Program Notes

May 10th, 2015
Jordan Hall at NEC; David Hoose, conductor

Program:

J.D. Zelenka: Grave—Allegro—Grave from Ouverture a 7 in F, ZWV 188
J.S. Bach: Magnificat in D, BWV 243
J.S. Bach: Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 42, "Am Abend aber desslbigen Sabbaths"
J.D. Zelenka: Te Deum in D, a due cori, ZWV 146 - Boston Premiere

Notes by David Hoose

Jan Dismas Zelenka, Ouverture a 7 in F, ZWV 188, Movement I
Zelenka composed a large handful of secular works, including a group of duets for oboes and continuo, a number of virtuoso works for oboes, horns, strings and continuo, each called Capriccio, and at least three multi-movement concerti for two oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo. All of these instrumental works date from between 1717 and 1723. The design of Zelenka’s Ouverture a 7 resembles a Handel concerto grosso, with a first movement (heard in this performance) in French overture style–a slow section with dotted rhythms, a quicker fugal section, and a return to slower music at the end–and a series of smaller dance movements.

This resemblance to Handel, however, goes very little further. Zelenka’s invention–even quirkiness–both reaches back to a time when the lines’ shapes could take precedence over the resulting harmonies (often resulting in harsh clashes) and, at the same time, looks forward to a time of increasing harmonic freedom. The working out of the contrapuntal material, too, bears his stamp: a willingness to stick with a pattern longer than the ear might expect and to shatter a tune into small parts and juggle them in surprising ways that can lead to near collisions. In this first movement’s last phrase, the harmony twists into a knot and then unties it in a startling fashion, and any thought that this music might be by someone other than Zelenka evaporates.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Magnificat in D, BWV 243
Johann Sebastian Bach composed his Magnificat for a Christmas Vespers service in 1723, his first year in Leipzig. Included were four interpolations that made the work specific to the season. A decade later, he revised the work, transposing it down a half step, from E-flat major to the still quite brilliant D major, replaced the recorders with two transverse flutes, added the flutes into more movements than the recorders had played, and sharpened details in the part writing. Most importantly, however, he removed the four Christmas Laudes, thus making the work suitable for a wide variety of feast days. This second version, today the familiar one, was first performed in July 1733, during the Feast of the Visitation of Mary with Elizabeth. Except for the change from recorders to flutes, the overall forces remained the same: five soloists (SSATB), five-part chorus, two flutes, two oboes (both doubling on oboe d’amore), three trumpets, timpani, strings and a continuo group. The orchestra is one of the largest Bach ever enjoyed.

The Magnificat may be a perfect introduction to J.S. Bach’s music. Absent are the passions’ long arches, the cantatas’ musical complexities, and much of his sacred music’s theological challenge. Nonetheless, the Magnificat gives a delicious taste of the enormous variety and depth of Bach’s skill and creativity. From elaborate five-part contrapuntal choruses (which, with the orchestra, expand to as many as fifteen independent lines) to introspective and sometimes poignant solo music, the Magnificat includes within its brief span sharply defined, highly contrasting, and vividly memorable music. The vocal and instrumental writing dazzles, and the drama leaps off the page. I will never forget the thrill of hearing this music for the first time. The fourth movement alone, “Omnes generationes,” was visceral enough to send us college students–physics, geology and music majors alike–dancing in the halls, and suddenly the rock-and-roll of the day was nowhere.

Today, the details of Bach’s Magnificat are undiminished: the fluttering lilt of “Et exsultavit,” the soprano’s (and oboe d’amore’s) sympathetic meditation on the lowly, violently interrupted by the mob’s “Omnes, omnes generationes,” the compassionately regal bearing of “Quia fecit,” the faithfuls’ veiled acceptance of God’s mercy in “Et misericordia,” the tempestuous quarrel of tenor and violins in “Deposuit,” the ruthless scattering of the arrogant in “Fecit potentiam,” the beguiling flutes hovering above the alto and walking bass line in “Esurientes,” the embracing tenderness of the women’s trio “Suscepit Israel” (here sung by all of the women), the magnificent converging of the counterpoint on the name “Abraham” in “Sicut erat,” and the sweeping arch of the Gloria. These are only some of the most obvious examples.

