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On the one hundredth anniversary of Dvorák's death,
TESS CREBBIN writes about one of the most
personal settings ever of the Stabat Mater


One hundred years ago on this day the celebrated Czech composer Antonin Dvorák felt well enough, for the first time after one month of being bedridden, to get up in the morning and partake in the May day celebrations in his home country. In the afternoon he had a bowl of soup and the grand old man seemed on the way to recovery when he suddenly died. That day, on 1 May 1904, the world had not only lost a great composer but also a great human being: a man who rose from humble roots as the son of a Bohemian innkeeper and butcher to becoming one of the most famous composers of his time whose music was played in England, the United States and all over Europe. Despite his fame he remained modest and never denied his Czech roots, causing him to resist the call of his mentor Brahms to move to Vienna. He also refused giving his work non-Czech titles because being Bohemian was not in vogue.

Dvorák 100
Dvorák 100

When Dvorák died, he left behind a prolific life with a compositional output of some 9 symphonies, 16 string quartets, a variety of orchestral works, choir works, a Stabat Mater that we will hear about in this article, a Requiem and several operas. On his way to the top of the music world he had tried his hand at a lot of different things to support himself. He had studied organ and viola, had taught music to rich and untalented young girls, had played a stint as a badly paid church organist at the St Adalbert Church in Prague and had always held on to his dream of becoming a composer during a time when poor boys from Nelahozeves did not stand a chance in hell of being composers. But he succeeded, eventually, for a while living on a small state grant that gave him the chance to concentrate on composing and, making best use of that opportunity, he became one of the most versatile and best-loved composers of his time.

Dvorák ended up composing everything, pretty much, and he was pretty darn good at whatever he tried his hand at. Of the nine symphonies he left behind his ninth, From the New World, is the most widely known, but he also wrote acclaimed operas, chamber music, lieder and many spiritual compositions, among them oratorios, cantatas and the like.

It is one of his spiritual compositions, the Stabat Mater Op 58, which will be under special scrutiny today, on this one hundredth anniversary of his death. Among all Stabat Maters ever set to music by various composers over the centuries, this one holds a special place as the most symphonic one and as the one that was most clearly written by a classical orchestral composer. It is also one of the most moving Stabat Maters in terms of the personal background of the composer. As such, we can only fully appreciate it by knowing something of the composer's life in order to understand what exactly he was doing with this highly unusual piece of work that even moves the soloists performing it to the brink of tears.

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Copyright © 1 May 2004 Tess Crebbin, Germany


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