Program Notes, October 2015
A Bohemian Masterpiece
Jan Dismas Zelenka's works are characterized by daring structures, long phrases full of varied musical ideas, spirited harmonic invention (especially chromatic progressions), syncopation, and a generous use of counterpoint. His works are often virtuosic and difficult to perform, but always fresh and surprising. In particular, his writing for bass instruments is far more demanding than that of other composers of his era. As Zelenka was himself a violone player, it is not surprising that he liked to write fast-moving continuo parts with driving and complicated rhythms. Although it is unlikely that Zelenka spent a great deal of time in Italy, he was quite aware of other European musical styles, and his work can sound quite Italianate, reminiscent of Vivaldi and Pergolesi. He was a unique compositional figure, once again providing proof that there was much more to the later Baroque era than Bach and Handel.
Zelenka was born in 1679 in Louňovice pod Blaníkem (German: Launiowitz), a small market town southeast of Prague, in Bohemia; he was the eldest of eight. His father was a schoolmaster and organist in Launiowitz. Nothing more is known with certainty about Zelenka's early years. He received his musical training at the Jesuit college Clementinum in Prague. His instrument was the violone (or bass viol).
Zelenka served Baron von Hartig in Prague before his appointment as violone player in Dresden's royal orchestra around 1710. The excellent music making opportunities in Dresden gave added impetus to his creativity, particularly with respect to the composition of sacred music for the Catholic court church.
Zelenka left Dresden in 1716 for a few years to complete his education in Vienna under the Habsburg Imperial Kapellmeister Johann Joseph Fux; he was back in Dresden by 1719. Whether or not he ever went to Venice is unclear, but a Saxon court document of 1715 records a royal cash advance to Zelenka for such a journey.
Back in Dresden, he became assistant to Kapellmeister Johann David Heinichen, but he gradually took over Heinichen's responsibilities when the latter's health declined. After Heinichen died in 1729, Zelenka applied for the now-vacant post, but it was given instead, in 1733, to the eminent opera composer Johann Adolf Hasse, reflecting the court's fashionable interest in opera as opposed to the liturgical music that was Zelenka's forte. Hasse was celebrated in Venice and Naples; his style was brilliant, melodious and simple, and immediately swept away the works of older composers. Zelenka's complex and ornate style did not stand a chance against Hasse's disarming simplicity.
Zelenka was reported to be stubborn, reserved, melancholy, fervently religious, and totally "uncourtly" in his manner. With these character traits it seems quite understandable that Zelenka was denied the post of Kapellmeister to which he had aspired. Instead, by way of consolation, he was made Kirchencompositeur (church composer). This subordinate position, in which Zelenka remained for the rest of his life, hindered subsequent public appreciation of his work.
Obscurity and Rediscovery
J.S. Bach held Zelenka in high esteem, as evidenced by a 1725 letter from his son Carl Philipp Emanuel to Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel. Zelenka was actually a guest in Bach's Leipzig home at one point. Bach thought enough of Zelenka to have some of his works copied; he had his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, copy out the "Amen" from Zelenka's third Magnificat for use in Leipzig's St. Thomas church, where J.S. Bach was cantor for the last twenty-five years of his life.
Zelenka's last works were never performed in his lifetime. He never married and had no children; his compositions and musical estate were purchased from his beneficiaries by Maria Josepha of Austria, Electress of Saxony, and after his death were closely guarded (in contrast to their lack of appreciation when he was alive) and considered valuable court possessions.
The rediscovery of Zelenka's work is attributed to Bedřich Smetana, who rewrote some scores from the archives in Dresden and introduced one of the composer's orchestral suites in Prague's New Town Theatre festivals in 1863.
It was mistakenly assumed that many of Zelenka's autograph scores were destroyed during the fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945. However, the scores were not kept in the Katholische Hofkirche but in the basement of the Japanese Palace, north of the river Elbe. Some are certainly missing, but this probably happened gradually — and the lost scores represent only a small proportion of his extant works.
