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stabat mater

COMPOSED original piano version: 19 February - 7 May 1876
final orchestral version: October 1877 - 13 November 1877
PREMIERE - DATE AND PLACE original piano version: ?
final orchestral version: 23 December 1880, Prague
PREMIERE - PERFORMER(S) original piano version: ?
final orchestral version: soloists: Eleonora z Ehrenbergu, Betty Fibichova, Antonin Vavra and Karel Cech, Provisional Theatre Orchestra and Choir, conductor Adolf Cech
FIRST EDITION Simrock, 1881, Berlin
TEXT Jacopone da Todi (?)
INSTRUMENTATION 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, organ (harmonium), violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists (soprano, contralto, tenor, bass)
  1. Stabat mater dolorosa, B minor (Andante con moto)
  2. Qui est homo, E minor (Andante sostenuto)
  3. Eja mater, C minor (Andante con moto)
  4. Fac, ut ardeat cor meum, B flat minor (Largo)
  5. Tui nati vulnerati, E flat major (Andante con moto, quasi allegretto)
  6. Fac me vere, tecum flere, B major (Andante con moto)
  7. Virgo virginum, A major (Largo)
  8. Fac ut portem Christi mortem, D major (Larghetto)
  9. Inflammatus, D minor (Andante maestoso)
10. Quando corpus morietur, B minor/D major (Andante con moto)
DURATION approx. 1 hr. 25 min.


subject matter

The text of the mediaeval hymn Stabat mater is commonly attributed to the Italian Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306). The liturgical sequence was removed from the official liturgy by the Council of Trent, but restored to the missal in 1727 by Pope Benedict XIII. The Latin verse describe the biblical scene of Christ’s Crucifixion from a different perspective, from that of the Mother, whose Son is dying on the Cross. It is for this association of the religious theme and the profound human sentiment that the text inspired dozens of musical settings over the course of the centuries. Apart from Dvorak, some of the most famous settings of the Stabat mater include those by Palestrina, Pergolesi, Haydn, Rossini and Verdi.

composition history

The decision to write the oratorio Stabat mater is traditionally seen as a reaction to the death of three of Dvorak’s children. It is not entirely clear whether this conventional interpretation fully reflects the facts. The composer had already written an initial version of the work after the death of the first of his children, his daughter Josefa. Infant mortality was very high at that time and Josefa died only two days after her birth (21 August 1875). Furthermore, Dvorak did not embark upon the composition immediately after this tragedy, but after an interval of six months (in February 1876), during which he completed the opera Vanda and wrote his Piano Trio in G minor and String Quartet in E major. In its original form, the work only had seven movements with just a piano accompaniment, nevertheless, it may still be regarded as a fully-fledged composition. It was essentially consistent with the final version, the distinctions being merely the slightly different conception of the alto aria Inflammatus, and the compositional variant of the final Amen. It is possible that, were it not for the deaths of two more of his children, which occurred the following year, Dvorak may not have returned to the work for the purposes of its revision. Yet when his 11-month-old daughter Ruzena died of poisoning on 13 August 1877 and, within a month, his firstborn son Otakar succumbed to smallpox, Dvorak revised the work into the form we know today: he added another three movements (nos. 5-7) and rewrote the piano accompaniment for orchestra. He completed the oratorio in November 1877; the score was published by Berlin-based Simrock at the end of 1881. At Simrock’s insistence, to improve sales figures, the original opus number 28 was altered to 58.

score of the 1st part (Stabat mater dolorosa)

general characteristics

Dvorak’s Stabat mater is an extremely suggestive musical setting of a text describing the suffering of a mother whose son is dying on the Cross, yet it is also a timeless, universally valid testimony of human sorrow and hope. Seen in the context of the composer’s other writings, this work offers the first tangible proof of his religious devotion. Dvorak’s simple, unassuming faith, one of the chief attributes of his entire subsequent oeuvre as well, gave rise to a work of profound contemplation. Even despite its monumentality, Stabat mater touches every one of us as a gently human work, filled with humility before a higher Order. Characteristic for the whole work is its unusually sublime musical expression, its solemn intellect, free of any form of triviality or superficial effects. The score is particularly valued for its beauty, deliberately drawing on the combination of human voices and rich orchestral colour. The entire structure of the piece, divided into ten parts, represents a majestic, expressive arc, extending from the image of death and suffering, and feelings of apprehension and painful meditation, to the final, life-affirming catharsis. Although the literary source of the oratorio speaks of the darker aspects of human life, the overall tone of the work – and this is typical of Dvorak – is generally positive. Despite the personal tragedy he had experienced shortly before, the composer refuses to allow despair to overwhelm him; his music reflects neither resignation nor hopelessness. In this, Dvorak’s masterpiece, we look through a veil of tears and see faith in life.

score of the 6th part (Fac me vere)

