Check mate! It’s the cry of your opponent at the chess board, the certain doom of your king…and our theme this hour.
Let’s start with music from a Te Deum for double chorus and soloists by the Bohemian baroque composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, performed by the Dresdner Kammerchor.
Zelenka’s music was much admired by his contemporaries, (including by J.S. Bach), yet he was–at least in his own mind–underpaid and overlooked. In 1733, writing to the King of Poland, Zelenka swallowed his pride and begged for work: “I therefore beg you, at your feet,” he wrote, “to be graciously pleased to confer on me the position of Kapellmeister.”
Alas, the king tapped a different man, but, thankfully, that didn’t stop Zelenka from composing.
There’s a lot of waiting around in the life of a musician. You wait for your colleagues to show up for rehearsal. You wait for that harpsichordist to finish her endless rounds of tuning, and for your audience to fill the hall.
And if you were a chorister in Versailles in the 1730s, you waited for the King.
Louis XV liked to hear his choir sing mass every day, but there was a lot of downtime, and many musicians passed the time playing chess at long, inlaid tables.
Young François-André Danican Philidor, born into a musical family, joined the king’s Chapel at the age of six and quickly absorbed both singing and strategy.
Later in life, Philidor struggled as a composer, but his skill at the chessboard was renowned. In 1745, stranded in Rotterdam after a failed concert tour, Philidor was able to support himself as a chess master. He became a public sensation, playing games blindfolded, and published a chess treatise in 1749 that’s still read today.
But Philidor’s first love was music. He wrote that the art of music had been his “constant study and application,” and chess only “his diversion.”
Let’s hear the results of Philidor’s constant study. Here’s music from his Quartet No. 1 in G Minor.
Another composer in thrall to the chessboard was Felix Mendelssohn, who enjoyed playing on his travels. In Paris, he played frequent matches against a Dr. Herman Franck, who, so the story goes, would never admit that Mendelssohn was the better player. Miffed, Mendelssohn took to announcing, “We play equally well—quite equally—only I play a very little better.”
It was Mendelssohn who, arguably, resurrected J.S. Bach, staging a performance of Bach’s then-forgotten St. Matthew Passion in 1829. In recent years, the historical performance movement has caught up to its grandfather: performances of Mendelssohn on period instruments are more and more common.
Let’s hear one such performance, the baroque orchestra Tafelmusik performing the fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A Major, the “Italian” Symphony.
From chess to Czechs—or rather, music by composers who hail from the lands around present-day Prague: Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia.
The Silesian Simon Bar Jona Madelka was forced to leave his hometown in 1575 because of his Catholic sympathies. He fled to Bohemia, becoming a master butcher and a town councilor. When not wielding the cleaver, he composed, leaving behind two collections of published music and several incomplete motets.
Let’s hear music by the butcher and composer Madelka, the psalm setting “De Profundis” from his collection of penitential psalms for five voices.
Jan Dismas Zelenka was a small-town boy, born in a village southeast of Prague. His first teacher was probably his father, a cantor and organist, but Zelenka was not destined for village life. Hired as a violone player, Zelenka spent most of the remainder of his life in Dresden, traveling to Italy and Vienna to pursue musical studies.
He did return to Bohemia—but in a rush: One of Zelenka’s manuscripts bears the notation“six concerti written in a hurry in Prague.”
Let’s hear sacred and secular music by Jan Zelenka. First a virtuosic movement from his Trio Sonata No. 5 in F Major, then a chorus from his double choir setting of the Te Deum, “Aeterna fac.”
Our third Czech friend–(or dare we say Czech mate?)–was a composer, poet, and the owner of a wine cellar. He’s an organist’s son who wrote sacred music both in Latin and in the language he heard spoken around him.
Adam Michna z Otradovic wrote his own text, in Czech, for his collection The Czech Lute, a series of hymn-like songs for solo voices and instrumental accompaniment.
It’s Czechs and Mates this week on Harmonia as we move from the chessboard to the Czech baroque…and now to the far side of the world.
Australia was once so isolated it evolved its own distinctive animal life–creatures found nowhere else on earth, like the kangaroo, the koala bear and the meat-eating Tasmanian devil.
Nowadays, it’s a little easier for Australians to find their way North. We have “flat whites” at Starbucks, “G’day mate” at the grocery store, and “Aussie” baroque music.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra was formed in 1989 under the direction of Paul Dyer and has toured the world since, collaborating with well-known artists like Andrew Manze and Andreas Scholl. The orchestra’s take on early music sometimes incorporates elements of other genres and musical traditions, and the results, like Australia itself, can be colorful.
But let’s hear a piece by a more familiar composer first, “Avrilla mia” by the German-Italian Johannes Kapsberger. Then we’ll hear two improvisations on English folk songs, “Waly, Waly” and “The Three Ravens.”
Featured CD: Tapas – Tastes of the Baroque
For our featured recording, we’re staying “down under” to hear more from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Their 2010 CD titled Tapas – Tastes of the Baroque features fiery music inspired by songs and dances from Southern Europe.
Let’s finish with a piece by from Claudio Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals, Chiome d’oro.
Break and Theme music
:30, Zelenka Sonatas, Ensemble Marsyas, Lynn 2013, Tr. 1 Sonata No. 5 in F Major, ZWV 181:5 [Allegro] (excerpt of 6:51)
:60, Zelenka Sonatas, Ensemble Marsyas, Lynn 2013, Tr. 8 Sonata No. 6 in C minor, ZWV 181:6 [Andante] (excerpt of 3:03)
:30, Tapas—Tastes of the Baroque, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra/Paul Dyer/Mina Kanaridis, 2010 ABC Classics, Kapsberger, Tr. 4 Bergamasca (excerpt of 2:55)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Anne Timberlake.
Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.