I’m thrilled to be on the Tanglewood Festival Chorus roster for the performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Stabat Mater at the end of February. We are deep into the rehearsal cycle, exploring the choral blends, hairpin dynamics, and unusual tonalities that mark Dvořák choral music.
There’s one particular musical bookending in the Stabat Mater that’s so full of emotional payoffs it gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. Here’s some background and music theory to explain why:
Dvořák’s first movement sets the opening stanza of the Stabat mater text:
Stabat mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrymosa
Dum pendebat Filius
It translates to The sorrowful mother stood, weeping by the cross where her Son was hanging. Once you learn that Dvořák wrote this piece after the deaths of his three children — Josefa two days after her birth, then later his one-year-old daughter Ruzena from phosphorous poisoning, and within a month three-year-old Otakar to smallpox — you understand just how much emotional anguish Dvořák poured into composing this piece about a parent watching a dying child.
Dvořák sets the first movement in b minor, but makes heavy use of diminished chords. Because diminished chords are four symmetrically spaced minor triads, they don’t really belong to any one key signature. They are “scary” music chords – not discordant, per se, but implying anger, passion, fear, or danger. They also muddy what key you’re in, because they can resolve in a lot of different directions. (By no means did Dvořák discover the effectiveness of these chords; even baroque composers used them. My favorite is the crowd screaming to release Barrabas instead of Jesus in the St. Matthew Passion.)
See and listen to how he builds up the drama, about 9 minutes into the first movement. The chorus crescendo peaks as the timpani join the orchestra for a giant diminished fortissimo chord, echoed two measures later.
This is repeated again a minute later, before the soloists join in… and again about 140 measures later at the recapitulation right before the end of the movement… and again after that! So he’s pretty much established that giant build up leads to big scary diminished chords, suitable for a despondent Mary weeping at the feet of Jesus.
Fast forward to the tenth and final movement of the piece. The text has moved from lamenting Mary’s fate to praying that she’ll defend us on our days of judgment:
Quando corpus morietur
Fac ut animae donetur
The final movement takes this translation — When my body shall die, grant my soul the glory of paradise — and puts it in doubt. “Please, please, PLEASE let me into heaven when I die!” And then… uh oh! The same theme that we heard at the beginning plays again. We had this beaten into us already: this is the sad, scary music! We’re not gonna make it!
Until… instead of dramatic, unresolved tension… it’s a psyche out! Paradisi gloria bursts forth in a G major chord instead of the diminished chord, taking us back to D major.
Love. It. This is the introduction to the end of the piece, where suddenly this lugubrious lament turns into a celebration of making it into heaven, including a thrilling a capella confirmation of yes, we made it to paradise that echoes the major twist above.
Dvořák must have liked this trick, because he did it again about 13 years later in the Dies Irae his Requiem mass. First listen to his build up on cuncta stricte discussurus as the chorus sings about the Final Judgment. Then listen to the recapitulation when, instead of going back to the day of wrath, the piece charges forward into a major key, bells ringing, to talk about the majestic trumpet sounding to call all the dead forth to God’s throne.
These are the music theory equivalents of whodunit plot twists. Setting you up with foreshadowing, then zig instead of zagging with an unexpected progression. They hit you over the head and say, “Pay attention! Something momentous is happening here!” in a way that dynamics and rhythm alone can’t achieve.