Messiah & Magnificat

Sunday, December 1, 2013 | 3:00pm

St. Anthony’s Church
New Bedford, MA

Jan Dismas Zelenka: Magnificat in D Major

George Frideric Handel: Messiah, Part One and the Hallelujah Chorus


Barbara Kilduff, Soprano | website

Matthew Anderson, Tenor | website

Andrew Garland, Bass | website

Singers from Regional Choruses │ Paul Cienniwa, Chorus Master

Mastersingers By The Sea, Sine Nomine Choral Ensemble and
South Coast Community Chorale
With members of Greater Tiverton Community Chorus, New Bedford Choral Society, Sippican Choral Society, Spirit of St. Anthony Choir and
St. Anthony of Padua Choir

Zelenka: Magnificat in D Major

Zelenka is probably one of the greatest composers you have never heard of, yet his music was deeply admired by J. S. Bach. He was a master of intricate polyphony and favored unusual chromaticism and imaginative rhythms, and he was a master of suspended and deceptive cadences. This charming work is as surprising as it is gorgeous.

Handel: Messiah, Part One and the Hallelujah Chorus

The universal appeal of Handel’s Messiah is one of the marvels of the world and a testament to his musical genius. Performed more than any other piece of classical music, it has become as much a communal experience as a musical one.

Handel’s innate dramatic sense allowed him to weave a captivating musical narrative of great scope and significance. His mastery brings a richness and variety of musical textures that has inspired generations with shared feelings of hope, serenity and joy. The architecture and the acoustics of St. Anthony of Padua Church are a perfect match for Handel’s towering musical and emotional achievement.

Notes from Maestro MacKenzie

I am thrilled that we have been able to establish such a rich tradition with Handel's Messiah! What a great way to kick off the Holiday season. And to be able to pair it with Zelenka's captivating setting of the Magnificat just makes the tradition all the more enjoyable.

Did you know? The organ at St. Anthony's is 100 years old! Installed in 1912, the Opus 489 pipe organ was built by Casavant Freres in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, and cost $20,000. Today, St. Anthony's conducts its music series as a fundraiser for reparations to the organ.

A Musical State Secret

by Dr. David MacKenzie

Jan Dismas Zelenka:
The Greatest Composer You've (Probably) Never Heard

Let's just say this up front: if Jan Dismas Zelenka is unfamiliar to you right now, once you hear his Magnificat in D, you will wonder how it is possible that this amazing Bohemian Baroque master is not as well known and highly esteemed as his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach. Or as appreciated as another contemporary, George Frideric Handel, whose wondrous Messiah (Part 1- The Christmas portion) will be paired with Zelenka's Magnificat on our traditional Thanksgiving "Feast of Music" on December 1 at St. Anthony of Padua Church in New Bedford.

So what's the big deal with Zelenka, you might ask?  If he was so great, why haven't we heard his music? After all, he was born in 1679, just 6 years before Bach and Handel, and died in 1745, five years before Bach. He spent most his life in Dresden, a figurative stone's throw from Bach over in Leipzig, was highly respected by Bach and has often been called the "Catholic Bach" (Bach was Lutheran). Why haven't we heard more of him? What makes his music so special? And, why was his music kept such a secret for so long?

We'll see if we can answer those questions, but first...

A Little Background

First off, Zelenka's life story is actually a bit of a secret, in and of itself. We know almost nothing about his life, just some records of payments in official records, official letters asking for financial support, and a few notes in some of his scores.  We know little about his personality other than he was a devout Catholic and not particularly a "warm fuzzy" as a person. We don't even know for sure what he looked like, as there are no confirmed portraits of him. He never married; he had no heirs.

We do know this: he was born in 1679 and confirmed on October 23 in the village of Louňovice pod Blaníkem, just southeast of Prague, in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). The oldest of 8 children, he first studied music with his father, Jiří, who was the Cantor and organist in the village church. Jan moved to Prague around 1700 to continue his studies at the Clementinum, a Jesuit university that was one of the most important musical training institutions in Central Europe. There, he developed his skills as a violine player (an earlier version of the double bass), gained intensive training in composition, and wrote some of his earliest important works.

Meanwhile, over in Dresden...

While young Jan was finishing his early studies with his father and moving to Prague, important events were taking place in nearby Saxony that would significantly impact Zelenka's life. The Elector of Saxony, Friedrich Augustus, had coveted the throne of the Kingdom of Poland for many years. Through a series of political maneuverings he won his dream job, with one minor complication: Friedrich was a Lutheran and, by law, the crown of Poland could only be worn by a Catholic. So, presto-chango, in 1696, the soon-to-be Good King Augustus I converted to Catholicism, and established a Royal Chapel in the Elector's Palace.

Again, there was a slight complication: since Dresden (and Saxony) was overwhelmingly Lutheran in religious orientation, there was no history of Catholic liturgical practice with which to establish the Royal Chapel's musical activities. Thus, in 1710, the King put out a call to neighboring Catholic Bohemia for young choristers, composers and musicians to fill out the Chapel's musical company and add some pizzazz to the Chapel's liturgical life.

Included in this group of new employees was one Jan Dismas Zelenka, violone-virtuoso and composer. Except for a 3-year stint in Vienna as part of the Crown Prince's entourage on a state visit (where he studied with Johann Josef Fux, the man who "wrote the book" on counterpoint and fugue), and a return to Prague in 1723 for brief time, Dresden would be Zelenka's home until his death in 1745.

A Bohemian in Saxony

Zelenka's responsibilities in the Dresden court included playing violone in the highly respected chapel orchestra (one of the virtuoso groups of its time) and assisting the Kappellmeister, Johann David Heinichen, in providing new music for services. In the later 1720s, Heinichen's health began to fail, and Zelenka assumed more and more of his duties (at no increase in salary). By the time Heinichen passed away in 1729, Zelenka was essentially acting as Kapellmeister.

