Finding Meaning in Dvorak's Sorrowful Song

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In my previous post I referred to some of the ghosts hovering over my activities last Sunday, the first of May. My plans that day included a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Stabat Mater at Carnegie Hall. The outstanding musical forces were the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the New York Choral Society, led by its music director John Daly Goodwin. The soloists were rising soprano Angela Meade and several excellent colleagues: mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan and bass Burak Bilgili.

Maestro Goodwin spoke to the audience before the performance, saying that Dvorak’s presence was very much in the theater with us that day. The composer died on May 1, 1904, making this an anniversary concert of a sort. The composer sat in the first tier of Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893 at the premiere of his Symphony no. 9 (From the New World). Its jubilant finale is his most famous music.

Dvorak was a great melodist, whether in his cello concerto, chamber music, nine symphonies, folk songs or his ten operas. Only one, Rusalka, has any international fame and has been a calling card for Czech sopranos and for Renée Fleming. Its “Song to the Moon,” sung by the title character (a mermaid), is a concert hall favorite. Listen to the late Czech soprano, Lucia Popp. 

The first Rusalka was Ruzena Maturová, who sang it at the National Theater in Prague on March 31, 1901. The soprano’s next role was the premiere of Dvorak’s Armida, the same sorceress Rossini wrote his 1817 opera about that has been a big role for Ms. Fleming. I wonder whether her voice is suited to the Dvorak version? Here is a rare snippet of music from this opera, sung by Montserrat Caballé in 1961. Armida premiered in Prague on March 25, 1904, just five weeks before Dvorak’s death.

Few audience members last Sunday, myself included, had ever heard Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. The text is drawn from a 14th-century Latin sacred poem by a Franciscan monk, Jacopone da Todi. It is the story of Mary grieving at the death of her son Jesus. It has a profoundly tragic flavor but is leavened by the promise of salvation for believers. 

We know that Dvorak began working on the Stabat Mater soon after the death of his second child, an infant daughter named Josefa, in September 1875. In August 1877, his third child, a daughter named Ruzena, died by accidentally drinking poison. On September 8, his eldest child, a son named Otakar, died of smallpox. Dvorak, now childless, completed the Stabat Mater on November 13, 1877. This story brings Verdi to mind. His wife and two children died in the space of 18 months in the late 1830s, and Verdi battled his shock and grief by immersing himself in composing.

Dvorak and his wife did have six more children. The Stabat Mater was published in 1881, when the composer was almost 40. It was frequently performed and led him to other professional opportunities. The gathered forces on the Carnegie stage beautifully rendered the glorious and revelatory music. As I followed the text, I was struck by two verses in particular:

Who is the man who would not weep
if seeing the Mother of Christ
in such agony?
Who would not have the compassion
on beholding the Mother of Christ
suffering with her son?

One does not have to be Christian, or even religious, to be affected by the universal sentiments of these words about parental grief. Listen to how this text (in Latin) is set to music and you will understand that emotional words are powerful on their own but take on exponentially more meaning when sung.

Can you suggest a gloriously moving piece of music that goes straight to your soul the way this one does for me? Leave a comment below.