Interest in Zelenka's music has begun to grow, especially since the end of the 1950s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s all Zelenka's instrumental compositions and selected liturgical music were published in Czechoslovakia. And, since the lifting of the Iron Curtain, these works have become even better known and performed by musicians world-wide.
Missa Votiva is, for the most part, festive and vivacious. Zelenka scored this work for a standard Baroque orchestra of strings, oboe, bassoon, and continuo, chorus, and several soloists. It is notable for the theatrical, operatic flourishes in the chorus parts and solo arias. Although written in a minor key, it is neither sad nor foreboding, but it definitely has a number of dramatic moments, often introduced by drastic tempo changes. Notably, the vigorous and restless orchestration impels the forward movement of various sections, even when the vocal writing is slower moving and homophonic.
In the Kyrie eleison, after an energetic orchestral introduction, the chorus enters with an equally energetic and chromatic theme, treated with inventive counterpoint. Christe eleison is an ornate soprano solo. The return to the final Kyrie is a brief, stately homophonic setting, which soon morphs into a recap of the first Kyrie's theme.
The Gloria is an excited, Vivaldi-like setting that alternates the chorus, a solo quartet, and individual soloists in a joyous exposition of the sentiment. At the Gratias agimus tibi section, the tempo relaxes, but not the intensity of the emotional tone. Qui tollis is a stately sarabande-like movement for soprano. Qui sedes seems smooth and slow, but this is one of the movements where the orchestral writing adds lots of forward motion under the static vocal lines. A number of startling dissonances also punctuate this section. Quoniam tu solus sanctus features the bass soloist, who must execute a sparkling coloratura line. The first pass at Cum Sancto Spiritu pulls the tempo back to a flowing triple meter, but the second iteration picks up speed, moving towards a truly exuberant "Amen," which is notable for the very complex bass lines of the orchestral underpinning.
The Credo opens with a plain line, emphasizing the words "in unum Deum" by having them sung in unison. The remainder of this introductory section continues by reiterating "Credo" vigorously, starting with the sopranos and moving down through each section, ending with the basses. This is surrounded by active vocal lines declaiming the rest of the text, supported by equally active instrumental lines, amplified by additional unison returns to the "Credo" theme (Zelenka certainly seems to want to make the point clear.) At Et incarnatus est, the mood calms to meditative serenity, featuring an alto soloist and low strings. Unlike the agonizingly slow, suspension-laden settings other composers conventionally have used for the Crucifixus section, Zelenka sets these words in an elegant double fugue; the first subject is a "sign of the cross" motif on the word "crucifixus" paired with an agitated chromatic second subject for the remaining words. Et resurrexit leaps out in a sparkling tempo, interspersed with short solos for soprano, tenor, and bass, and then jolts to a surprising stop at the words that describe the judgment of the dead. Then, like peeling away from a stop sign, it resumes its jaunty tempo. "Et vitam venturi" provides another moment of deceleration and then accelerates all the way into the elaborate concluding "Amen."
The Sanctus again uses the device of a relatively static vocal line underlaid by very active orchestration, featuring unusual modulations. The Pleni sunt caeli section picks up the tempo, leading us to a virtuoso "Osanna." The Benedictus is another lyrical, operatic soprano solo, starting out simply and extending into more elaborate vocal lines as it goes along; it is strikingly different in character and vocal demands than the earlier soprano solos. The Osanna following the Benedictus is also unconventional — it does not simply repeat the prior setting, but is a completely different, yet equally elaborate, fugal section.
The first iteration of Agnus Dei brings us intense, long vocal lines over a very agitated orchestral setting. The next "Agnus Dei" is beautifully set for the solo quartet. And the final "Agnus Dei" takes a similar strategy to that employed by Bach at the end of his B Minor Mass, by restating the musical themes of the opening Kyrie paired with the words "dona nobis pacem" to round out and complete the whole.
~ Patricia Jennerjohn