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Music in Prague Cathedral

F10149   [8595017414923]   released 7/2007

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Ivana Bilej-Brouková - soprano
Markéta Cukrová - mezzo-soprano

Hipocondria Ensemble, artistic leader Jan Hádek
Jan Hádek - violin, Jana Chytilová - violin, Michal Dušek - viola, Ondřej Michal - cello, Michal Novák - double-bass, Filip Dvořák - organ positive, Simon Martyn-Ellis - theorbo

  further photos from Hipocondria recordings session

The Baroque look of Prague, with its countless volutes, pilasters, twisted mouldings, imaginary perspectives, and the impassioned gestures of statues, is largely due to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which was symbolically triumphant at the canonization of John Nepomucene in 1729. The Church played an even more striking role in the history of Czech music, when the Baroque style in the Bohemian Lands spread chiefly by means of church choirs. The celebration of the liturgy using music probably reached its peak in the Baroque. In each feast-day mass, and also at vespers, numerous processions, and other occasions, one heard polyphonic compositions performed with instrumental accompaniment. No large celebration would have taken place without the rolling of kettledrums and the blaring of brass, despite the occasional official prohibition. The use of music was tremendous, as is clear from the inventories and the rare preserved collections consisting of hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of pieces of sheet music. The Church, however, was not only the main source of commissions to composers, but also the main source of a musicians’ making a living, a situation that in some places lasted well into the nineteenth century.
     Among Prague churches the Cathedral of St Vitus had since earliest times a special place. This was reflected in the performance of music there and also, for example, in the social standing of the kapellmeister of St Vitus’s. The prestige of this position did not diminish till the founding of the Prague Conservatory in 1811 and the gradual secularization of society. Together with the collection of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star at St Francis’s and of the Benedictines at Břevnov monastery, the collection at St Vitus’s is among the most important sources documenting church music in Prague in the first half of the eighteenth century – and this is true even though it by no means contains everything ever played in the Cathedral. Of the more than 1,700 pieces of sheet music that have survived, covering the period from the late seventeenth century to the first half of the nineteenth, most of it comes from the estates of two important Bohemian composers: Josef Antonín Sehling (or Seeling, 1710–1756), who worked in 1737–56 as the second violinist and deputy kapellmeister of Jan František Novák (d. 1771), and Jan Evangelista Antonín Koželuh (1738–1814), who led the choir at St Vitus’s Cathdral beginning in 1784. A large part of the collection comprises the works of the Bohemian composers František Xaver Brixi (1732–1771), one of the most famous Prague composers of his day and, from 1759, Choirmaster of St Vitus’s, and of Koželuh. The collection also includes other valuable individual works by earlier composers, for example, Antonín Reichenauer and Jan Dismas Zelenka (in Dresden). To judge from the number of pieces of sheet music, Antonio Caldara (1671–1736) was particularly popular at St Vitus’s. From 1717 he was employed as a court composer at Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg Monarchy. The influence of Vienna is evident also in the inclusion here of compositions by the court kapellmeister Johann Joseph Fux (1660–1741) and Georg Reutter (1708–1772).
     The choir of St Vitus’s Cathedral was also regularly performed Italian music. That was not unusual, after all, since Italy set the tone practically throughout the eighteenth century. Italian music, or at least compositions in the Italian style, form part of almost all the Bohemian music archives of this period. What is remarkable, however, is the great number and particularly selection of compositions that have been preserved at St Vitus’s. Italy is represented by practically all the important composers of the first half of the eighteenth century, beginning with Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725), through the Venetians Antonio Lotti (1666–1740), Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741), Giovanni Porta (c.1690–1755), and Baldassare Galuppi (1706–1785), to the Neapolitan masters, like Domenico Sarro (also Sarri, 1679–1744), Leonardo Vinci (1690–1730), Leonardo Leo (1694–1744), Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736), and, travelling all over Europe, Nicola Porpora (1686–1768). The presence of the works of George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) and Johann Adolf Hasse (1699–1783) is relatively rare in the Czech collections. Though German-born, these composers received their training in Italy and eventually achieved fame chiefly as composers of opera.
