Friday, January 26, 2007

Master Z

Let us now praise Jan Dismas Zelenka. But let’s not misstate his case.

Zelenka (1679-1745), a Bohemian contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, is heard today as an enticingly quirky voice in baroque music – a composer prone to lob little grenades of dissonance, disrupt rhythmic and harmonic continuity and otherwise knock off-kilter the musical conventions of his time. He has been described, hyperbolically, as the Charles Ives of the baroque.

The rebel persona feeds off the mystery of the man. No image of Zelenka survives. We know little of his life, other than that he spent his last 35 years in the musical establishment of the Saxon court in Dresden, playing bass fiddle in the orchestra and holding lesser directorships. He was most active as a composer of church music. His instrumental works made little impression in his lifetime, and remained virtually unknown until the 1970s.

Did Bach and Zelenka, church musicians living 60 miles apart in Leipzig and Dresden (but on either side of the Protestant-Catholic divide), know each other? Another mystery.

The perception of Zelenka as an odd duck is reinforced by his most frequently revived orchestral work, "Hipocondrie," perhaps the only piece of Western music addressing the subject of hypochondria. It sounds borderline-hallucinogenic to modern ears.

To ears of his time, Zelenka might not have sounded so weird.

Musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries considered affect (affectus) – strong emotion or state of mind conveyed through pitch, tempo, rhythm and dynamics – an essential attribute of music. Baroque emotionalism was stylized and typecast, brushing but not embracing the passions subsequently voiced in romantic and early modern music. "Buss und Reu," the alto aria from Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion," is an example of affective baroque composition at its zenith.

Affective music coexisted with, and borrowed techniques from, the atmospheric or illustrative works produced in quantity by composers of the time. The most familiar bits of baroque atmospherics, in Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons," are fairly tame samples of the genre. The set lacks parts for winds and percussion, which were used to produce some of the most vivid sound effects (tempests, battles) in baroque music.

Zelenka’s most striking, and seemingly most "modern," music is his set of six trio sonatas, apparently dating from the early 1720s. In these sonatas, we find contrapuntal writing of a sophistication approaching Bach’s, but driven by a markedly different temperament. Zelenka’s minor-key music evokes the grinning skeleton of the danse macabre or Totentanz. His exuberance is more giddy than robust. His more emotive phrases sigh and swoon. A wicked sense of humor is always poised to strike.

Maybe we can’t help hearing Zelenka as Bach's kinky cousin. His oddities, though, were as likely products of artifice as they were expressions of an eccentric.

Zelenka on disc:

* Six trio sonatas – Heinz Holliger & Maurice Bourgue, oboes; Klaus Thunemann, bassoon; Thomas Zehetmair, violin; Christiane Jaccottet, harpsichord (ECM 1671/72, two discs).

* "Hipocondrie," other orchestral works – Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchester/Jürgen Sonnentheil (cpo 999897).

* "The Lamentations of Jeremiah" – Michael Chance, countertenor; John Mark Ainsley, tenor; Michael George, bass; Chandos Baroque Players (Helios 55106).