Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is the saddest choral music I’ve ever sung.
From the opening 20 minute movement, throughout most of the first half, it functions as a musical personification of a grieving mother before her dying son. And even the later movements, excluding the apotheosis and redemption of the final movement, all have an undercurrent of yearning and loss, representing the prayers of a supplicant asking to share the burden of her grief.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve sung many sad moments in lots of musical pieces. The lament for Oedipus at the end of Oedipus Rex is sad, but in a less personal, Greek chorus sort of one-minute farewell-to-thee. Every Lacrymosa of every Requiem Mass has its own brand of sadness, though they’re often tinged with fear, too. And other Stabat Mater settings, such as Verdi’s, also try to capture sadness.
I’d argue, though, that most sad choral music is melodramatically, stereotypically sad. It screams, “Look at us, we are SAD!” Minor keys, wailing violin accompaniment, soaring melodies that decrescendo as the line lingers on the seventh of the scale before falling to a hushed cadence.
The Dvořák sadness is personal, not ostentatious. It’s a crushing, persistent grief. It’s a mourning that sees no future without more mourning. Its consolation is only by crying it out through nine movements before it approaches a sense of hope and redemption at the end. As I wrote about in my previous post, Dvořák had suffered through the separate deaths of his three children, two within a month of each other. I’ve been fortunate in my life not to have lost any immediate family so far, but this is how I expect that to feel when it happens.
Next time you see me (or anyone singing the piece this week) in person, ask us to sing the opening lament by the soprano section. It will break your heart.
To accomplish this effect requires a lot of precision, but without looking precise — the musicality still has to shine through the proper cutoffs and rhythms. Our choral director James Burton has been reminding us of the important of shaping every phrase, not just when the hairpin dynamics are explicitly indicated. We’ve played with the balance of voices, as different parts take control of the melody or serve as the tonal foundation that others play around. (That’s personally fun in the third movement, where the basses take command of the melody… though Andris Nelson’s deliberate tempo will be challenging for us!) We’ve had mixed success capturing the dramatic changes in dynamics. With all the things going on, sometimes it’s hard to remember that pp doesn’t mean “mezzoforte,” and that not all fortes are equal — we have to hold something back for those dramatic buildups or there will be no climax left for the audience at their peaks.
After an admittedly shaky initial piano rehearsal earlier in the week, though, we redeemed ourselves in the first full orchestra rehearsal last night with some magical moments. We’re looking forward to bringing this emotional piece to life this weekend.