     Most of these Italian or Italian-style composers in the collection at St Vitus’s are represented with arias or duets rather than compositions to accompany the liturgy. That surely demonstrates that the musicians at St Vitus’s sought these compositions owing to their modern features, rich melodies, and superb vocal style. An essential part of the extant arias also comes from Italian operas that premièred in Venice or Rome, even in nearby Dresden or in Prague itself (where opera was occasionally presented from the early eighteenth century onwards and almost regularly after 1724. Opera arias made their way into the Cathedral choirs by various routes. Some compositions clearly come from the repertoire of the opera in Prague or from Italian signers who performed here and – like theatre managers – always had a supply of individual arias or whole operas on hand. That is evinced by the odd inscription on some pieces of sheet music, as well as advertisements for sheet music on theatre posters.
     For the liturgical use of opera arias usually nothing more was required than to substitute Italian words for Latin. The vocal part was usually provided with completely new verses, in which the ideal result was to create words of the same metric structure and similar emotional content (Affekt), but that was in fact rarely the case. (On the other hand, many composers of opera, particularly Handel and Vivaldi, were not particularly reluctant to adapt their arias for various occasions, and did so with dexterity.) We do not know who wrote this new sacred verse, though quite possibly they were the kapellmeisters (maestri di cappella) themselves or other musicians fluent in Latin. The musical form of the aria was usually retained; most often the rhythmical outline of the sung part was changed slightly to suit the new words better. Particularly in later years changes were made to instrumentation, variants for solo instruments were written, vocal parts were transposed to suit the available voices, and so forth. On rare occasions vocal lines were simplified (reductions in the coloratura). Sometimes, on the other hand, they were ornamented or provided with cadenzas. Some of the compositions are highly demanding, since they had originally been arias intended for opera stars like Faustina Bordoni-Hasse or the castrato Giovanni Carestini. As women were usually not yet permitted to sing in church, the interpreters of these arias were boy descants and only exceptionally castrati, either members of the Prague opera or guest artists in Prague.
     The earliest aria amongst those we are offering here is “Sat est, o Jesu, vulnerasti” by Antonio Lotti. Most likely it comes from the opera Ascanio, ovvero Gli odi delusi dal sangue. This opera premièred in Dresden in 1718, so that the aria “Vile e debole il cor da te non teme,” as the opening verse sounds in the extant source, is probably another of many pieces of evidence of the musical relations between the two towns. It is, however, also quite possible that this aria was performed at an opera production in Prague as well, either between 1718 and 1720, when Lotti was travelling back and forth Vienna, Dresden, and Venice, or later in the Špork Theatre, Prague. Whatever its origin, the aria is an example of superb music material for transformation into a religious work; it is a typical Baroque siciliana of a delicate pastoral nature, a genre frequently employed in church music of the eighteenth century.
     Unlike Lotti’s Baroque pastorale, Vinci’s aria “Quando Jesu mi chare” is a lovely example of music of a transition period. Whereas the sequences in the orchestral ritornello bring to mind Corelli, a simple, regularly divided, but rhetorically effective vocal line declares its affiliation with the Galant style. The origin of this aria is just as interesting: with the words “Quando saprai chi sono” it is part of Vinci’s renowned opera Didone abbandonata (Rome, 1726), whose libretto is by the equally famous Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782), who began his stellar career as a librettist with this text. We can further speculate that this opera made it to Prague owing to its performance in the theatre at the Questenberg manor in Jaroměřice nad Rokytnou, south Moravia, 1735.
     Similarly, Leo, a rival of Vinci, also composed several very successful operas with libretti by Metastasio. One of them is Catone in Utica, first presented to the public in Venice in 1729. The collection at St Vitus’s includes an aria from it, “Fulgida coeli stella,” though listed under the name of Johann Adolf Hasse. The original aria, sung by the character Arbace as the spurned lover (“Sò, che pietà non hai”), was changed into an invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which might at first sight appear a bit awkward. The predominant emotion of this aria, however, is not sorrow or reproach, but a lover’s longing, in other words a mood that continues to be a theme in religious lyric verse to this day.
