Dvorak's Stabat Mater: A Masterful Exploration of Personal Tragedy

Sunrise over Prague, by Jaromir Kavan

… the world is a world of tears and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.
Virgil, The Aenied, Book 1 (Robert Fagles translation)

On August 21, 1875, in the (then) Austro-Hungarian city of Prague, 35-year-old composer Antonin Dvorak (1) looked down into the crib of his two-day-old daughter Josefa Dvorakova and discovered her dead. Dvorak, newly successful for his Third and Fourth Symphonies, was a devoted Catholic and family man. While more modern thinkers look back at infant mortality rates in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and may assume that the inhabitants were accustomed to the loss of a child, this was not the case for Dvorak, or, likely, for the many, many others that lost children then. To lose his second child just two days after her birth was agony for Dvorak, and he turned to his faith for solace. Selecting a 13th Century Latin hymn that focused on the suffering of the Virgin Mary upon the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, Dvorak began composing, perhaps as a form of meditation on his own pain.

Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, as performed by the Czech Philharmonic Choir and soloists Eri Nakamura, Elisabeth Kulman, Michael Spyres, and Jongmin Park.

Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?

— Stabat Mater, attributed to Jacopone da Todi, OFM (Edward Caswall translation)

Life, as it often does, got in the way. Dvorak was normally a commercial, secular writer, not a composer of religious music, and as he went through the grieving process for his daughter, he ended up setting aside the work for other pieces, specifically the Symphonic Variations, Op. 78, and the Moravian Duets, Ops. 20, 32, and 38, for which Dvorak won the Austrian State Prize in 1877. After the 1875 tragedy of losing Josefa, Dvorak must have thought there was nothing but a bright future ahead.

Today, we would consider Dvorak to be Czech, a resident of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. But in the late 19th Century, the Czechs were considered residents of the Duchies of Bohemia and Moravia, subject to the rule of the Habsburg Austrian Empire until a treaty in 1861 combined the declining Austrian Empire with the Kingdom of Hungary into the Austro-Hungarian Empire.(2) At the time, though, Bohemian was considered a bit provincial to the tastes of Western Europe, so Dvorak’s introduction of a traditional Czech “sound” to Classical music to acclaim must have instilled in him a sense that he was on the cusp of going beyond his supposedly provincial backwater.(3)

The cash reward associated with the Austrian State Prize(4) let Dvorak set aside his work as a church organist and devote himself to composition. Dvorak had developed the sort of reputation that attracted the attention — and subsequently the friendship — of noted composers Johannes Brahms and Hans Richter. Dvorak was poised to become an internationally-respected composer.

As I mentioned, in early 1877, Dvorak would not be faulted for thinking the future looked bright. Nonetheless, Dvorak did not escape 1877 without greater tragedy than he could have ever fathomed. By September of that year, he and his wife would have buried both his remaining children. His one-year-old daughter, Ruzena, was poisoned by drinking household chemicals and his three-year-old son, Otakar, succumbed to smallpox.

Three children dead, not one of them having made it to the age of five.

How does a family cope? What can art say about such profound loss? Not just to the listener, but to the creator? When Dvorak finished Stabat Mater, in November 1877, Prague would have been a dark city, occasionally visited by the low winter sun, but predominantly besieged by a pall of gray. There Dvorak sat in his empty home, returning to his composition Stabat Mater as a way to process his loss.

Stabat Mater opens delicately, with strings and woodwinds piecing together the notes that make up the leitmotif of the piece with as little force as possible. While other funereal works, such as Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, thunder at the audience, a musical version of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, evoking the Judeo-Christian threat of judgment at death, Dvorak’s piece is unquestionably a sympathetic piece of mourning. Here, the listener needn’t worry about Judgment Day; life has been a far crueler sentence already.

Stabat Mater is the Book of Job. Stabat Mater is Sophie’s Choice and Shusaku Endo’s Silence. It is a weeping man’s fist shaking at the heavens, asking simply, “How could you?”

