Saint Ludmila (Svata Ludmila), Op. 71, B144, B205
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
17 Sepember 1885 - 30 May 1886
(arrangements for stage performance: 1895 and 1901)
Premiere - date and place
15 October 1886, Leeds
Emma Albani - Ludmila, Janet Monach Patey - Svatava, Edward Lloyd - Borivoj, Charles Santley - Ivan, conductor Antonin Dvorak
Novello, Ewer & Co., 1887, London
Author of the text
Jaroslav Vrchlicky (+ Vaclav Juda Novotny - arrangements for stage performance)
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, triangle, harp, organ, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists
Parts / movements
1. Courtyard of the Castle of Melnik
2. In the Woods Near Beroun
3. In the Cathedral of Velehrad
Saint Ludmila, a princess - soprano
Svatava, her companion - mezzosoprano
Prince Borivoj - tenor
Saint Ivan, a hermit - bass
A Farmer - tenor
approx. 2 hr. 30 min.
The figure of St Ludmila, regarded as one of the most important Czech saints, had intrigued Dvorak for many years. Back in 1872, namely thirteen years before he composed this oratorio, the Prague paper Hudebni listy printed a report which stated that Dvorak was working on a piece devoted to this subject matter. Without doubt, this was merely a plan he had in mind, which ultimately never bore fruit. After the triumph of the oratorio Stabat mater in England, the composer received a new commission in 1884 from the music festival in Leeds. The organisers requested a work with a biblical theme lasting about ninety minutes. Dvorak proposed to write a full-length cantata, and the festival committee agreed to this. What they weren’t so pleased about was the choice of theme: while the committee repeatedly recommended to Dvorak that he write a work on a biblical, thus internationally comprehensible, theme, the composer insisted on a story from Czech history. He eventually managed to convince the committee to accept his idea. He first approached Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova for a suitable libretto, but she declined due to other commitments. The composer thus turned to leading Czech poet Jaroslav Vrchlicky, who complied with his wishes.
Dvorak took great pride in his oratorio Saint Ludmila and invested all his efforts in its composition. It is one of the composer’s most comprehensive works, both in terms of its length and the number of vocal and instrumental performers involved. Unabridged, the work lasts about two and a half hours and is written for a full orchestra, mixed choir and five soloists. Dvorak’s total concentration on such a demanding compositional structure took its toll, however: the supreme mental exertion required gave rise to fits of agoraphobia which he then suffered for the remainder of his life. Dvorak’s pupil and son-in-law Josef Suk states in his memoirs that “as he worked on the oratorio Saint Ludmila, Dvorak was tired, agitated and had severe stomach problems. He was very despondent at that time and his family truly feared for his life.” This state of affairs was also confirmed by Dvorak’s American assistant, Josef Kovarik, according to whom, “when the Master was writing his Saint Ludmila for England, he was overworked and, from then on, he suffered fits of anxiety and was often afraid even to cross the street.” Dvorak worked on the oratorio for more than eight months, during which time he refused most of his visitors and invitations to conduct. In the years 1895 and 1901 he returned to Saint Ludmila to make significant cuts for a shorter stage version.
In his libretto Jaroslav Vrchlicky described a key event which occurred at the dawn of Czech history: the conversion of Slav paganism to Christianity. He divided the oratorio’s libretto into three parts. In the first part the hermit Ivan arrives at Melnik castle and reveals to the pagan, idolatrous crowd the truth about the presence of only one God. In the second part Princess Ludmila seeks out Ivan in the forest; she wishes to be baptised. There she encounters Borivoj, who is willing to convert to the Christian faith if he can have Ludmila as his wife. The third part of the oratorio depicts a grand ceremony at Velehrad, where Ludmila, together with Borivoj, and with them the entire Czech nation, are baptised by Bishop Methodius. Vrchlicky’s text has its weaknesses, particularly with regard to the portrayal of the individual characters: The apostle Ivan is not rendered as someone who spreads love and faith through his new teachings – he instead shows traits of fanaticism as he destroys the pagan idols; Ludmila’s sudden conversion to the new faith does not appear entirely natural, either; and Borivoj’s motivation behind his acceptance of Christ is contentious at the very least.
Despite its shortcomings, Vrchlicky’s libretto was almost ideally suited for the kind of work Dvorak had in mind. It combined religious and patriotic themes and provided the composer with a number of opportunities to write independent choral, solo and ensemble pieces of varying mood and atmosphere. In the same way that he had always looked to his predecessors (chiefly Beethoven and Schubert) when choosing the desired form for his symphonic and chamber music, his model for the oratorio was the Baroque master of the genre, Georg Friedrich Handel, in whose example he primarily sought a pure oratorio style. However, Dvorak was able to give this traditional musical form a new, distinctive texture. His Saint Ludmila alternates dramatic and lyrical passages, also the majestic and the intimate. Alongside the solo voices, great care was taken throughout with the highly effective choral sections which together contribute to the overall monumentality of expression. One of the most remarkable examples of Dvorak’s exceptional invention is his setting of the hymn from the late 10th and early 11th centuries, Lord have mercy upon us (Hospodine pomiluj ny), which Vrchlicky incorporated into the libretto as a framework for the last part of the oratorio. Initially, the text is set in the style of a quasi-ceremonial march; then, at the very end, it forms the basis of a grandiose fugue, awe-inspiring in its impact and power of expression.
In the oratorio Saint Ludmila, Dvorak produced one of his most inspired works, appreciated for its exceptional melodic invention, intricate polyphonic treatment and sheer beauty. It could be seen as a monumental historical tableau in which the composer uses generous brushstrokes to illustrate the birth of a new era in Czech history. His vision also unites Christian symbolism and patriotism, namely two concepts that had fundamental significance for Dvorak’s spiritual life.
premiere and subsequent performances
Before the score was even finished, Dvorak had already received several offers to have it performed (London, Glasgow, Edinburgh etc.). The first performance, however, was reserved for the Leeds festival. The premiere on 15 October 1886, conducted by the composer himself, proved to be the cultural event of the season. According to The Daily Telegraph, some of the audience had travelled the whole night in order to hear Dvorak’s new work. The enthusiastic reception from the public, however, was in sharp contrast to the largely negative response from the critics. They targeted the libretto, in particular, which caused a certain amount of confusion due to the double translation of the text (into English via German), also the length of the work itself, and its theme which was still somewhat obscure for an English audience. Performances were subsequently held in London (29 October and 6 November 1886) and Prague (25 and 27 February and 6, 11 and 25 November 1887), all conducted once again by Dvorak. Several attempts were made subsequently to perform Saint Ludmila on stage (National Theatre in Prague 1901-1904, 1934-1935), but the results showed that the work was more at home on the concert platform.
• 3 April 1904, Prague, Royal Enclosure (today Stromovka); Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, members of Central Union of Choir Associations (about 1600 singers); soloists: Frantiska Burianova-Jelinkova (Saint Ludmila), Karel Burain (Borivoj), Vaclav Kliment (Saint Ivan), Bozena Tumova (Svatava), Edvard Krticka (A Farmer); conductor: Oskar Nedbal.
• 27 and 28 June 1944, Prague, Smetana Hall of the Municipal House; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Czech Choir, soloists: Stepanka Jelinkova (Saint Ludmila), Marta Krasova (Svatava), Bronislav Chorovic (Borivoj), Rudolf Asmus (Saint Ivan); conductor: Jaroslav Krombholc.
• 15 May and 13 June 1948, Prague, Prague Castle; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Symphony Orchestra, Czech Choir, Prague Hlahol, Vinohrady Hlahol, Choir of Prague Teachers, Smetana Choir, Children's Choir of the Czech Choir; soloists: Zdenka Hrncirova (Saint Ludmila), Marta Krasova (Svatava), Beno Blachut (Borivoj), Eduard Haken (Saint Ivan), Jozka Severin (A Farmer); conductor: Rafael Kubelik.
• 12 June 1987, Prague, Dvorak Hall of Rudolfinum; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic Choir; soloists: Gabriela Benackova (Saint Ludmila), Vera Soukupova (Svatava), Wieslaw Ochman (Borivoj), Peter Mikulas (Saint Ivan), Miroslav Kopp (A Farmer); conductor: Vaclav Neumann
• 23 and 24 September 1993, Prague, Dvorak Hall of Rudolfinum; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic Choir; soloists: Eva Urbanova (Saint Ludmila), Marta Benackova (Svatava), Vladimir Dolezal (Borivoj), Peter Mikulas (Saint Ivan), Miroslav Kopp (A Farmer); conductor: Jiri Belohlavek.
• 3 October 1993, Brussels; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic Choir; soloists: Eva Urbanova (Saint Ludmila), Marta Benackova (Svatava), Vladimír Dolezal (Borivoj), Peter Mikulas (Saint Ivan), Miroslav Kopp (A Farmer); conductor: Jiri Belohlavekk.
• 30 August 2002, Edinburgh, Usher Hall; Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus; soloists: Eva Urbanova (Saint Ludmila), Dagmar Peckova (Svatava), Peter Straka (Borivoj), Peter Mikulas (Saint Ivan), Ales Briscein (A Farmer); conductor: Jiri Belohlavek.
• 15 and 16 May 2004, Prague, Smetana Hall of the Municipal House; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic Choir, Bambini di Praga; soloists: Eva Urbanova (Saint Ludmila), Bernarda Fink (Svatava), Stanislav Matis (Borivoj), Peter Mikulas (Saint), Ales Briscein (A Farmer); conductor: Jiri Belohlavek.
• 15 September 2018, Prague, Dvorak Hall of Rudolfinum; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic Choir; soloists: Katerina Knezikova (Saint Ludmila), Alena Kropackova (Svatava), Richard Samek (Borivoj), Jozef Benci (Saint), Ondřej Koplík (A Farmer); conductor: Jakub Hrusa.
excerpts from Dvorak’s correspondence:
Jaroslav Vrchlicky to Antonin Dvorak (3 January 1885):
“Esteemed Maestro and friend! I enclose the completed text for the oratorio “Saint Ludmila” and express my wish that it please you at least a little and that it will be of good use to you. In this case, further to my discussion with Mr Dorfl, I take this opportunity to state once more that it would be my pleasure to accept the terms you specify (150 gulden after submission of the text) and I am willing to undertake any revisions or changes, should you require them. If you were able to obtain any fee from the English publisher for me, as you pledged to do, I would be exceedingly grateful; if not, I will still be content. I remain your most humble and obedient servant, Jaroslav Vrchlicky.”
Antonin Dvorak to Vaclav Juda Novotny (Leeds, 15 October 1886):
“They were so enthusiastic, in that truly English way, such as I haven’t seen in a long while. Everyone was cheering and applauding. It has been so long since I last witnessed the orchestra, choir and audience in such raptures, especially after the first and third parts! I do not have the words to describe it. The orchestra 120 [players], choir 350 and soloists all competed for the palm of victory. In short, it was a grandiose affair and calls for ‘Dvorak’ went on and on. Towards the end I even had to climb up onto the tribune and say a few words in English to the choir and orchestra, in front of the audience, which generated a stormy round of applause. Everyone was waving their scarves and kerchiefs, it was all so overwhelming, it truly was. They told me that, after Albani had sung her piece ‘O, I beg thee, on thy dusty feet my lips I would lay’, people were so moved that they wept and wiped the tears from their eyes. Albani’s performance was truly enchanting. Words cannot express it. [...] The article in Pall Mall includes my biography, from my young days to the present, but I would like to draw your attention to the last sentence, where I state that the whole of Europe once regarded our nation with admiration, and perhaps now our time of glory will come once again, and that, although we are a small nation, we can still prove what we have been and what we will be again!”
soprano Eva Urbanova on Saint Ludmila:
“When I sing Saint Ludmila I have a feeling of something unearthly; how could someone have written music like this? At the end of the first part, you hear notes that open up. The song here is about the light which is to come from above, and I always have the impression that the roof of the hall opens up and that light really does shine down on us. It always happens to me, always at this point in the work. The feeling is incredibly strong.”