Works truly by Hasse, the uncrowned prince of opera in the second third of the eighteenth century, were heard relatively often from the choir of St Vitus’s Cathedral. This is due undoubtedly to the great popularity of this master of the bel canto style and also to the many contacts between Prague and Dresden, where Hasse had been appointed Kapellmeister at the Saxon court (thus, incidentally, dashing the hopes of Zelenka). Among the most successful of his operas is Artaserse, which he returned to work on three times after the première in Venice, 1730. The aria “Non timebo poenas (Parto qual pastorello)” is a typical aria for virtuosos, with demanding leaps and coloratura runs, in which singers could demonstrate their art. We can also, however, admire the sophistication of the anonymous poet who changed an originally natural allegory about a shepherd afraid for his flock, which is threatened by a raging river, into an expression of courage and the power of a spirit true to Jesus Christ. A quite different literary task was presented by the Galant-style duet “Salve o dulcis Virgo (Tu vuoi ch’io viva, o cara)” with its gently flowing melody and subtle ornament. It is a typical dialogue duet, a lovers’ conversation, which was changed – surely with an eye to the widest possible use – in the simplest way into a duet singing the praises of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
     Another piece of evidence of the popularity of Hasse’s music in Bohemia, and of the widespread nature of the religious contrafactum outside the cathedral as well, is the joyful duet by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, “Per rupes et per montes,” from the collection of the Benedictine monastery at Břevnov (now part of Greater Prague). Hasse’s name appears on the sheet music from 1751, but many libraries of Europe have copies of this composition with the name of Pergolesi, beginning with the words “Tu resterai mia cara.” So far, no one has determined whether this duet (probably another love duet) comes from some unfinished opera or cantata. Evidence of Pergolesi’s being the composer (or at least of someone successfully imitating his style) is provided by several compositional features, particularly the typical harmonic turns and the imitation of the sung voices before the end of the first part.
     Arias, whether originally for performance in church or rewritten for this purpose, were most often included in the Mass in the place of the Offertory or sometimes immediately after the Epistle, in place of the Gradual or at the end of the mass. For the same reason – to amplify a certain moment of the liturgy and spiritual experience – instrumental compositions were also presented in this way. As early as the seventeenth century they appeared in the form of sonatas for strings or mixed choirs; in the first half of the eighteenth century modern concertos, ensembles or soloists served this function. Thus, for example, at a special service for the then beatified John Nepomucene in 1721, an instrumental concerto (we do not know its name or composer) was performed by Ondřej Prösl, as well as a solo concerto motet or aria, at which the “Imperial Castrato Signor Tonniny [perhaps Domenico Tollini] was heard.” Today the collection of St Vitus’s Cathedral no longer contains instrumental concertos. They were most likely the carefully guarded property of the individual musicians, who only lent them out for important occasions. The sole trace of this genre is the concerto by the Milanese composer and violinist Angelo Maria Scaccia (1690–1761), but only its torso has been preserved. One can easily also imagine the concertos of Vivaldi in the Saint Vitus’s Choir. His church music is present in several collections (one Magnificat is preserved at St Vitus’s), and his works were among the most performed at the Prague opera in the Twenties and Thirties of the eighteenth century. That was possible owing to personal contacts between Vivaldi and Antonio Denzi, who was the director of the Prague opera at the time. Vivaldi’s other contacts led him to dedicate his famous collection of concertos Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (including the renowned Four Seasons) to the Bohemian count Wenzel Morzin. Vivaldi can therefore also be rightly seen as a shining symbol of Bohemian-Italian musical relations. He also stands on the threshold of a period when European music was increasingly moving towards a universal language: a music speaking strongly to the individual regardless of nationality or confession, music that could be heard equally well in church or the opera house, and which has perhaps for that very reason maintained its ability to move listeners today.

Marc Niubo

Further recordings by Hipocondria Ensemble:

© 2HP Production, January 2018
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