The vocal world of early Church music, until the late Baroque, is a world almost exclusively male. Higher voice parts, from the modern perspective of those that are ‘naturally‘ for women, are assigned in three ways, but always to male voices: to mature male singers using falsetto techniques (simply, though not precisely, ‘countertenors’), to boys before their voices change, or, in some periods and regions (mainly in Baroque Italy and Spain), to castrati. When, in the second half of the twentieth century, the practices for the interpretation of early music were gradually renewed, it is this aspect of early music that appeared to be the strangest and most difficult to revive.
And yet it happened. Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is common practice to give the soprano and alto parts to countertenors or boys before their voices change; it is even a matter of prestige, a touchstone of the artistic standard and ‘truly authentic interpretation’ of the individual ensembles. Contemporary star countertenors like Philippe Jaroussky and Max Emanuel Cencic have even moved from the exclusive world of lovers of early music to the world of mainstream shows for mass audiences, even, in fact, into TV culture. The same is true of boy soloists, who in the Western world are often drawn over to pop culture – to which their repertoires are also then adapted. Though castrati no longer appear on stages today, they have, as a historical phenomenon, become the subject of a special nostalgic, decadent, cult and of works of art. Recall Gérard Corbiau’s film Farinelli (1994) about probably the most famous Baroque castrato, or Dominique Fernandez’s novel Porporino ou les Mystères de Naples (1974; published in English as Porporino, Or the Secrets of Naples, in 1976, and Czech, Porporino aneb tajnosti neapolské, in 1999), the fictitious memoirs of a castrato who was, by contrast, quite unknown.
The popularity of singing by countertenors or boys has been penetrating the Czech music milieu with a considerable delay. That is surely also because of the delay in Czech music culture in general, a result largely of isolation during the Communist régime. But it is also the result of an earlier weakness, the almost total interruption of the tradition of boys choirs affiliated with churches. Such choirs, preserved especially in Great Britain and the German-speaking countries as oases of postmodern sacred culture, became, in the twentieth century, another reservoir from which star boy and countertenor soloists emerged.
The Czech milieu lacked this continuity. The musicologist Miroslav Venhoda tried to follow on from the medieval tradition when he founded a boys choir, a school, and the Schola cantorum society at Břevnov Abbey, Prague, in the late 1930s. The Communist régime, however, routed this attempt. Some great figures of music came out of the Schola cantorum, for example, the music teacher Pavel Jurkovič, known as the ‘Czech Orff’. Much later, at the start of the 1980s, the Society for Early Music (Společnost pro starou hudbu) was born at Venhoda’s initiative and, with it, an interest amongst Czechs in authentic, that is, historically informed, interpretation. Gradually, then, a few boys choirs were also formed in the Bohemian Lands (and some of them soon deftly hooked into popular TV culture).
But in Bohemia, solo boys singing, like countertenor singing, has essentially remained a kind of ‘dream of the West’. If works are performed in historically informed interpretations, solo countertenors are almost always ‘imported’. The first Czech countertenor on a par with west European stars, and surprisingly still little appreciated in Bohemia (and almost completely unknown outside the country), is Jan Mikušek. The first Czech boy solo soprano is therefore David Cizner.
Compared to many boy or countertenor stars who came out of the milieu of church choirs, David Cizner (b. 2002) is not only a soloist, but also a solitaire. Yet even in his case one perceives a line of cultural transmission: Květa Ciznerová, the singer’s mother and voice teacher, herself went through the Society of Early Music in the 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, she established, and for a number of years also ran, the Musica Fresca ensemble, oriented to the interpretation of mainly secular Renaissance and early Baroque music. (The author of this booklet, M. C. Putna, also sang with them at that time.)
David Cizner’s first album, The Celebration of Trebles, rehearsed by Květa Ciznerová, was released in 2012. This album should be understood as his musical visiting card. With it, he presents the spectrum of his repertoire of sacred and secular music, from the early Baroque to compositions by Benjamin Britten and Leonard Cohen – and therefore right to the boundary of popular culture, which he tries out here but has no intention of devoting himself to any further. After that, he performed with M. C. Putna, Květa Ciznerová, and the revived Musica Fresca on the album O smrti i vesele: Písně barokní a postbarokní (Of death, even cheerfully: Baroque and post-Baroque songs, 2013). Here, in compositions linked with the subject of death and showing its non-tragic (conciliatory or, by contrast, grotesque) depiction in the pre-Modern period, he demonstrates, among other things, his expressiveness and musical as well as verbal humour, with a quality truly rare in boys singing.
