Program Notes for Bach and Zelenka

 Magnificat - Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)

Most of Johann Sebastian Bach's extant church music in Latin dates from his Leipzig period (1723–50).  In Leipzig, compared to Lutheran practice elsewhere, an uncharacteristic amount of Latin was used in church. In his first years in Leipzig Bach produced a Latin Magnificat and several settings of the Sanctus. In 1733 he composed a large-scale Kyrie-Gloria Mass for the Catholic court in Dresden.  He presented the manuscript to the King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Elector of Saxony, Augustus III, in an eventually successful bid to persuade the monarch to give him the title of Royal Court Composer (after an unsuccessful bid to become the Kapellmeister). Around the same time he produced the final version of his Magnificat.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The Magnificat is conceived on a grand scale, requiring five soloists, a five-part choir and, for its time, an unusually large orchestra consisting of three trumpets, two flutes, two oboes, strings, and continuo. In its splendor and jubilation the piece anticipates the great choruses of the later Mass in B minor. The Magnificat begins with a brilliant orchestral introduction in which the trumpets feature prominently. This leads directly into an equally impressive chorus, “Magnificat anima mea” (My soul doth magnify). The opening word, “Magnificat,” is followed by the soaring curve of the “Et exultavit spiritus meus” (And my spirit rejoices), and the jubilation carries through the entire movement. Animated rhythms express Mary’s joy, and a descending melody, accompanied by a discreetly melancholy oboe d’amore, gives voice to her “humilitatem” (humility).

The text Bach chose, Luke 1:46-55, was based on words attributed to Mary on learning both of her pregnancy and of its significance to humanity. With the words “omnes generationes” (all generations), each voice part makes an ascending entrance, and, in the last bars, the combined voices climax in a dominant chord, portraying the multitudes in a vast space.

The bass aria “Quia fecit mihi magna,” (For great things have been done) with its graciously flowing gentleness, ushers in divine mercy. The contralto and tenor duet “Et misericordia” (And his mercy), a Baroque masterpiece, sets off on a steady, somber E minor that changes on the word “timentibus” (them that fear him). “Fecit potentiam” (He has shown strength) is a gust of wind, taking perilous height on the word ‘superbos’ (the proud ones) and then becoming reflective in a brief adagio, “mente cordis sui" (the thoughts of their hearts).

“Deposuit potentes” (He has brought down the powerful) leaves no question that the mighty suffer a headlong fall while the humble are exalted. Expressing fulfillment of an ancient promise, “Sicut locutus est” (According to the promise) flows effortlessly while pinned to a five-part fugal structure. Finally, “Gloria Patri” with its seraphic trumpets draws the work to a dazzling conclusion; a return to the opening theme in “sicut erat” (as it was) completes the circle, presaging the same technique that Bach used in his B Minor Mass.


Missa Divi Xaverii – Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679 – 1745)

In recent years works by this Bohemian composer have attracted increasing interest from musicians and audiences. Zelenka’s emotional and individual music continues to exert a fascination more than two centuries after it was written.

The most brilliant era of artistic achievement in Dresden opened in 1694, the year in which Frederick Augustus I succeeded his brother as Elector.  Through extensive travel, Augustus had at first hand become well acquainted with the splendor in which great rulers live. A man of huge ambition and dynamic energy, Augustus set about transforming the electoral capital into a center of artistic and architectural excellence that would rival Versailles. Augustus converted to Catholicism as a condition of being named King of Poland; this required him to impose Catholicism upon his Protestant subjects, but they were diplomatically left without interference.  Nevertheless, a project was undertaken to develop music for Catholic church services; Zelenka had a major role in this endeavor.

Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745)

Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745)

From 1710 Zelenka worked as a double bass player in the Dresden court ensemble, where he gradually assumed an increasingly important role, undertaking composing duties. Then his career took him to Vienna, where he studied with Johann Joseph Fux from 1716 to 1719. Following a visit to Prague during 1721 and 1722, the industrious Zelenka composed a large body of sacred works for the Dresden chapel.

From 1725 onwards, Zelenka increasingly directed church music in the Dresden court church, deputizing for the ailing Kapellmeister Johann David Heinichen.  With the death of Heinichen in 1729, Zelenka had a perfectly reasonable anticipation of being promoted in his place. Any hopes Zelenka might have entertained that he would fill Heinichen’s post were dashed with the appointment of Johann Adolf Hasse as Kapellmeister in 1730. Zelenka largely gave up composing sacred works. His compositions were considered old-fashioned and did not appeal to the Italian-oriented Augustus II. Zelenka died in 1745, reputedly a broken and disillusioned man.

The Missa Divi Xaverii was performed at the court chapel in Dresden on December 3, 1729, on the feast day of St. Francis Xavier, a 16th-century Jesuit missionary to India and Japan. It is not known which occasion the work was intended for, but the spectacular setting of the ordinary of the Mass (without Credo), in which Zelenka showed his entire mastery and originality to best advantage, was evidently composed in great haste. His autograph score is not only very damaged, but is also very sketchy, and notated with energetic and difficult-to-read pen strokes. Despite the hurry, Zelenka experimented here, particularly in the scoring of the unusually large orchestral forces. These include the brilliance of four trumpets and the frequent dialogue of the vocal parts with concertante transverse flutes, oboes, and bassoon. The Mass dates from exactly the time when Zelenka had those futile hopes to succeed the recently deceased Heinichen as Kapellmeister. He might have also had one eye on the fact that the feast of St Francis Xavier coincided with the nameday of the crown prince’s devout wife Maria Josepha, who particularly venerated the saint.

The Mass begins with the radiant opening strains of “Kyrie eleison”; the solo quartet’s plea for mercy carries through to a shapely choral response adorned by four trumpets. In the “Gloria,” we hear a gorgeous dialogue with a violin and oboe d’amore in “Benedictus,” and a charming duet in “Domine Deus”—a pastorale featuring two bubbling flutes. The “Agnus Dei” is accompanied by delicate solo flute and pulsing strings. “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus” is a fluid quartet that seems closer to Mozart than to Bach, not least on account of its introductory ritornello juggling a trio of flutes and violas on the one hand, and a trio of oboes and bassoon on the other, while trumpets make surprisingly subtle interjections. 

The heartfelt piety of “Qui tollis peccata mundi,” the thrilling rising sequences at the climax of the “Sanctus,” and the exuberant “Dona nobis pacem” (which rounds out the Mass by revisiting some of the musical themes from the “Kyrie”) reveal the Missa Divi Xaverii as an expansive and unusually richly scored work.

The damaged autograph score had long been kept under lock and key. A performing edition was created relatively recently; passages missing because of its damaged condition have been supplemented using secondary sources or reconstructed by Václav Luks. The first performance to use the new edition took place in the summer of 2014, when it was performed at the Utrecht Early Music Festival.                                    

Sources:, Carol Talbeck, John Bawden,,, Václav Luks, and, of course, Wikipedia

 –Patricia Jennerjohn