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<<  -- 3 --  Tess Crebbin    CHORAL MASTERPIECE


Dvorák changed music history as he united the old and the new world and his music acted as a go-between for the two respective sides of the big pond. All of this, if we are to believe the significance of his Stabat Mater's impact on the English audiences, was because of his Opus 58.

So it warrants a detailed look on this important day. For Dvorák, the Stabat Mater was a work brought about by personal tragedy of almost incomprehensible proportions. He lost all three of his then living children. In 1875, his young daughter Josefa died at only two days of age. The grieving father began work on the Stabat Mater, as a means of coping with his beloved child's death. It was to become a work of mourning and a work of healing, for the Stabat Mater is based on an ancient Roman Catholic poem, in Latin, that tells of the Virgin Mary's grief over the crucifixion of Jesus as she is standing under his cross.

In mid-1876, Dvorák lay aside his work on this piece and then, tragically, on 13 August 1877, he lost yet another child when eleven month old Ruzena (Rose) accidentally drank a phosphorus solution and died. Overwhelmed by this new loss, Dvorák again sought solace in the Virgin Mary and took up work on his Stabat Mater once more. Less than one month later, on 8 September, his three-year old son Otakar died of smallpox, leaving Dvorák and his wife completely childless. They subsequently had other children but at the time, their grief must have been overwhelming. The composer's only means of emotional survival was by burying himself in his Stabat Mater, completing it on 13 November of that year.

It is a profoundly moving work, perhaps more so than any other of the same name, for it is saturated by the composer's grief although this never overwhelms the piece but rather remains an ever-present background note. Especially haunting is the five-minute Wagnerian orchestral intro. The piece opens quietly on a single note that soon cumulates into a falling melody filled with tragedy when the orchestra gains strength while the melody becomes more intense. After a brief switch to a major key it returns to minor again and then the chorus quietly comes into the picture. The opening movement is extremely long, lasting some quarter of an hour in total, a fifteen minute lament on personal loss, and the second movement builds on themes introduced in this opening movement with its affecting orchestration and melodic inventions.

Dvorák has always been considered to be a composer whose work is characterized by intense harmonies, but with this oeuvre, the thrust and urgency of the phrasing, the vivacious wind contributions and the unusual use of scales, a most exceptional work has been created even by Dvorák's own standards. It is impossible to consider just what he has achieved without understanding the concept of the Stabat Mater first, so we need to digress for a while.

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Copyright © 1 May 2004 Tess Crebbin, Germany


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