Sense and Nonsense: On Hearing Dvorak’s ‘Stabat Mater’

One afternoon, I was in the Woodstock Center Xeroxing something or other. The young man in charge of the operations there told me that the following Friday he was singing at the Kennedy Center. The National Symphony Orchestra was doing Antonin Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater,” with the Czech conductor Zdenek Macal and the Oratorio Society of Washington.

This event seemed like something that should not be missed, particularly with my Bohemian blood. My mother’s family was from Iowa. Older members of the family, with great pride, have often mentioned the visit Dvorak (1841-1904) made to Spillville, Iowa, the nineteenth-century center of Czech immigration into the homesteading farmland of Iowa. One likes to think that the familiar music of the New World Symphony or the quartet or the cello concerto, that Mstislav Rostropovich loves to play, bore the spirit and flavor of those fertile plains of Northern Iowa that were home to my mother’s parents and grandparents. My Bohemian mother was born in the year Dvorak died in Prague.

The “Stabat Mater” itself, moreover, in what musical version I know not, probably a Gregorian one—I can still hum it in my off-key way for anyone who can stand it— was most familiar to me from my altar boy days at Saint Anthony’s Parish in Knoxville, in south-central Iowa. As we lived but two houses away from the church, during Lent my brother and I were often recruited for regular duty to serve for the Stations of the Cross, which seem in memory to have been held every day, but probably only on Wednesdays and Fridays.

This familiar music of the Stations, when I hear it, still puts me back in that little Church, wondering when the Stations would be over, as kneeling so much made my knees sore, or at least I thought so at the time. We would have a cross, two candle bearers, with Father Horan or Father Garrity to lead us around to each Station. The “Stabat Mater,” as I recall it now, was sung at every second Station so that the end of the Stations coincided with the last stanza of the hymn. I remember an organ and a goodly number of people present for such a small parish in a Protestant town.

It is easy to recall the first stanza that sets both the tone and the teaching of the hymn:

Stabat Mater dolorosa

 Juxta crucem lacrimosa,

Dum pendebat filius.

The program notes gave the Latin text, which Dvorak divided into ten parts, alongside an English text. The above lines are translated:

At the Cross her station keeping,

Stood the mournful Mother, weeping,

Close to Jesus at the last.

Actually, that is the way I remember the words, so I wonder if we sang it in English. Perhaps it was only in the Order that we sang it in Latin. Those words to that music always seemed touchingly sad as they evoked so graphically the scene they described, the Blessed Mother at the Cross of her Son.

What took nine words in Latin, in any case, took twice that many in English. There is probably a lesson there somewhere. My briefest translation of the same stanza would be, “(The) Sorrowful Mother weeping stood next to the Cross while (her) Son was hanging (there).” The old Catholic Encyclopedia noted that by 1912, there were over 60 translations of this hymn into English.

This particular Sequence, as it is called, has several attributed authors, from Innocent II, to Saint Bernard, to Jacopone da Todi. It has been set to music many times, over a hundred apparently. Palestrina, Pergolesi, Haydn, Scarlatti, Boccherini, Rossini, Schubert, Verdi, and more recently Penderecki, each has composed a score for the “Stabat Mater.”

The “Stabat Mater,” which came into the Roman Missal in 1727, is now used in the Office for the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, on September 15. Formerly it was used for the same Feast (Mater Dolorosa) that occurred on the Friday after Passion Sunday (two weeks before Easter) in the Old Liturgy.

The music is quite solemn, lovely, meditative. The writing of his “Stabat Mater,” moreover, had a personal meaning of some considerable poignancy for Dvorak. He and his wife Anna had three infant children. Between 1875-6, one (Joesfa) died a few days after birth, a second (Otakar) of smallpox at about three years of age, and another (Ruzena), eleven months, after accidentally drinking an acid used for making matches. Dvorak was about 36 at the time his children died and he wrote the music.

