St. Ludmila


Svatý Jan region of Bohemia, setting for Part II of St. Ludmila. Photo Credit: Tomáš Adámek.  

Svatý Jan region of Bohemia, setting for Part II of St. Ludmila. Photo Credit: Tomáš Adámek.


         A major landmark in Dvořák's career was the British premiere of his monumental Stabat Mater for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra in London in 1883, which created a sensation. Within a year, two of the foremost British music festivals, in Birmingham and in Leeds, both specializing in large works of this same general nature, invited Dvořák to write new compositions for their upcoming events in 1885 and 1886 respectively. The invitation from Leeds––to compose 'a new work, or piece' without further specification––came just as Dvořák left for his first visit to Britain, where his initial engagement was to conduct the Stabat Mater on 13 March 1884. Strongly impressed by British performing forces for works of this kind, he replied to Leeds that he would compose an 'oratorio', which is to say a dramatic work intended for concert performance by vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, usually sacred, usually with emphasis on the chorus, occupying the full duration of a major concert. He received word from Leeds that

Our committee are of opinion [...] that the orthodox oratorio form is not the most attractive to the present generation. Our idea is that a sacred cantata, not exceeding an hour and a half in performance, is now the best form of composition.

Nevertheless Dvořák persuaded the committee to accept a full-length oratorio, and asked one of the leading Czech poets of the time, Jaroslav Vrchlický, to write him a libretto. The result was Svatá Ludmila (St. Ludmila), set in Bohemia in the ninth century A.D., about the conversion to Christianity of this pagan princess and her betrothal to Bořivoj, the first historically-documented member of the Přemyslid dynasty which ruled Bohemia and Moravia for several centuries, who thereupon also accepted the faith. They became the grandparents of Václav (Wenceslas), patron saint of the Czech lands.

         There are indications that Dvořák envisioned writing an oratorio on this subject already more than a decade earlier, and that he may have wished thereby to glorify Czech history in the same way Liszt had glorified the history of the Hungarians with his oratorio St. Elizabeth, devoted to one of that country's best-known figures, also from Medieval times. At any rate Dvořák persisted in his choice of Ludmila as a subject despite the advice of his British publisher that he should base his Leeds oratorio on some story from the Bible. Ironically, this turned out to be one of Dvořák's few explicitly Czech nationalist works despite the fact that he wrote it for England, and perhaps the only such specifically Czech work in his oeuvre whose subject, or at least the general nature of that subject, was demonstrably determined by his own decision.

         By the time Dvořák began composing Ludmila in September 1885 he had been able to hear magnificent performances of the mainstays of British oratorio repertoire––Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah––at the festivals in Worcester in September 1884 (where he conducted his Stabat Mater) and in Birmingham in August the following year (where he conducted his cantata written for that festival, The Spectre's Bride). And he evidently drew inspiration from the style of those perennial favorites in his own oratorio for Leeds. He took his mission very seriously and felt himself to be under great pressure: his future pupil and son-in-law Josef Suk once said that while composing Ludmila Dvořák was tired, nervous, and generally dissatisfied, that he had problems with his digestion, and that people even feared for his life.

         The premiere under his baton in Leeds on 15 October 1886 was received with great enthusiasm, but some critics voiced reservations that gradually gained the upper hand in British evaluations of this work. The influences from Handel and Mendelssohn were viewed as detrimental, as a denial of Dvořák's true compositional affinities, even though the most perceptive reviews allowed that the work was nevertheless original, bearing the stamp of Dvořák's own genius, stylistically coherent, and contained no substantial passage that remotely could have been written by the earlier masters. The libretto and particularly its translation, from Czech via German to English, came in for harsh criticism. Unlike the Stabat Mater and The Spectre's Bride, the oratorio Ludmila failed to gain a place in British performing repertoire. No doubt Dvořák would have done better, from the standpoint of his short-term interests in England, to heed the advice that he write a shorter work and one based on the Bible.

         On the other hand Ludmila was greeted with ecstasy in the Czech lands, even called by one respected critic in 1887 the best work Dvořák had ever composed. From today's standpoint it would appear the Czechs were closer to the truth in this matter than the British, and that we need not ascribe their fervor to the special meaning the oratorio's story had for them. There is nothing about this story that is difficult for a foreigner, with only a minimum of explanation, to understand and appreciate.

         In Part I of the oratorio we see Ludmila, a princess and devotée of pagan religion in a Czech noble family in the north Bohemian town of Mělník, enthralled by the old hermit Ivan who appears at the castle to strike down a newly-erected statue of the goddess Baba and proclaim the message of Christ. Ludmila departs, accompanied by her attendant Svatava, to seek out Ivan where he lives in the wild forests and rugged terrain west of Prague. That is the site of Part II, which opens, after an orchestral introduction, with Svatava's recitative and aria performed in our concert.

