Encores & Curtain Calls: Exuberant & joyous work
“The volatile, utopian, experimental quality of the music — its insoluble mystery — still makes a great many performers (whether using period or modern instruments) feel insecure and frightens them off.”
— Heinz Holliger (renowned oboe virtuoso)
Back in 1984, when I was in the midst of completing a graduate degree in composition at UMass-Amherst, I befriended the then professor of oboe, Chick (Charles) Lehrer, who premiered several of my compositions and his very friendly, very funny, soon-to-be wife, Nancy Bonar, who was also an oboist. While we seemed an odd trio, we enjoyed hanging out, largely, I think, due to a shared sense of eccentricity and irreverence for academic pretensions, albeit that Chick was stuck in the midst of academia from which, it turns out, he was soon to “jump ship” and Nancy with him.
One evening, after hiking the Mount Tom trail together, we returned to Chick’s Amherst apartment, where, after some idle conversation, the subject got around to composer I didn’t know by the name of Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679 to 1745), a Czech composer of the Baroque period.
It seems that Chick and Nancy were preparing one or perhaps several Zelenka trio sonatas for a near-frame performance at the university and so had themselves just become aware of his unexpectedly ingenious Muses. (A trio sonata is, like most classical language, a confusingly chosen label for a piece for two melodic instruments — violins, oboes, flutes, etc. — and bass accompaniment. The “confusion” arises due to the fact that, owing to the tradition of including not merely a bass line, such as a contrabass or bassoon, but also a harmonic underpadding — such as a keyboard instrument — the “trio sonata” almost always winds up being a piece for four players. So much for accurate, high-brow nomenclature.)
When Chick and Nancy showed me the score to the sonatas, I realized that, with a little skill and struggle, I could possibly negotiate the bass/keyboard part on my guitar, which was, very handily, in the trunk of my car.
And so it was that they unpacked their oboes and I my ‘ax’ and we sat down to run through some Jan Dismas Zelenka — my maiden hearing.
Well, if you’ve been ’round the block a few decades with classical music and musicians, you know only too well that Bach’s art is the acid-test, hands-down, no-contest benchmark for top-drawer counterpoint. Because, technically speaking, you often find “point against point” in classical music without having what is now universally understood as “counterpoint,” that is, melodic line against melodic line.
It is only really, really poor “counterpoint” that puts “point against point” in a literal way. This is how I tell the story to my own students:
Suppose you were at the edge of a pasture and you wanted to set up three or even four fences (symbolic for melodies) that could all be seen simultaneously, stretching into the distance from where you stood.
You lay down the farthest fence posts; let’s say they’re a glorious shocking pink. With matching railings.
Now you erect the second series of fence posts and railing a hundred feet closer; let’s say these are baby blue.
Then, a hundred feet nearer, you erect a line of sunny yellow posts and railing.
And finally, a fence line that’s poppy red.
Terrific! You’ve created point-against-point — and four layers of them to boot — you’re a genius!
But wait, you want all these to be seen, heard, absorbed in one fell swoop, at one and the same moment. But, because you took the term “counterpoint” too literally, you actually placed each and every post of each and every point and layer directly in line with its preceding ones! Your first fence is blocking all the other fences, which are themselves blocking all the other fences!
Drat! All that hard work for nothing, no one’s going to see all of them!
If this is counterpoint, it’s counterpoint only Superman, with his X-ray vision could ever see. And, transferred into sound, it’s only sound which Superman, with his extra-dimensional hearing, could ever hear. Have you never tried to hear a conversation across the room at a party when surrounded by three other deafening conversations? A losing proposition, to be sure.
However, if you displace those fences at strategic points — just enough, artfully, carefully, with an ear toward their interpenetration and the dance of alternation — you can persuade the four layers of sound to be simultaneously present in the ear of the beholder, in spite of the seeming impossibility of such an ambitious undertaking. This is the true Art and Science of Counterpoint as practiced by those who love their prospective listeners enough to craft their music carefully enough to let the light fall upon every single sound they wish to bring to life in the minds of their beholders.
This is what Jan Dismas Zelenka did for me that day when Chick’s and Nancy’s oboes plied the air, like two doves in love, while my guitar resounded below, like a deer bounding and following their flight in delighted resonance: everything clear as crystal, singing its own unmistakable song, flying or leaping its own unique path, yet wrapped in a seamless and interdependent unity — counterpoint.
Zelenka’s counterpoint is as good, at times maybe even better, than Bach’s. I recall one of the senior composers at UMass-Amherst, Charles Bestor, now retired, remarking “I thought it was Bach I was hearing!” after Chick’s and Nancy’s Zelenka recital. Indeed, Bach admired Zelenka greatly and, as with his much-admired Vivaldi, either copied or had copied Zelenka’s scores for his own delight and performance. For, you see, Bach knew a Good Thing when he heard it and Zelenka’s music is a Very Good Thing.
When I asked conductor Allan Taylor, “Why do you think Zelenka’s music got back-seat treatment?” he replied, “I don’t think any of the Czech or Bohemian composers were treated in the same manner as the German composers; my guess is that they were sort of second-class citizens.”
I replied, “I think that’s a true insight. Looking back, even Dvorak, who’s now so highly esteemed, took a long time to catch on.”
Taylor replied, “And Smetana before him; and it was an odd thing, because those (eastern European centers) were hubs of music back in the day, like Prague with Mozart opera.”
Well, both your chance and Zelenka’s — not to mention Michael Haydn’s — has come, for the Hampshire Choral Society will present the only recently published and seldom heard “Magnificat,” written in 1725 by Jan Dismas Zelenka, in its annual fall concert on Sunday, Nov. 24, at 3 p.m. Conductor Allan Taylor’s program notes describe it as “an exuberant and joyful work, scored for chorus, soprano and alto soloists, and orchestra.”
Also is his program notes: “The major work on the concert will be the Solemn Vespers by Michael Haydn, younger brother to the more famous Joseph Haydn. Written in 1782, some 57 years after Zelenka’s ‘Magnificat,’ Haydn’s Vespers are written in an equally festive style, and call for similar performing forces, with the addition of tenor and bass soloists.
“After a brief intermission, the concert will continue with the Young People’s Chorus, directed by K. C. Conlan. They will perform music from their recent program celebrating the music and life of Benjamin Britten, as well as other works. The concert will conclude with all performers on stage, a total of around 200 singers.”
The concert will take place in Abby Chapel, on the campus of Mount Holyoke College. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, $5 for children. Tickets will be available at A. J. Hastings in Amherst, Cooper’s Corner in Florence, Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley and State Street Wines & Spirits in Northampton.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.