St Ludmila was a Bohemian duchess who converted to Christianity in the ninth century, the grandmother of St Wenceslaus, the good king whose footsteps in the snow were followed by his page. Antonin Dvorak was impressed by the high standards of English orchestras and choirs, and was pleased to accept the commission to write an oratorio for the Leeds Festival.
The text for St Ludmila was provided by the poet Jaroslav Vrchlicky on a suitably national theme at a time of unrest and demonstrations, when the Czechs were incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dvorak worked on the oratorio at home in Vysoka and travelled to Leeds in October 1886 to conduct the first performance. There was great excitement when he arrived, and the oratorio had an enormous success. Dvorak wrote home to Bohemia:
I am still in the greatest state of excitement, partly the result of the remarkable performance of the orchestra (120 players), chorus (350) and soloists of the first rank; and also on account of a magnificent ovation on the part of the public. The enthusiasm – this English enthusiasm – was such as I have not experienced for a long while! I confess I have never before been so strongly moved, nor so aware of the flutter of excitement around me at the conductor’s desk as after the first and third sections. At the close of the performance I had to bow my thanks again and again in response to a tempest of applause and the calling of my name. Then I had to speak a few words of praise in English, heartily congratulating the orchestra and chorus. Again the audience broke into tempestuous applause, waved their handkerchiefs and shouted my name. I heard that at Ludmilla’s aria, “O grant me in the dust to fall”, which the famous Albani sang divinely, the public was moved to tears.