Biblical Songs 

         Dvořák's ten Biblické písně (Biblical Songs), to texts he selected from various Psalms in a Czech translation of the Bible from ca. 1600, form the culmination and in many respects the pinnacle of his very ample output of songs for solo voice and piano. He composed them in New York in March 1894 as his last new work during his long first sojourn in the New World. His known correspondence offers no clue concerning his motivation, nor does any testimony we have from his family or friends. Most prevalent among speculations is connection with the approaching death of his father on 28 March 1894, two days after completion of the songs; but the composer’s correspondence and unpublished family correspondence indicate he had no idea his father was ailing.

         Generally overlooked is an interview conducted with Dvořák in June 1894, when he had just returned from New York to Bohemia to spend the summer vacation period, saying he had resolved to compose a set of songs and, viewing romantic love as a topic exhausted by Schumann and others, turned for a change to the Bible––from which, as we know from more than one report, he was in the habit of reading every day. Musical settings of texts from the Bible were nothing new for Dvořák, nor for hosts of other composers. Yet surprisingly it seems they had never been used by a major composer as the basis of songs for voice and piano. 

         Another circumstance that has escaped notice is this: the Biblical Songs mark a notable return in Dvořák's career to vocal music composed in his native language, Czech, after five years when set texts only in Latin (the Te Deum) and English (The American Flag). He had even told a reporter for a New York newspaper how the English language was perhaps 'better adapted to music than our Czech'––that when working with English it was easier to find music providing proper rhythmic declamation of the words. During the course of his American sojourn, however, Dvořák gradually began to feel homesick, which may have been one of the reasons he began writing the Biblical Songs: the first of them that he sketched was what would be No. 7 in the final ordering, 'By the Rivers of Babylon', in which homesickness (on the part of the Hebrews in exile) is the main topic. And in these Biblical Songs, more than ever before, he proved that he could achieve perfect rhythmic declamation of texts in his own language, Czech, while also expressing perfectly their meaning.

         The texts of the songs are rich in imagery from nature, for which Dvořák had a special fondness. The topic of exile appears only once; for the most part the focus is on God and his relation to the individual speaker or to humanity as a whole. God can forgive one’s sins and is a source of comfort amidst extreme tribulations (which are a topic in their own right), but he, too, can inspire fear––though more often and ultimately a sense of awe, admiration, hope, and gratitude for his goodness.  

         The process of evolution from the initial musical sketches through the autograph score to the definitive version of the songs as published shows innumerable changes, including dramatic alterations to their ordering. In the final ordering they provide engaging contrasts in mood from one song to the next, swinging back and forth many times, but with an overall progression from gloom to brightness––from the 'darkness and clouds' that open the cycle to its culminating, ecstatic call for all nature to rejoice. 

         Many of the songs employ rich and expressive chromatic harmonies, but others remain idyllically simple. In places we hear echoes of the African American spiritual style that Dvořák so admired and from which we know he drew inspiration in other works composed in America; the most tangible evidence is frequent use of the pentatonic scale, above all in the final song whose melody remains entirely pentatonic until the closing phrase.  

         The texts of the Psalms have no rhyme or metric structure but come across almost as natural speech, and this is the case with Dvořák’s musical settings of them, too. He uses repetitions of musical motives and phrases to give unity to the songs, but none of them has a fully regular formal structure, and for instance in many places he briefly changes the time signature to accommodate the natural rhythmic flow of the text.

         Dvořák's publisher Fritz Simrock sent these songs in manuscript to no less than Johannes Brahms, asking his opinion about two possible German translations of the texts. Alas Brahms's only reaction that we have directly documented is that he had reservations about both translations. But he may have taken a cue from Dvořák when, less than two years later, he composed his own Four Serious Songs––also to texts from the Bible which, as noted above, was an otherwise unprecedented source of texts in works for voice and piano by major composers.

         Dvořák conceived his Biblical Songs for alto voice, perhaps having in mind his wife who was an admired performer of alto parts in his other works. Most likely she gave a private rendition of the songs, with the composer at the piano, to the author of the above-mentioned interview with Dvořák in June 1894, who published an assessment that over time has proved to be generally valid: 

These songs will leave indelible impressions in the heart of every listener with their entrancing simplicity, with their pure, deep feeling. Perhaps they will not be understood properly at first. But the more they are heard, the more ever-new beauties will be discovered in them.


