Stabat Mater

On May 21, 8 p.m. at the Palace Theater in Stamford the Greenwich and Westchester Choral Societies will join forces to perform Antonin Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. The concert will be conducted by Maestro extraordinaire Paul Mueller and promises to be a delight for attendees. Tickets for the performance, priced at $42, $35 or $28 (plus box office fee) are available through the Palace Theatre Box Office by calling 203-325-4466 or online at Scalive.org.

In 1865 Antonin Dvorak, the great composer, taught piano to the daughters of a goldsmith; one of whom later became his wife. Her name was Anna. But it took until 1871 for Dvorak to leave the local theater he worked at. However, during those years Dvorak was privately composing his future musical legacy.

Dvorak began and completed his great setting of Jacopone da Todi’s 13th century poem Stabat Mater under a cloud of great personal tragedy. In 1875 his oldest daughter Josefa died only days after her birth. The grieving Dvorak turned to the ancient text of the Stabat Mater, seeing in its evocation of Mary’s grief at the death of her son a portrait of parental love and pain that he related to on the most personal level. He completed an outline of the entire work, but set it aside before finishing its orchestration and the working out of details to work on other pieces. Many scholars believe that the piece’s connection to Josefa made work on it too painful for Dvorak to complete the project at that time.

However, tragedy struck again with even greater cruelty only two years later. In August of 1877 his second daughter, still a toddler, died when she drank from a bottle of phosphorus used to make matches. Only weeks later Dvorak’s three-year-old son died of smallpox. The now childless composer returned to the Stabat Mater and completed the work within a month.

The finished piece stands as one of the towering monuments of choral music. There have been other great musical settings of da Todi’s poem, but Dvorak’s is by far the longest and most serious, set in 10 movements for a large orchestra, chorus and four soloists. Although conceived and written on a massive scale, Dvorak’s setting of the Stabat Mater seems to focus primarily on two very personal aspects of the poem’s emotional world, those of grief and of solace.

During the last 20 years of Dvorak’s life, his music and name became internationally known. Dvorak earned many honors, awards, and honorary doctorates. In 1892, Dvorak moved to America to work as the artistic director for the National Conservatory of Music in New York for $15,000 (25 times what he was earning in Prague). His first performance was given in Carnegie Hall. Dvorak’s infamous New World Symphony was written in America. On May 1, 1904, Dvorak died of illness.

The upcoming Greenwich and Westchester Choral Society concert at the Palace promises to be a prodigious performance which I have no doubt Dvorak himself would have been proud of…

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