Program Notes for Simulcast, Saturday, September 15, 2.00 PM Bohemian National Hall, New York City
Rudolfinum, Dvořák Hall, Prague
Svatá Ludmila, op. 71, B. 144/ Saint Ludmila, Op. 71, B. 144
1. Courtyard of Mělník Castle 20 minute Intermission at 3 PM
2. In the woods near Beroun 20 minute Intermission at 4:15 PM
3. In Velehrad Cathedral End 5:30 PM
Kateřina Kněžíková soprano
Alena Kropáčková mezzosoprano
Richard Samek tenor
Jozef Benci bass
Ondřej Koplík tenor
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Lukáš Vasilek choirmaster
Jakub Hrůša conductor
The Dvořák Prague Festival is dedicating its performance of Dvořák’s oratorio Saint Ludmila to the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia. The work unites Christian symbolism with patriotism, two things of fundamental importance to the composer’s spiritual world. Logically, the performance has been entrusted to the country’s leading orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic with the Prague Philharmonic Choir under the baton of Jakub Hrůša, and the solo parts will be sung by leading Czech and Slovak artists.
The world premiere of the oratorio Saint Ludmila took place in October 1886 at the music festival in Leeds, which had commissioned a work from Dvořák after the triumphant success of his Stabat Mater. The master accepted the commission, but he insisted on a theme from Czech history, and he got his way. The libretto, inspired by the life of one of the most important Czech saints, Saint Ludmila, was written at Dvořák’s request by a leading Czech poet, Jaroslav Vrchlický. Dvořák took exceptional pride in the oratorio Saint Ludmila, and he put his utmost effort into working on it. It was one of the composer’s largest works in terms of both its length and the size of the vocal and instrumental forces it required. It is characterized by exceptional melodic inventiveness, elaborate polyphonic writing, and beauty of sound.
Comments by David R. Beveridge, Ph.D., Dvořák scholar and author
Dvořák’s only oratorio, Saint Ludmila, is one of his largest works in terms of duration and size of performing forces—and also, in the opinion of Czech music critics of his time (with which I agree!), one of his greatest. The respected critic Emanuel Chvála even wrote late in 1901, knowing all the most significant works Dvořák would write save his last opera, Armida, that Ludmila was the greatest of all.
The libretto, written at Dvořák’s request by one of the most esteemed Czech poets, Jarmil Vrchlický, is a skillful mixture of historical facts, legend, and fiction concerning the conversion of Bohemia to Christianity in the ninth century A.D. Saint Ludmila and her husband Prince Bořivoj, grandparents of St. Wenceslas, were the first Bohemians known by name to abandon the pagan gods and accept the new faith, and were both baptized by Bishop Methodius who was working in Moravia. In Vrchlický’s rendition the first to be converted is Princess Ludmila, when the hermit Ivan (who, if he existed, probably came from Croatia) intrudes on the festive consecration of a statue of a pagan goddess in Ludmila’s town of Mělník. Bearing a cross, he strikes the statue down. The people are horrified, but Ludmila perceives in Ivan’s words and demeanor a sacred aura, and resolves to seek him out at his abode. This is Part I.
In Part II Ludmila and her fearful lady companion Svatava journey into the wild, dark forests and craggy cliffs near today’s town of Beroun. They spy the cross outside the cave were Ivan lives—a very exciting moment in Dvořák’s music—and Ivan begins instructing them in the new faith. A band of hunters appears, led by Prince Bořivoj who shoots a hind. Ivan draws the arrow from the hind’s side and miraculously restores her to full health. Awed by this miracle, and also by the beauty of Ludmila, Bořivoj resolves to accept the new faith. All present rejoice, and a choir of angels sings down from heaven of the blessing that awaits the Czech lands.
Vrchlický sets Part III of the oratorio in Moravia and has the baptism of Ludmila and Bořivoj by Methodius transpire simultaneously with their wedding. There is no other action, but all have ample opportunity to express their commitment, their joy, and their excitement in thrilling music: above all the couple in an exquisite duet, and the assembled crowd in magnificent choruses, of which the first and last are based on the oldest known Czech song, thought by some to go back to Ludmila’s time: Hospodine pomiluj ny (Lord, be gracious unto us).
Dvořák composed Ludmila for a prestigious music festival in the English city of Leeds, which had asked him to write ‘a new work, or piece’ for the festival of 1886. He knew the English festivals were renowned for excellent performances of oratorios, but actually went against the committee’s wishes in choosing the genre of oratorio for his own contribution: they wanted something shorter. They were also not enamored of the idea that his work would deal with a medieval saint from Bohemia; his English publisher Alfred Littleton advised him he should choose a story from the Bible. Dvořák’s reputation, however, was such that all agreed to accept his own notions about the nature of his contribution. The premiere, which he conducted in Leeds on 15 October 1886, was a tremendous success: the audience and performers were enraptured. Alas, critics were less unanimous in their enthusiasm. Among other things they were much bothered by the poor translation of Vrchlický’s libretto into English. Over the next few years a coincidence of unfortunate circumstances led to formation of a consensus in British writings that Ludmila was a failure. The rest of the world of course followed suit in its assessment of the work—without having heard it. Except in Bohemia and Moravia, where Ludmila was performed no less than twenty-one times during Dvořák’s life, always to rave reviews. During the same time America, for instance, heard Ludmila just once. Well, not America, but only residents of the smallish city of Troy, New York, near Albany, who were as enthusiastic as the Czechs—but the performance seems to have gone unnoticed by people elsewhere. (I have failed to find any mention in the press of New York City.) And so to this day Saint Ludmila remains a treasure waiting to be fully discovered by the world.
In today’s performance in Prague Ludmila will be heard, probably for the first time in a live concert since the premiere in Leeds, in its entirety, without cuts.