About the English translations:


         For this concert I have prepared new translations for singing of all the music performed, with the goal of recreating as closely as possible for an English-speaking audience the experience Czechs have when listening to this music with the original Czech words. In some short passages I have adopted the English translations published with the scores during Dvořák's lifetime, with his approval but in haste, or the different English translations published with the critical editions of these works in the mid-twentieth century. For the most part, though, I have attempted to improve on all these translations, in that: 1) I have adhered more closely to the meaning of the Czech words, 2) I have more often placed the important words beneath the same musical note or notes where Dvořák has them, 3) I have achieved rhythmic declamation of the words that is closer to the way they would naturally be spoken in English. As in the editions from Dvořák's time, my translations require occasional small changes to his melodic line, mostly division of notes into shorter repeated notes or vice versa, or addition of upbeats, never changing Dvořák's harmony or the overall shape of his line. He approved changes of this nature in principle in letters to his publisher Simrock of 1894 concerning the Biblical Songs. The twentieth-century critical editions, by contrast, maintain his original melody strictly, but in consequence have to make relatively great sacrifices as concerns meaning and placement of words in the translations and their proper rhythmic declamation. I have tried to some extent to preserve the quasi-Medieval style of Vrchlický's text for Ludmila, and in the case of the Biblical Songs the style of the Psalms in the King James version of the Bible, which originated ca. 1600 like the Czech translation Dvořák used. Vrchlický's text is rhymed and metered, but I have preserved these features in my translation only where Dvořák's music is such that they can easily be heard. The Psalms are neither rhymed nor metered either in the original Hebrew or in the Czech translation Dvořák used, thus not in my English translation either.

Recitative and aria of Svatava from Part II of Dvořák's oratorio St. Ludmila – translation by David R. Beveridge, for singing, from the original Czech by Jaroslav Vrchlický.

What dark and gloomy forest shadows, my lady, mak'st thou now thy goal!

Yon cliffs rise up to jagged summits, like grim and terrifying guards.

In horror e'en the beasts do flee, naught but echoes in the crags hear we.

My heart is seized by fear and terror. No, with thee I'll not go, not go on!

No, no, no, with thee I shall not go on. No, no, no!


I should not have thee trusted firmly when thou led me here to gloomy crags.

I should not have thee trusted firmly when thou led me here to these crags.


Yea, thou dost know, since that aged man he did appear at Mělník's gate.

All through thy soul a flood of stress and woe hath whirled, you cannot rest.


That strange magic from that man's words that like a stormy flash of light streamed–

how it overwhelmed thee, how it conquered thee!

How from the castle it drove thee, what pow'r for thy journey it gave thee! Transformed thy day and all thy dreaming, how firm in stride thy feeble legs!


I feel that all thy life till now has been an error, a deceptive sham.

I feel that all thy life till now has been an error, a deceptive sham. 

Dvořák, Biblical Songs translation by David R. Beveridge, for singing, from the original Czech of the Kralice Bible.

1. (Psalm 97: 2-6)

Darkness and clouds are amassed all about Him,

justice and proper verdict the basis of His throne.

Fire goes forth before Him and burneth ev'rywhere His enemies to ashes.

Shining all o'er the land and sea his brilliant lightning from yonder;

earth having seen it trembles.

Mountains, yea, like wax dissolve before the face of the mighty Lord of hosts,

ruler of the whole earth.

The glory of His majesty witness all the nations.


2. (Psalm 119: 114-15, 117, 120)

Hiding place and shield for me Thou art; in Thy word do I hope.

Get thee away from me, ye evildoers, that I might keep the commandments of my God and my Lord.

Fortify me, that I be safe in Thee and follow all of Thy directives now and always.

Trembling and fearful my flesh stands before Thee, for Thy judgments I fear exceedingly.


3. (Psalm 55: 1-2, 4-8)

Hear, oh God, hear my prayer, and hide Thou not Thyself from my plea.

Hearken Thou and lend Thine ear, for I wail to Thee in my lamenting,

in torment consumed.

How my heart is afflicted, and dreadful fear of death has seized upon me,

and terror overcometh me.

And thus I spake:

Oh, had I wings like a silver dove! I would fly far away and be at rest.

Ah, far away would I fly, and live then in the wilderness.

Hasten would I to escape from the wind, so stormy and furious.


4. (Psalm 23: 1-4)

The Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want.

Pastures green He granteth to me, and to waters still He leadeth me.

My soul He restoreth,

guiding me along the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.

Yea, though it happen that I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me,

and Thy rod and Thy staff they do comfort me.


5. (Psalms 144: 9 and 145: 2-3, 5-6)

God! Oh God! A song that is new will I sing aloud unto Thee with a psaltery,

and psalms with all my heart to Thee I'll sing.

On ev'ry day exaltations to Thee will I sing

and will praise Thy glorious name forever and ever.

The Lord is surely of greatest pow'r and worthy of all praise, and His manifest greatness, it is unutterable.

Of Thy glory and splendour and great nobility and of Thy works mysterious

will I speak.