This work, consequently, is very much addressed to the grief of his wife. She was herself an alto, the voice the second from the last stanza features. It is accompanied by neither chorus nor other soloist, bass, tenor, or soprano.

Fac me cruce custodiri,

Morte Christi prcemuniri,

Con foveri gratia.

“Make me to be protected by the Cross, / To be fortified by the Death of Christ, / To be favored by grace,” she sings.

Yet, the music is, what can I say?—itself redemptive. By the time we arrive at the last stanza, we comprehend that the words of the hymn through the very grandeur of the music have led us from a most somber and tragic experience with corresponding musical setting to a new hope—that death, though present, is transformed.

The contrasting music, beginning in sadness, becomes lightsome, joyful. The Christian experience of the “Stabat Mater” bears, identifies, and transcends the tragedy of actual life, without in any way denying the reality of this life.

Quando corpus morietur,

Fac, ut animce donetur

Paradisi gloria;


“When my body dies, / Make it, that the glory of Paradise / Be given to my soul,” would be my most jejune translation. But the musical effect is stunning in context.

An experience like this, unexpectedly listening to such glorious music, music rooted in the very depths of the human condition and its redemption—the man and wife who lose their first three children (they went on to have six more, to be sure)—at once makes us realize the power and consolation of Christian dogma and its immediacy to life. The reviewer in the Washington Post suggested that even those of differing theologies might grasp the import of this music, but somehow I doubt that is fully so.

Then, too, there is the evident power of the Virgin, that, because of her, in our grief, we do not simply lapse into abstraction.

Inflammatus et accensus,

Per te, Virgo, sim defensus

In die judicii.

“Inflamed and burning, / Through thee, O Virgin, let me be defended / On judgment day.” Dvorak understood that we are not alone in such sorrows as his as long as we knew of the Virgin.

But again I go back to the sense of sorrow and hope that shines through this remarkably lovely music. The effect of the music, the comprehension of its truth, you could almost see on the face of one who listens to this music, this hymn. Hearing it, we are mindful of Saint Paul’s oft repeated idea that we want to see God and one another “face-to-face.”

Fac me vere tecum

Here, Crucifixo condolere,

Donec ego vixero.

“Make me truly to weep with thee, / To grieve with thee over the Crucified One, / As long as I shall have lived.” The translation of this last line in my Ritual is the familiar, “All the days that I may live,” a translation I like.

I have in my files the address that the Czech President Vaclav Havel gave to the United States Congress in February of 1990. This was the speech in which Havel re-marked that “the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.

Havel is abstract. No Virgin appears. Only “human consciousness”—”without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our Being as humans.” Hope seems focused in this world. “If I subordinate my political behavior to this imperative mediated to me by my conscience, I can’t go far wrong.” Yet, we wonder about this thesis. By itself, conscience often goes wrong, and “consciousness” can reveal merely itself, not what is, if we want it to.

Dvorak seems closer to the truth, even to the truth of consciousness, when he concludes his “Stabat Mater”:

Quando corpus morietur,

Fac, ut anima donetur

Paradisi gloria.


The “Amen” of this music is hauntingly lovely and glorious, almost as if to say that the last thing heard by mortal ears is the first thing for which we shall listen in Paradise. Perhaps it is true to say that we can only bear to speak of “consciousness” when we have ceased in our Parliaments and Senates to be free enough even to speak of the Virgin. Eia, Mater, fons amoris . . . (“Ah, Mother, font of love . . .”), so the ninth stanza begins.

In the end, even on scientific grounds, I think, with some irony, it is more likely that the Virgin was more apt to have been the reason Vaclav Havel was free of Marxist rule, so unexpectedly free as he said himself, free to speak to a Senate wherein speech of the Virgin is not proper even in Czech, than anything “consciousness” ever dreamed of. We dare not speak of these things for they might well be true. Eia, Mater, fons amoris. . . .


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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