The Bach Magnificat might be little more than an array of brilliant vignettes, however, if the work’s large design were not so compellingly imagined. A powerful arch of keys urges the music forward, the large ensemble movements effectively alternate with solo movements, and when “Sicut erat in principio”–as it was in the beginning–swings back to the opening music, the inevitability of this musical pun as old as Monteverdi truly satisfies.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata BWV 42, Sinfofonia
Bach composed the cantata “Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbaths” for the first Sunday after Easter, in 1728. The cantata, an extended meditation on the events of the recent days and on Jesus’s appearance to his followers, includes a visionary (and expansive) aria for alto, oboes and strings; an angular and agitated duet for soprano, tenor and continuo; a fiery aria for bass and strings; and but one choral movement, a beautifully wrought two-versed chorale. The first movement is one of Bach’s most sublime instrumental creations, a mini-concerto for two oboes, bassoon (as with the Zelenka Ouverture, an independent part), strings and continuo. Although D-major is usually a key of celebration, here Bach finds in it circumspection, and the movement’s florid lines weave together a suggestion of the sad journey to Emmaus, as told in Luke 24:

“And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But there were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, ‘What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?’ And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, ‘Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?’” (Luke 24.13-18).

Jan Dismas Zelenka, Te Deum in D, ZWV 146
Zelenka set the Te Deum text twice, the first time around 1724, and the second, in 1731. Though both are in D major and are fired by the brightness of trumpets and drums, the second, ZWV 146, is at once grander and more intricate. This Te Deum includes five soloists (SSATB), two four-part choruses, two flutes, two oboes, four trumpets (one more than in the Bach Magnificat), timpani, strings and a continuo group that, on this occasion, includes cellos, bass, bassoon and theorbo.

It is likely that J.D. Zelenka composed his second Te Deum for a thanksgiving service celebrating the birth, on November 4, 1731, of Princess Maria Josepha Carolina Eleonora Francisca Xaveria (1731-1767), daughter of Frederick Augustus II, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. At fourteen, Princess Maria would become the wife of Louis de France and would bear more than ten children, three of whom would become kings of France: Louis XVI, Louis XVIII, and Charles X. Zelenka’s grand hymn of praise had all the richness, color, and elation befitting such a celebration.

The largest movement of this thirty-minute setting is the first. The intricate music traverses about half of the complete text, the three-part hymn’s first section that is in praise of the Trinity. Toward the center of the movement, at “Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth,” the music relents, but the exhilaration quickly pushes aside the calm. The source of much of this music’s vitality lies in the orchestral writing (as is often the case with Zelenka), and the string and oboe music sounds much like a virtuoso concerto grosso. Unlike the Bach Magnificat, in which the trumpets are often tightly woven into the musical fabric, Zelenka’s trumpets (here, four of them) stay at a distance from the complexies of the other instruments and, instead, join to clarify the large structure.

Music for double chorus frequently places the choruses in a call-and-response relationship, and the choral writing does begin this way. But almost immediately, the two groups veer away from any predictable pattern. At key moments, they excitedly proclaim important words–including “proclamant”–and they do occasionally repeat each other’s words and music. More often, however, they do not, and the movement plumets forward.

The second part of the Te Deum, verses in praise of Christ, begins with a soprano duet. The singers start without introduction, the second simply imitating the first, but the violins immediately take off with a brilliance that the sopranos, when they reenter, cannot resist. Sometimes taunting each other, sometimes trading lines, and sometimes chirping together, they become the driving energy of this operatic music. In the more reflective alto aria, two flutes elegantly entwine themselves above a walking violin line. The continuo does not play until the alto enters, and whenever the flutes reenter, the bass instruments fall silent. A flashy duet for tenor and bass is over almost before it seems to have begun, but its whirlwind virtuosity, matched by the violins’ swirl of scales, packs a wollop.

