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Back to the Future: Cantata Singers and Zelenka


Not actually Zelenka

Despite its obscure status, Zelenka’s last and grandest composition, his Missa votiva in E Minor (1739), has grown on me. During rehearsals it’s become clear that it’s a masterpiece deserving of listeners’ attention. Cantata Singers will present the Mass at Jordan Hall next Friday.

Jan Dismas Zelenka was born in 1679, near Prague. He spent most of his mature life at the court of the Elector in Dresden, playing the violone and composing music for the court. Dying in Dresden in 1745, he left a wealth of music, including 2 settings of the Mass Ordinary. Georg Philipp Telemann and J.S. Bach numbered among his friends; the latter entertained Zelenka as a guest in Leipzig, owned scores of two Zelenka masses,  and surely drew inspiration from Zelenka to create his Mass in B Minor.

David Hoose, who is celebrating his 30th season as Cantata Singers’ music director, talked with me about the Missa votiva and the other works planned for Friday’s concert.

Why do you think Zelenka’s music has languished in obscurity for so long? As a Catholic court composer in Lutheran Saxony, as an unreconstructed contrapuntalist in an age where the tune-and-accompaniment based style galant was taking over, he had that same fish-in-the-wrong-pond sense that J.S. Bach experienced. At least Bach had sons who became eminent teachers and composers who kept his legacy alive, but Zelenka never married, died without children, and had no one to keep his legacy alive.

How did you get turned onto Zelenka’s music?

One Cantata Singers member had been encouraging me to look at Zelenka’s music for a long time, but I didn’t take the bait until last year. There is, after all, a lot of great music out there! In bringing fresh ideas their audiences, many organizations (including ours) perform new music, and this is ultimately the most valuable and enlivening endeavor. Others (including ours) dig into the obscure corners of the archives to find lost treasures—or dusty relics. But, for some reason Zelenka has not been on Boston’s airwaves, and it’s puzzling. In Europe there is a lot of excitement about his music; there are multiple recordings of all the major works and frequent performances. In fact, the website you cite is run by an inveterate fan from Sweden. But there’s not been much attention here in the United States. Interest in Zelenka may grow in Boston, however, much as interest in Bach cantatas in this city materialized when Cantata Singers began performing them nearly 50 years ago. When we performed three of the Zelenka Responsories for Holy Week (reviewed here) earlier this season, there was delight, surprise and exhilaration. The same and more may grow around his other music, since I think he is someone whose music is anything but a dusty relic, music that stands proudly with the best of his contemporary’s—J.S. Bach and Handel.

Telemann tried to publish Zelenka’s 27 Responsories for Holy Week shortly after his death, but his effort went nowhere. It’s amazing that a composer even of Telemann’s standing couldn’t garner enough interest for a publisher to disseminate the pieces. Indeed, were it were not for Bach’s many sons, Bach’s music might have languished in obscurity even longer than it did.

In some ways this new exploration brings Cantata Singers full circle. Fifty years ago, everybody knew of Bach’s music and talked about it, but outside a tiny handful of well known cantatas, for instance, some of the pieces had barely been heard since the 18th century. Cantata Singers was founded to explore these fabulous cantatas, and we’ve found remarkable treasures (by Bach and others) on this journey. And, of course, the world of Bach cantatas is now no longer an academic subject. Exploring Zelenka’s music, music of enormous beauty, energy and freshness, is a sort of going back to our future.

Zelenka has the breathless excitement of the most exuberant moments in the Bach B minor Mass, the sublime beauty of a Schütz motet, the virtuosity of a Monteverdi madrigal, the thorny thicket of the Bach Saint John Passion, the unpredictability of a Beethoven string quartet, and the elegance and buoyancy of Haydn. In short, it’s Zelenka, and only Zelenka!

Why Zelenka?

