the stage is set for the epic representation of grief that will dominate the entire work. Everything grows out of a single note, an F-sharp heard in many registers, as a highly-concentrated, visceral expression of pain. Gradually, a succession of powerful melodies emerges from that F-sharp, bringing in the soloists and the chorus and constantly rising in intensity until a shattering climax is reached. The movement is in A-B-A form: the middle section, which begins with the tenor solo's "Cujus animam gementem," strikes a quieter, more subdued note. This is, however, followed by a full recapitulation, which is unexpected, since in liturgical works we don't normally go back to words that have already been sung. (In church services, the practice would not even be allowed, but Dvorák's musical instinct overrode liturgical customs here. In any case, the work would be far too long to be performed in an actual service.)

II. Quartet ("Quis est homo qui non fleret"). The solo quartet sings a lyrical quartet in a canon of sorts: the singers join in, one after another, with the same melody while the voices that had entered previously add their counterpoints to the melody. After an equally imitative second section (that ends with a spectacular low E for the bass soloist), the first section is recapitulated, as in the first movement. A brief coda brings a sudden dramatic outburst followed by a soft and gentle coda.

III. Chorus ("Eja Mater, fons amoris"). The same words are sung to two types of music in alternation: the movement begins as a slow funeral march, only to dissolve into an intimate choral song.

IV. Bass solo and chorus ("Fac, ut ardeat cor meum"). One of the most haunting movements in the work: the tortuous melody of the soloist, with some rather unusual chord progressions, contrasts with the otherworldly calm of the chorus.

V. Chorus ("Tui nati vulnerati"). For the first time in the piece, the key changes from minor to major and the tempo becomes slightly faster. The words are set first to a gentle pastoral, and then-in the middle section-to more turbulent contrapuntal music.

VI. Tenor solo and men's chorus ("Fac me vere tecum flere"). The melody of the tenor (repeated by the men's chorus) sounds like a simple church hymn, but the everchanging accompanying harmonies and the orchestration turn it into a statement of extreme subtlety. As in the previous movement, there is a stormier middle section, but it is brief: the hymn melody returns with still more harmonic variations. A striking new, quasi-martial rhythmic idea appears in the closing measures.

VII. Chorus ("Virgo virginum praeclara"). The full chorus returns, and sings large portions of the movement a cappella (without any instrumental accompaniment). This gives the music a unique, ethereal character, which is preserved when the orchestra joins in, surrounding the voices with some wonderful, warm-hued woodwind passages. A small detail that is worth pointing out: the orchestra holds the final chord with a fermata, but the chorus doesn't, leaving a sensitively-scored A-major chord to ring out after the voices have fallen silent.

VIII. Duet: Soprano and Tenor ("Fac, ut portem Christi mortem"). Another wonder of Dvorákian orchestration: a tiny rhythmic motif ("ta-ta-TAM") appears in the woodwind, the horns, the pizzicato (plucked) strings and the timpani, providing a mysterious background for the winding melodic lines of the two soloists.

IX. Alto solo ("Inflammatus et accensus"). A rare musical meeting between Dvorák and Handel: the movement begins with a typical Baroque ritornello theme with a walking bass, but it is not long before Romantic feeling takes over. In a way, the movement combines two styles in a compelling, though somewhat austere, aria in which the compassionate observer takes upon herself all the grief felt by the bereaved mother.

X. Chorus and soloists ("Quando corpus morietur"). The first section is an exact recapitulation of the first movement, starting out with single F-sharps and building up to the climax as before. But all this seems no more than an introduction to the magnificent "Amen" chorus in which the promise of Paradise sets off an ecstatic song of jubilation. Dvorák really pulls out all the stops here, but, typically, the music doesn't go out with a bang: the last word belongs to introspection, with the loud Amens followed by some barely whispered ones. In the concluding orchestral gesture, a D-major chord seems to float off into heaven to the last, quiet rolls of the timpani.