And the might of Thy terrible acts shall all declare with wonder,

and I Thine honour and dignity will glorify.


6. (Psalms 61: 1, 3-4 and 63: 1, 4-5)

Hear, oh God, my cry unto Thee, attend Thee unto my prayer!

For Thou hast been my sanctuary sure,

a strong tower before the face of the enemy.

I will dwell in Thy tabernacle forever,

and hide in the cover of Thy wings with Thee.

God! God of strength for me Thou art. Early in the morning I seek Thee;

for Thee thirsteth all my soul, after Thee longeth all my flesh,

in a land of thirst where the soil is parched, where is no water.

And thus that Thee I bless and thank with joyful lips and singing aloud, to laud Thee with my mouth in praise.


7. (Psalm 137: 1-5)

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat often and we wept, yea, we wept,

reminiscing about our dear Zion.

In the willows of that land we did hang up our harps in their boughs.

And when we were queried there by those who had captured us

about the words of a song of ours, saying unto us,

'Sing for us now one of your songs of Zion,' we answered thus:

'How shall we sing to thee a song of the Lord our God

in a land of strange and alien men?

If I e'er should cease to remember thee, oh, Jerusalem,

oh! may my right hand then forget all it knows, forget all its mastery.


8. (Psalm 25: 16-18, 20)

Look now upon me and show Thou Thy mercy,

for I am desolate in anguished pain.

And in my heart the torments multiply now.

From my distress bring me out, from my distress bring me out.

Show Thou Thy mercy!

Look on my affliction and misery and forgive me all my wickedness.

Guard Thou my soul, oh Lord, and deliver me, that I not be ashamed.

For in Thee I hope, for in Thee I trust and hope!


9. (Psalm 121: 1-4)

Mine eyes do I lift up to the mountains whence hath come my assistance.

Help comes from the Lord of hosts on high,

which created heaven and all the earth.

Ne'er shall He suffer the slightest stumbling, the slightest stumbling of thy foot,

for thy guardian He sleepeth not.

Behold, He neither slumbers nor sleeps, He that watcheth and keepeth Israel.


10. (Psalms 98: 1, 4, 7-8 and 96: 12)

Sing to the Lord of hosts a song, a new song,

for He hath wondrous marvels performed.

Make a joyful noise and sing out; may psalms resound aloud!

Roar, ye ocean and all that is within it, the whole world and those that in it dwell.

Rivers, oh clap your hands exulting,

and with them together ye mountains sing aloud with joy!

Celebrate, ye field and all within it;

rejoice all the earth and roar ye ocean and what in it dwells!


Photo Credit:  Zdeněk Hrabica

Photo Credit:  Zdeněk Hrabica

David R. Beveridge, a native of Ohio, earned his Ph.D. in music history and literature at the University of California in Berkeley and taught at various American colleges and universities before settling permanently in the Czech Republic in 1993. Since that time he has been serving on a freelance basis as a translator from Czech to English (with a long list of publications, mostly pertaining to Czech music) and as a musicologist working over the long term on the most comprehensive-ever treatment of the life and work of Antonín Dvořák (now nearly half finished) with support from such agencies as the International Research and Exchanges Board, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic, and the Music Libraries Trust of Great Britain. He has published numerous articles and essays in the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, and the Czech Republic presenting his findings and his reflections, and served as editor and co-author of the book Rethinking Dvořák: Views from Five Countries for Oxford University Press. In 2013 he won an award from the Hlávka Foundation in Prague for his book (in Czech) on relations among four persons: the architect, builder, and philanthropist Josef Hlávka, Dvořák, and the wives of both men. Dr. Beveridge lectures frequently on musical topics for innumerable Czech and international groups, most often for Road Scholar educational tours in Prague but recently including also for instance the Music@Menlo chamber music festival in California and events of the Manhattan String Quartet.


Photo Credit: Christoph Frank

Photo Credit: Christoph Frank

Mezzo-Soprano Mirjam Frank has performed with renowned ensembles and as soloist. She regularly sings with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir in Vienna (director: Erwin Ortner). Conductors she worked with include Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Franz Welser-Möst and Cornelius Meister. As a soloist, she sang with the Augsburger Kammeroper (Germany), and performed her own project Monodrama – Hommage à Cathy Berberian at NYU in the spring of 2015. Mirjam currently studies with soprano Judith Natalucci in New York.

Mirjam is based in London (UK) where she is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London and recipient of the Reid Scholarship. Her work includes the exploration of home and exile in the compositions of Alexander Zemlinsky and Kurt Weill, as well as music created in Terezín.

Mirjam holds a MSt in Music (Performance) from the University of Oxford (2012), as well as a Bachelor of Arts degree in Drama & Music from Royal Holloway, University of London (2011).