In the Baroque and Classical eras, there are only a few indisputably great composers, musicians whose skill and imagination work flawlessly with each other: Handel, J.S. Bach in one generation, Haydn and Mozart in the next. Then there are really fine composers who are skillful (Telemann) but sometimes work-a-day, some who are inventive (Vivaldi, C.P.E. Bach) but can’t always control their musical language. Few composers from those eras, other than Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, consistently have it all and are compelling at almost every turn. I am beginning to think that Zelenka may belong with that most estimable group of musical inventors. He has a personal, vibrant voice, one melded to a skillful sense for the larger drama. That shows up in the Responsories for Holy Week , and I’m seeing and hearing it in a lot of his other choral music.

Zelenka’s settings of the mass and requiem texts, as well as numerous smaller pieces, have a way of looking like Handel or Bach, or even Haydn, but they never sound like them for more than the briefest moments, much as any composer’s use of tonality might be confused with someone else’s. But by the seventh measure of Zelenka’s Missa votiva, it’s obvious that this is a fresh voice, and it’s soon clear that it’s an unpredictable one, too. And, it really works! The logic and musical wisdom of his choices always become clear, even if you might be startled by them at the moment. To me, it’s as close to new music as old music can be, and we’re finding it a thrilling roller coaster ride. That ride may be virtuosic singing or pyrotechnical orchestral writing (both of which fill the Missa votiva), but the brilliance is never merely for its own sake. He seems always to place the virtuosity at the service of something larger, just as all great music does.

Tell us more about the design of the Missa votiva. Like the great masses of Bach and Mozart, it’s a “numbers” Mass, dividing the text into a variety of choral and solo movements. But it isn’t like anything I’ve heard before. In rehearsals, it seems at first blush to have the breezy accessibility of a Haydn mass, but every crunchy dissonance, every sudden shift of speed without a clutch, every delightful unexpected modulation has led me to think of this as “Haydn on acid,” or “Hipster Haydn.”

There is a lot in the Missa votiva that feels like Haydn, though the Haydn masses have always struck me music driven more by the orchestra, like many-movement symphonies with the voices along for a wonderful ride. But Zelenka poses the singers and instrumentalists as equal protagonists, both pushed to unusual virtuosity of voice, bow, ear and mind. The choral and solo bass parts traverse a range I’ve never seen in any tonal music, and the music for everyone—singer and instrumentalist—is hardly for the amateur!

But Zelenka is much more than Haydn with spice. (Though who could object to that? Besides, Haydn has plenty of delicious spice himself.) Zelenka’s musical metabolism is quite unusual, especially for a composer who lived during the same years as J.S. Bach. Both Handel and Bach often set up a rate of breathing that flows through an entire movement. But with Zelenka, it’s more mercurial: the surface detail may scurry along while the harmony and larger gestures unfold much more slowly. And then it can all abruptly shift, suspend, then accelerate, perhaps moving six times faster than before. I think this fluid layering is why I initially thought Zelenka must have lived around the time of Haydn, rather than a half century earlier. It looks and often sounds like music of a much later time—what we now call Classical music.

All composers use dissonance as a powerful expressive device. The dissonances in Mozart are always satisfying, even comforting. In Haydn they enliven and delight the alert ear. In Zelenka, they’re sometimes crazed, and they cover the gamut, from giddiness to pathos, and always keeping the ear guessing in ways that Handel would never dream of. Haydn could use dissonance like that, but always in a more controlled way. Zelenka is willing to let voice parts simply crash against each other, sometimes for emotional reasons, sometimes to keep the energy mounting, and always in ways that strike me as organic, both to the music and to the text.

Where did Zelenka learn to do this?

Early in his professional life, Zelenka became quite a successful composer and violone player in Dresden. But he began to feel his ability to control his materials, especially his fluency in counterpoint, was inadequate for to help him express what he wanted to say. So, in 1715, he travelled to Vienna to study with Johann Joseph Fux, the composer and teacher whose definitive treatise on counterpoint would become the basis for most composers’ training for at least two centuries after. Zelenka was wise to realize that only through such discipline was his musical voice ever going to flower. All great composers—in fact, all great artists—understand this. I guess creativity without discipline is not really creative. Or at least it’s not likely to have much value to anyone not admiring the crayon drawing on the refrigerator. Zelenka needed to learn how to make his music work, how to make all the parts relate to each other in powerful ways and how to make a phrase breathe and unfold in natural ways.

