Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) started composing his setting of the Stabat Mater in 1876 and completed it a year later. The death of his daughter, Josefa, drew the composer to this poetic and somewhat mystical text. The death of his surviving two children followed, bringing the composer back to complete the piece in 1877. These tragic losses resulted in this moving and highly emotional work we hear today.
Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is not harmonically complex, nor is it a difficult work to appreciate. It is, rather, immediately accessible to the listener (and performer). While these are often trademarks of Dvořák’s music, they are especially clear in this piece. The result is a piece that feels personal, often intimate, with folk-like qualities that make it sound familiar, even for first-time listeners. The only repeated thematic material is found in the first and last movements. Otherwise, each movement is a world unto itself, with no thematic relationship to anything around it. This makes the recall of the opening material even more striking when heard at the beginning of the last movement.
The vocal writing, especially for the soloists, is unique. Dvořák requires singers of ample voice to meet the vocal challenges of the phrases and to balance with the chorus and orchestra, but he also requires that these four soloists sing together as an ensemble. The second movement quartet is an example of sophisticated writing for a vocal ensemble, as are the opening and closing movements.
St. George’s Choral Society returns to its history with our performance of this piece. Dvořák has played such an important part in the choir’s existence, including the US premiere of the Requiem, along with early performances of the Stabat Mater in New York City when the work was relatively new. It is truly a wonderful way to celebrate 200 years of choral music!