Dvorak wrote the piece in stages, each one at a time of personal grief. He began writing it when his daughter Josefa died after living for only two days. Two years later, he came back to it after another daughter, Ruzena, got into some poison in the house, drank it, and died. Less than a month after that, his son Otakar died of meningitis. While Dvorak and his wife had more children later in life, they were completely childless for a time after Otakar's death. It is not surprising that Dvorak worked on this piece at such times: while the music he wrote is often uplifting, the "Stabat Mater" poem is unrelentingly gloomy. Here are some of the opening stanzas:
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.
Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.
Not exactly cheerful, is it? What struck me are some of the last stanzas. The author is asking Mary to help him/her grieve as she did for Jesus:
O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord...
Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;
Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.
These stanzas really stood out to me because of Dvorak's losses at the time he wrote this piece. It's one thing to lose a grandparent or someone else who is older. It's another thing to lose a child too young. And to lose all of your children practically at once? The grief must have seemed overwhelming. He may have wondered how he could go on with life. In a sense, Dvorak may have viewed Mary as the expert in grief for one's child. She watched her own child tortured and executed in the most excruciating way possible. Perhaps Dvorak was asking her to help him learn to grieve for his children.
Another possibility is that Dvorak saw Mary as standing in solidarity with him as he endured unimaginable tragedy. Surely Mary understands what he was going through, even when many of his friends and family may not have been able to understand. I think this is important to remember for those of us who are performing and experiencing this work, never having had to grieve such profound losses. For many years, women have viewed Mary as standing in solidarity with them. Women have, historically, borne a disproportionate share of the world's grief. In many cultures, their worth is tied up in their ability to bear and nurture children, especially male children. Women who are infertile, who cannot nurse, or whose children grow up to be mentally ill or psychologically disturbed are often blamed as failures. Traditionally, they have watched their husbands, fathers, and sons go off to war and have grieved when they did not come back alive. Mary became, and still is, an important spiritual resource for women because she endured some of the tragedy that is unique to women's experience.
It's important, when experiencing this piece, to remember that it isn't about the blood and gore of the cross and the whip. It's about human experience of loss, and that is something we all share. The most exciting part of the entire 10-part work is, in my opinion, the final movement, which is a plea to go to heaven and be with God at the time of our own death. That is a prayer we can all pray. Here is a video of it, so that you can enjoy some of Dvorak's incredible writing: