Dvořák’s tribute (oratorio) to St. Ludmila of Bohemia

Gabriel von Max: Santa Ludmila

The 180th anniversary of the birth of Antonín Dvořák coincides with the 1100th anniversary of the death of Ludmila, the first Czech saint.

Mention Antonín Dvořák and Saint Ludmila of Bohemia in the same breath, and there is only one work we should remember. Moreover, it is a work of extraordinary scope and history. The largest Czech oratorio about the beginnings of Christianity in Bohemia was commissioned for a festival in Leeds, England. The English wanted something that would follow the tradition of Handel’s oratorios and were excited about Dvořák’s “Stabat mater”.

Dvořák’s tribute  (oratorio) to St. Ludmila of Bohemia | Photo: public domain

Dvořák, however, himself asserted that he did not want to compose along well-known biblical theme or Latin text. After the premiere of 1868, he wrote home: “There was great English enthusiasm, which I had not experienced in a long time. Everything was cheering and storming. I haven’t seen the orchestra, choir and audience in such a state as after the first and third departments!”

Dvořák cared greatly about the work, which cost him a great deal of effort. The premiere was successful, with other performances it was a bit more difficult, and the composer himself suggested some cuts. But he could not make a definitive decision on any one version.

One memorable performance took place in 1904, a month before the composer's death, with some 1,600 singers in the choir. At the Prague Spring music festival of 1948, Rafael Kubelík said goodbye to his homeland through Ludmila, performing in the Prague Castle courtyard. Jiří Bělohlávek returned to it regularly. The three-part oratorio culminates in the production of the song Lord, Lord, have mercy on us, which Dvořák turned into a magnificent celebratory hymn.