It seemed logical to assume that Zelenka would succeed Heinichen. He had basically been doing the job for some time, was familiar with the needs of the Chapel and with the other musicians. For about 4 years, he continued to act as Kappellmeister, awaiting official confirmation, and the increase in salary, that the position was his.

Unfortunately, the King had other ideas. It seems that Italian opera was more on the King's mind than the sacred music of which Zelenka had become a master. In 1733 Augustus I appointed Johann Adolf Hasse, a famous opera composer (and 20 years Zelenka's junior) to the post of Kapellmeister. Although Zelenka did eventually receive in 1735 an appointment as "Composer to the Royal Chapel," a largely honorary post with little pay increase, it seems obvious that he was bitterly disappointed by being passed over. To make matters worse, he would lose even this minor appointment a mere year later, to his colleague J. S. Bach.

These professional setbacks seem to have caused him to withdraw more and more from social interaction. From this time, amid failing health and financial difficulties, he devoted his energies in his last 10 years to his interior life and creative genius, continuing to produce a seemingly endless stream of innovative sacred and instrumental works, among which are his greatest masterpieces: a set of 8 masses, the last three he described as his "final" masses. These works extend his creative vision into new territories entirely and stand in much the same position in his creative output as do the last string quartets in Beethoven's oeuvre - the culminating statements of visionary artists.

While Zelenka may have been underappreciated and underpaid by those for whom he worked, by the time of his death in 1745 he was recognized by fellow composers such as Bach and Telemann as one of the greatest composers of his time. Bach particularly seemed to appreciate Zelenka's music; he owned many of his works in his library and performed them in Leipzig.

Rapture and Reason

We will now try to answer one of those questions about Zelenka with which we opened this article, "What makes his music so special?" German musicologist Uwe Schweikert has commented about Zelenka:

With the benefit of hindsight, we are gradually realizing that, with its combination of rapture and reason, pathos and wit, makes Zelenka one of the most original composers of the eighteenth century [emphasis added].

When he returned from his 3 years of residence in Vienna as part of the Crown Prince's retinue, Zelenka represented the assimilation of several unique influences and traits that would shape his innovative style. First, fresh from his in-depth study with J. J. Fux, the acknowledged master of the art of counterpoint at the time, Zelenka would carry the contrapuntal style of the High Baroque to new levels, on a par with J. S. Bach. Second, his innate attraction to certain elements of Bohemian folk music, strong dance-rhythms, slightly exotic harmonies and syncopated melodic lines would suffuse his music, giving it a unique personal voice amongst his contemporaries. Finally, in both Dresden and Vienna Zelenka was exposed to and absorbed the refinements of the French style and the dramatic qualities of Italian opera.

Zelenka's music in general, and the Magnificat in D specifically, is characterized by the following elements:

  • rich contrapuntal textures and inventive, unusually long musical ideas, which he combines with supreme mastery of polyphonic writing.
  • an affinity for surprising shifts in harmonic direction and a highly chromatic harmonic language which pre-dates developments almost a century in the future.
  • a taste for deeply expressive moods and dramatic contrasts of emotional states, which derive from his absorption of the conventions of Italian opera.
  • virtuosic writing for the voices and instruments that makes at times extreme technical demands on the performers.

As one colleague of mine once put it when discussing some of Zelenka's instrumental music: "This stuff is way cool, way surprising, way hard to play!"

Here is a final, and ironic quote about Zelenka from a contemporary - organ virtuoso and composer (and J. S. Bach's final student) Johann Gottlob Kittel:

You, most highly praised, perfect Virtuoso, your fame - all of your own making - is world-renowned and great;

To the glory of God, and in order to delight the soul, you compose church music which is so touching that the rapt breast has a foretaste of the heavenly pleasures;

So, your own praise will forever keep your name green, both here on Earth and on the stage of the stars.

Unfortunately, despite Kittel's enthusiastic prediction of the deification of Zelenka among the pantheon of immortal composers, after his death Zelenka's name essentially disappeared from discussion in musical circles. It was not until the 1860s, when fellow Bohemian Bedrich Smetana began a slow process of rediscovery, that Zelenka's name began to be associated with greatness again among a small circle of composers and musicologists. It would not be until the 1960s that, through the systematic publication and recording of his music, a wider audience would discover this Bohemian master's genius.

So, Why So Secret?

We come to the final questions from our introduction: "Why haven't we heard more of him?" And, "Why was his music kept such a secret for so long?" The answer to both is essentially a combination of two factors: timing and politics.

First, Zelenka had the misfortune of flourishing just as the High Baroque was being eclipsed by the developing conventions of emerging Classical style. Like Bach, by the time of his death he was considered old fashioned and audiences and patrons of that time - unlike the present - were more interested in what was new, rather than what was old.

Second, and probably most important, the Electress of Saxony, Maria Josepha, who was fond of Zelenka, upon his death purchased all his compositions and musical estate from his beneficiaries and placed them under lock and key in the Electoral Treasury, where they were closely guarded, unavailable to the public and considered valuable court possessions for more than 100 years. Ironically, this final respect paid to a loyal employee guaranteed that his creative voice would disappear from the musical scene for more than 200 years

Hidden away as a state secret, the genius of this Bohemian Baroque master is only now being recognized and appreciated. We look forward to sharing a small sample of this greatness with you at 3pm on Sunday, December 1 at St. Anthony of Padua Church in New Bedford as the New Bedford Symphony is joined by members of 7 regional choruses and superb vocal soloists to present Jan Dismas Zelenka's Magnificat in D and the Christmas portion (plus the Hallelujah Chorus, of course!) of George Frideric Handel's great oratorio, Messiah.