It’s interesting that, with lesser composers from the era before Bach, Handel and Zelenka, there’s a lot of very fluent music that lacks defining personality. And that during the era after Zelenka, there’s a lot of music with strong personality but doesn’t make sense. C.P.E. Bach, for instance, wrote inventive music, but much of it simply doesn’t add up, as if he weren’t in control of where the surprises happen or how the larger movement moves and breathes. Zelenka reaped the benefit of his adult study—much as Vaughan Williams did when he went to study orchestration with the younger Ravel. As a result, Zelenka’s music is both risk taking and commanding.

Before we go, tell us about the other works on next week’s program.

When I first heard the Missa votiva, I immediately thought it should be paired with a Haydn symphony. And I think we have a perfect Haydn symphony to go with it. Haydn’s Symphony 47th is one of the “Sturm und Drang” symphonies, many of which, like the Trauer, Farewell, and La passione, are in anguished, stormy keys—E minor, F-sharp minor, F minor. But the 47th is in a sunny G major, so its minor key spirit is surprising. The first movement is propelled by martial vigor that contrasts with giddy playfulness, and there are shocking turns. The second movement is a miracle, a theme and variation movement in which each successive variation ramps up the speed until the music can go no faster. Suddenly the music opens into the most sublime chorale, a many layered slow-motion variation of the original tune. It’s one of those magical tricks that only Haydn can pull off, a compositional feat that flaunts nothing of its inner workings. This subtle, eloquent and elegant second movement is engaging on every level, but mostly in its heartbreaking beauty.

David Hoose (file photo)
David Hoose (file photo)

The minuet is so bizarre. He tries to do something that no composer of tonal music should ever try to do: make the music go backwards. Somehow, Haydn is so skilled that he might just pull it off. The first section goes along rather normally, with strong downbeat accents. When the section begins, its third-beat accents sound a bit odd, and then, if you listen carefully, it dawns on you that it’s the first section, note for note, but going backwards! The same thing happens in the contrasting Trio; the first section goes along, then the second section is the first section in retrograde. It’s an extraordinary thing, perhaps easier to achieve with a non-tonal language that is not so forward directed. The power of traditional tonality is its forward thrust, and if you play a random phrase from a Mozart or Haydn piece backwards it’s not likely to make one whit of sense.

The’s no composer whose music I love more than Haydn. Every symphony has at least one or two movements that amaze, and by the time he has written about twenty or thirty, every movement is great. The 47th Symphony is not as well known as its counterparts that have nicknames, but it’s spectacular from start to finish.

To prepare the way for these two unusual pieces, I thought opening the concert with Mozart’s seemingly simplest and most exquisite music would provide a satisfying base line. The effortlessness in Mozart’s music, however, is only in appearance, since music like this Ave verum corpus is borne of the subtlety of ear, mind and imagination that guided every great composer, including Haydn and Zelenka.

In the interest of full disclosure: I submit, that in addition to writing the occasional review for BMInt, I am bass section leader and Chorus President-Elect of Cantata Singers & Ensemble. So this news article may seem like shameless self-pluggery. But my mission is really to find new adherents for Zelenka.

Recordings of the three works of the concert are available from many sources, including YouTube:

Mozart Ave verum corpus, K.618:  here,, Haydn Symphony #47: here, Zelenka Missa votiva, ZWV 18: here

Cantata Singers & Ensemble, with David Hoose, Music Director, presents “Rhetoric’s Revolution,” a concert at Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory of Music on Friday, May 10, at 8:00 p.m. For further information, please visit here 


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A word of explanation on the “not actually Zelenka” portrait. Zelenka had no wife, no children, and no confirmed surviving portraits. The image posted above is sometimes cited as being a picture of Zelenka, but it looks strikingly like a portrait of Zelenka’s counterpoint teacher, Johann Joseph Fux.

    On the other hand, the portrait of music director David Hoose is an accurate likeness.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — May 10, 2013 at 11:03 am

  2. But if you google zelenka image you do get one derelict-level portrait not resembling Fux (or Hoose) in the slightest:

    Comment by David Moran — May 10, 2013 at 6:31 pm

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