Few images can be as poignant as that of a parent mourning a dead child. No wonder, therefore, that the 13th-century Stabat Mater Dolorosa, about the grieving Mary at the crucifixion of her son Jesus, one of the most frequently cited poems in musical history.
There is some doubt about the poem’s authorship – in addition to the monk Jacopone da Todi, other suggested authors include popes Innocent III, Gregory and John XII, St Bonaventure, St Bernard of Clairvaux and even the English monk John Peckham – but what is known is that the text was recorded in Franciscan circles. This is evidenced by other parallels with the mystical theology of Francis of Assisi. The Stabat Mater consists of 20 three-line verses with an AAB CCB rhyme scheme, a practice that was often used in the Middle Ages in order to memorize Gregorian hymns. The first verses describe the suffering of Mary from the perspective of the believer as a witness, and from the fifth verse, the believer turns to Mary in prayer in the hope that his soul would be united with that of Christ after death.
The Stabat Mater was originally intended to serve as personal inspiration in prayer and was also used as a processional hymn during penitential processions. Only in the 15th century was the text incorporated into the official liturgy as an interlude in the Requiem Mass and during the liturgy for the Friday after Palm Sunday. The Council of Trent (1545-63) forbade its performance during the liturgy because it considered the poem too profane. It would be another 200 years before the Stabat Mater once again became a standard part of the repertoire of the Roman Catholic Church, used for times of contemplation during Lent or on the Feast of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows on 15 September.
The dramatic story and universal theme has inspired more than 400 composers to set the poem to music, from Josquin des Prez to Arvo Pärt. Of all these versions, the one by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) is unquestionably one of the most personal – and for that reason probably the most moving – musical settings of the poem.
The Stabat Mater, opus 58 by Dvořák was the result of a dramatic event in the life of the Czech composer at a time when his career was gaining momentum: in September 1875, he became a father once again, but his newborn daughter Josefa died only two days after her birth. As a deeply religious man, Dvořak sought refuge in composing a Stabat Mater. Between February and May 1876, he worked on an initial version for soloists, choir and piano. But before he had had a chance to expand the composition – in between other commissions – into a ten-part work and provide an orchestral version, fate struck again: his 11-month-old daughter Ruzena died in a domestic accident and scarcely a month later his 3-year-old son Otakar died of smallpox. As a way of coping with these losses, Dvořak threw himself into his Stabat Mater again. He completed it that year, on 13 November 1877. The première took place in Prague on 23 December 1880 and was an instant success.
Despite the tragic series of events that inspired it, Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is anything but a sombre work. Throughout the ten movements, Dvořák was able to shift the atmosphere from despair to hope and trust. Rather than just setting the ten verses to music, Dvořák created his own subdivision and combination, based on what he wished to express. Thus, he opens with two full verses, and at other times even three, and where necessary he repeats some of the most important lines. In this way, he creates a musical journey that guides the listener through the various stages of his or her own grieving process. The focus is not on the text or his compositional ability, but rather on his personal processing of the loss and the accompanying emotions – from boundless sorrow to acceptance, to faith in a new future. This makes this Stabat Mater an intense and gripping, but at the same time also a healing work.
The introduction is one long lamentation, in which the orchestra is used dramatically and the choir and soloists enter a bit further on with the famous opening lines. Only at the end of the first movement do the heavens begin to grow light and the music softly moves into a major key. From the fourth movement on, Dvořák portrays a praying Christian imprisoned in his grief and longing for union with Christ. Salvation comes in the closing verse: while the orchestra falls silent, the choir bursts forth a capella in a powerful song of praise. In the closing Amen, the orchestra enters again, with one of the most impressive declarations of faith in all of musical history.
I. Stabat Mater dolorosa
Cuius animam gementem,
O quam tristis et afflicta,
Quae maerebat et dolebat,
At the Cross her station keeping,
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
O how sad and sore distressed
Christ above in torment hangs,
II. Quis est homo qui non fleret,
Quis non posset contristari,
Pro peccatis suae gentis
Vidit suum dulcem natum
Is there one who would not weep,
Can the human heart refrain
For the sins of His own nation,
She beheld her tender Child,
III. Eia Mater, fons amoris,
O thou Mother! fount of love!
IV. Fac, ut ardeat cor meum
Sancta Mater, istud agas,
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
Holy Mother! pierce me through,
V. Tui Nati vulnerati
Let me share with thee His pain,
VI. Fac me tecum pie flere,
Iuxta crucem tecum stare,
Let me mingle tears with thee,
By the Cross with thee to stay,
VII. Virgo virginum praeclara,
Virgin of all virgins blest!
VIII. Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,
Fac me plagis vulnerari,
Let me, to my latest breath,
Wounded with His every wound,
IX. Inflammatus et accensus
Fac me Cruce custodiri
Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
Let the cross then be my guard,
X. Quando corpus morietur,
While my body here decays,
translation by Edward Caswall