The chorus and full orchestra dominate the movements toward the center of the Te Deum. In “Judex crederis,” the two choruses sternly oppose each other in heavy blocks, while the orchestra hammers repeated notes. With the change of text, “Te ergo quaesumus,” the music quiets, the bass line pulsates like a heartbeat, and the rhythm of the upper instruments suggests the act of genuflection. Here the individuality of the musical lines is severely constrained, and the intense expression is heard in the unexpected dissonances. In the radiant chorus “Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis,” the imitative lines range widely and with nuanced rhythmic freedom. Here, the woodwind and string instruments double the voices in a motet style (although the first violins unexpectedly double the alto voices an octave higher), and the trumpets and drums appear only toward the end, marking the close of the second part of the Te Deum.

The men sing a simple chant to open the prayer portion (third section) of the Te Deum. A swinging, nearly inebriated, dance quickly follows, the strings in a rough-hewn unison and the trumpets coupled to the joyful chorus. An ethereal ensemble for two sopranos and alto, as well as two flutes, gently accompanied by the strings, becomes the emotional heart of this section and, perhaps, of the entire work. As with the earlier alto aria, the bass instruments stay silent, and the music suspends as if the angels were looking down from high.

The choruses again join for the final movement, also a motet with instrumental doubling. Were the movement purely instrumental, it could sound like an elegantly straight-forward, affirmative summation, perhaps like the final chorus of a Handel oratorio. But here, Zelenka’s word setting invigorates the music, particularly by obsessing on the words “non confundar.” These words often pile up among several parts almost at the same time, “non” sometimes repeats in quick succession, and one-note declamations of the words increasingly dominate. You could begin to wonder whether Zelenka, trying to overcome his own doubt, was insisting too much. His arching, fluid settings of “in aeternum,” on the other hand, have sweeping grace, and even though a cascade of scales on “non confundar” drives the music toward its close, the final phrase opens into a glowing affirmation of eternity.

Jan Dismas Zelenka
Zelenka was born in Prague in 1679, six years before J.S. Bach, and he died in 1745, five years before Bach. He was born into a musical family, took his formal training at the local Jesuit college, and moved to Dresden in his early thirties to play violone (a precursor to the double bass) in the Royal Orchestra. During his first years there he began composing substantial works, but, wanting to develop his mastery of the older polyphonic way, he traveled to Vienna to study with Johann Joseph Fux, a composer whose treatise on counterpoint has influenced virtually every composer’s education since. Zelenka returned to Dresden four years later, and he remained there for the rest of his life, eventually holding the distinguished position of “Composer of the Royal Court Capelle.”

We know little about Zelenka’s personal life, other than that he constantly yearned for more responsibility, greater acknowledgement, and a higher salary. He never married and had no children; no paintings of him exist. He and J.S. Bach knew each other, and Bach (whose music Zelenka’s sounds nothing like) admired his music enough to have owned scores to some of his music. Among Zelenka’s close friends was Georg Philipp Telemann (whose music Zelenka’s also sounds nothing like), who tried to have his twenty-seven Holy Week motets, Hebdomada Responsoria, published when Zelenka died in 1745. Much of the music was never performed during his lifetime, and the twenty-seven motets of Responsoria, with much of his other music, were locked away, unpublished.

In the 1800s, the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana was one of the first musicians to begin uncovering Zelenka’s music, but it was not until the 1960s and 70s, over two hundred years after his death, that interest in his music truly surfaced, primarily in the Czech Republic. Most of his compositions are now published, many are recorded, numbers of them several times. The range of his music is enormous, ringing with great invention, authority, and radiance that belie such obscurity. His technique often hints at the next generation, and it embraces his contrapuntal studies with Fux without any antiquarian nostalgia.

Zelenka left more than 150 pieces: at least twenty masses, several requiem settings, two Miserere, four oratorios, five settings of Dixit Dominus, five settings of Confitebor tibi Domine, three of Beatus vir, six of Laudate pueri, two of Laetatus, five settings of Alma Redemptoris Mater, six of Regina coeli, seven of Salve Regina, and two of the Te Deum. This list represents only a portion of his sacred music, and he also composed marvelous trio sonatas and virtuosic orchestra music. Zelenka is likely to remain an enigmatic person, but his bold and unexpected music offers exquisite proof that there are far more than 100 marvelous composers.

—David Hoose