Being a devoutly religious man, and likely well aware of how many children died young in his time, Dvorak still seems to have been fed up by the time he finished his piece. The central question of Stabat Mater — “Would you not feel such pain as a mother who lost her child?” — is not just directed at the listener.

It is directed at God.

“How could you?” Dvorak’s piece asks God, “How could you be all-loving and benevolent and yet still take children in such a way?” In this light, Dvorak’s Stabat Mater is asking the same question asked by Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov.

Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers KaramazovThe Grand Inquisitor.

There is no easy answer to these questions, of course. People have questioned the purpose of suffering in a just world for millennia, and Dvorak’s personal approach to this question in Stabat Mater does not offer a new answer. Instead, it offers the humble solution of shared suffering. It may be questionable that God would allow children to die, but at least humanity can share the suffering of the parents.

I think what makes Stabat Mater such a remarkable piece is that it was an outlier for Dvorak. While this piece is filled with anguish, his other works are lively and playful. His Czech Suite, which could be considered a parallel to Ma Vlast, Bedrich Smetana’s masterful work based on Czech folk songs, sounds like what would have happened if someone had tempered Beethoven’s melancholy with Zoloft. His lieder “Song to the Moon,” in the opera Rusalka, is delicate, romantic and sweet. Perhaps that is the lesson of Stabat Mater; Dvorak poured out such intense personal exploration of his loss that he was able to move on.

After the first performance of Stabat Mater in 1880, Dvorak experienced considerable success. In 1892, he traveled to the United States, ostensibly to be the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, but, more personally, to “discover,” as he put it, American Music. Notably, Dvorak focused his attention on the music of Native Americans and African Americans, accurately assessing that from such roots would come the soul of American music. During that time, Dvorak was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to compose his 9th Symphony, “From The New World,” an epic piece that definitely captures the industrial and financial might of New York.

Dvorak’s time in New York was tumultuous (he happened to arrive just before the Financial Panic of 1893, and he reportedly felt homesick for Bohemia. He wrote of a strong desire to sit quietly amidst the forests of his rural Czech village. New York left him ill at ease, and I think it comes out in From The New World. While the piece is indeed masterful and a harbinger of the modernist movement in classical music, when compared to his String Quartet №12 in FmajThe American, it does not feel as though it has the sensitivities of Dvorak’s heart in it. The American, by contrast, is both a successful melding of American folk music and Dvorak’s style. Fittingly, Dvorak wrote it far from the bustle of 1890s New York City, instead writing it over the course of three days in bucolic Spillville, Iowa(5).

Dvorak returned to Bohemia in 1895 and died just nine years later. After the tragedies that preceded Stabat Mater, one would be forgiven to think that the rest of his life was sorrowful and brooding, the life of a man who cut himself off from the world. Instead, Dvorak’s life is one of a devoted family man, raising six children after the death of his first three. He fell in love with and lived, part of the time, in the Bohemian village of Vysoka. This theme of the country life, one that Dvorak espoused long before his time in Iowa, was perhaps as much a part of his understanding of the Czech character as it was a reflection of his tragedy in the 1870s. There, in his farmhouse in the Bohemian countryside, Dvorak could compose (and he did, prodigiously), but more importantly, he could remove from his life the distractions of the city. He had eliminated the sorrows of his urban life for a place in which he could fully experience his familial joy.

  1. While Dvorak’s name is more properly written as Dvořák, I am unfortunately unable to add the Czech diacritical accent over the “r” with my computer, and thus have used the Westernized, accent-free version of his name and the names of his children. 
  2. Consider it the first supergroup. After all, most of the men there had mustaches comparable to David Crosby’s. For those following along, one can see the historical foreshadowing of the First World War here. 
  3. This allegation that the Czechs were backwater was really a reflection more of the biases and xenophobia of the Austrians and Germans of Dvorak’s time than of the reality of Prague and the Czechs. 
  4. Think of it as a Fulbright or MacArthur Grant, albeit given to people with names like “Helmut” or “Inge.” 
  5. To be clear, Dvorak wrote both The American and From The New World in Iowa, but only the former work evokes the feeling of the countryside.