Each of the ten parts of the oratorio is conceived as an independent number with its own thematic base. Only the last movement is an exception, in which the composer quotes from the first part, thereby achieving greater unity within the work as a whole. The atmosphere of the entire composition is governed by the vast first movement, Stabat mater dolorosa, which bears a powerful sense of inexpressible sorrow and anxiety throughout. It grows up from an uneasy motif ascending in semitones, set against the note F sharp, sustained in bare octaves. Josef Suk remembers Dvorak apparently stating that, while pondering his conception of the Stabat mater, he kept an image of the Cross constantly in his mind. This image finally crystallised into a projection of the note F sharp beginning in the low registers and gradually ascending. After a long orchestral introduction, the mixed choir and quartet of soloists gradually add their voices. The uninterrupted melodic current repeatedly leads into a steeply graded passage which, after a heart-rending surge constructed upon a striking motivic sequence, culminates in a cry of despair (fortissimo diminished seventh chord in the tutti orchestra and choir). It is only just before the close of the movement that the music gently moves into a consolatory major key.
The following eight parts of the oratorio see the choir essentially alternating with the soloists: the meditative quartet Qui est homo is followed by the choral Eja mater with its quasi march rhythm, after which follows a part for solo bass, Fac, ut ardeat cor meum; then the choral Tui nati vulnerati; the tenor aria with its almost folk-like melody, Fac me vere, tecum flere; the fragile choral song Virgo virginum; the duet for soprano and tenor Fac ut portem Christi mortem, and the above-mentioned alto aria with its atmosphere of determination, Inflammatus. The final movement, Quando corpus morietur, using choir and soloists in equal measure, is thematically based on material from the first part, thus bringing the composition to a convincing close. The mood of the movement is different, however. Again we hear the rising sequence in the orchestra and choir familiar from the first movement yet, this time, it does not lead into an expression of pain, but instead culminates in a radiant major key. A complex fugue to the word “Amen” follows, with a final a cappella catharsis in the choir expressing reconciliation and hope.  
score of the 3rd part (Eja mater)

title page of the score  

premiere, reception and subsequent performances

The premiere of the work was held in Prague on 23 December 1880 at a concert organised by the Association of Musical Artists and conducted by Adolf Cech (the work is also dedicated to this association). This was followed by a performance in Brno on 2 April 1882 under Leos Janacek, and also the first performance abroad within a few days, in Budapest on 5 April. A landmark in the history of Dvorak’s Stabat mater (and not only this work) was its first presentation in England, a country with a strong tradition in the performance of oratorios. The London premiere on 10 March 1883 was such an outstanding success that the composer himself was invited to perform it the following year. The concert on 13 March 1884, which saw Dvorak conducting his Stabat mater at the Royal Albert Hall in London, was the composer’s first big triumph abroad. The work travelled the world after that and, over the next two years, it was played in Birmingham, Worcester, Pittsburg, New York, Zagreb and Mannheim. The resounding success of the work was immediate and permanent. Due to its exceptional musical and spiritual qualities, Dvorak’s oratorio has become the most famous setting of the mediaeval liturgical sequence Stabat mater and it is also one of his most popular and most frequently performed works.

excerpts from Dvorak’s correspondence:

to his friend Velebin Urbanek (London, 14. 3. 1884):

“We had our first rehearsal with the choir at the Albert Hall on Monday, a superb building that can comfortably seat as many as 12,000 people! When I appeared on the rostrum I was welcomed with a long, thunderous applause, and it was a considerable while before everything calmed down once more. I was profoundly moved by such a sincere ovation, I couldn’t speak a word; there would’ve been no use in it since no-one would have understood me. [...] The head of the association which performs oratorios exclusively, Mr Barnby, who conducted the Stabat mater last year, has studied and rehearsed everything wonderfully, so the rehearsal went very well. The following day we had the rehearsal with the orchestra, and the soloists in the afternoon – London’s finest, I might add, in particular, the tenor and alto have beautiful voices. But I must briefly mention the size of the orchestra and the choir. Please, don’t be alarmed! There are 250 sopranos, 160 altos, 180 tenors, and 250 basses; the orchestral sections were also impressive: 24 first violins, 20 second violins, 16 violas, 16 cellos, 16 double basses. The impact of such a strong ensemble was indeed exhilarating. I can hardly describe it. [...] [during the concert] as soon as I stepped up onto the podium I was greeted by a stormy applause from an audience of about 12,000. After each movement their fervour increased and, at the end, the clapping was so loud, I had to take several bows, again and again. The orchestra and choir were also fervent in their applause, showering me with ovations. In short, I couldn’t have wished for a better outcome. All this has given me the conviction that a new and, God willing, more auspicious time has come for me here in England which, I hope, will bear good fruit for Czech music and culture in general.”

signatures of performers featuring in a production in Worcester
to his wife Anna (London, 17. 3. 1884):

“My dear wife! I enclose some reviews for you; I will send the rest. In particular, the review from The Daily Telegraph by Bennett is indeed splendid; it should be published in all the newspapers in the feuilleton section [...] I don’t know what I should write to you, except to say that I am immensely happy that I have received such recognition and admiration from everyone over here. Farewell for now, Your Antonin.”

to his father Frantisek (London, 21. 3. 1884):

“My dear father! I received your letter and I was so pleased that you were also thinking of me. Who would have thought that, one day, I would find myself far away, across the sea, in this magnificent city of London and that I would experience the kind of triumph very few foreigners live to see! Just to give you an inkling of what London is like and how great the city is, let me tell you the following: If all the Czech inhabitants of the entire Czech Lands were grouped together, there would still not be enough of them to equal the number of inhabitants in London! And if all the citizens of Kladno visited this huge hall where I conducted my “Stabat mater”, there would still be quite a few empty seats left, since the Albert Hall is a colossal venue! [...] Some of the papers mentioned you as well, stating that I came from a poor family, that my father was a butcher and an innkeeper in Nelahozeves, and that you invested everything you could in order to raise your son in the proper manner! I salute you for this!”