In this album, his third, David Cizner returns to the traditional repertoire of boy sopranos, to sacred music, mainly Baroque.
The first four compositions are based on passages from the Bible, the primary basis of sacred music in Europe. The recitative and aria from the beginning of Handel’s Messiah, is a musical setting of a verse from the Book of Isaiah, the Old Testament, understood in the Christian milieu as a prophesy of the coming of the Saviour.
Monteverdi’s setting of Psalm 150 has traditionally enjoyed great popularity, and is therefore actually a call to make music.
Similarly, Psalm 113, here in version by R. I. Mayr, begins with a call to loud praise, preferably sung. Its Latin words are: ‘Laudate pueri’, which literally means ‘Praise, O boys’, and can therefore be understood as vigorously encouraging boys to sing, something that, as we have seen, held an exceptional position in sacred music. But, the Latin word ‘puer’ means both ‘boy’ and ‘servant’, which corresponds more to the Hebrew original to which modern translations are now returning.
From Psalm 71, in which, besides David Cizner, the countertenor Jan Mikušek has an important part, Dietrich Buxtehude chose only the introductory verse.
The words of the next composition, the fifth, are not right out of the Bible, but they do allude to biblical texts and events. It is probably the aria that Bach’s court librettist, Picander, wrote for him for the cantata ‘Freue dich, erlöste Schar’ (Rejoice, redeemed throng; BWV 30). The cantata is intended for the feast day of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. The aria this time seems to be spoken by John the Baptist, calling upon sinners to repent and encouraging them to hope, because the Saviour is approaching:
The sixth composition on the CD, the second by Bach, ‘O finstre Nacht’ (O gloomy night, BWV 492), comes from the Musikalisches Gesang-Buch (1736), a hymnal of sacred songs by various composers, compiled by Georg Christian Schemelli. In words by Georg Friedrich Breithaupt, one hears typical Bachian turns of phrase such as ‘sweet death’ and ‘hoped-for end’. This life is marked by the darkness of sin; the life to come promises the light of God’s countenance. The introductory motif of ‘gloomy night’ therefore also has a double dimension: it can be understood as an allusion to Bach’s personal theme, his personal ‘cross’, that is, increasing problems with his sight, which resulted in blindness (the same motif, by the way, is also heard in the cantata ‘Ich habe genug’).
The seventh composition brings a radical change of mood. It is Ciaccona del Paradiso e dell’Inferno (Ciaccona of Heaven and Hell). Written by a now unknown composer, it was published in 1657 in the collection Canzonette spirituali e morali che si cantano nell’Oratorio di Chiavenna, eretto sotto la protettione di S. Filippo Neri (Sacred and instructional canzonette sung in the Chiavenna oratory built under the direction of St Philip Neri). The song is a double ‘concetto’, a paradox, a conflict of opposites. First, it has to do with joining a pleasing melody with words about things that are, from the religious standpoint, the most relevant, salvation or damnation. Second, it has to do with the opposite of ‘testimony about heaven’, ‘testimony about hell’. Alternately, on the same melody, ‘anime beate’ (souls of the blessed) sing about how lovely it is to dwell in paradise, and ‘anime dannate’ (souls of the damned) sing about how horrible it is to dwell in hell. The boy soprano represents the ‘blessed souls’. Jan Mikušek, Martin C. Putna, and Michael Pospíšil (bass) join together in a trio of the ‘damned’.
The eighth composition returns to biblical words, with a duet from Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt, the musical setting of a single verse from a Psalm.
Singing with David Cizner in Handel’s duet is Irena Troupová, his teacher of interpretation. As his model for singing, she accepted the invitation to sing in a solo composition, which is an example of the expressive piety of Italian Mannerism – Canzonetta spirituale sopra la nanna (A sacred song in the style of a lullaby). The Virgin Mary is singing the Christ Child to sleep, but in her thoughts His future sufferings have already appeared.
The Virgin Mary tormented by the sufferings of her Son is also the subject of the next composition, the ninth. Of the many musical settings of the sequence Stabat mater, G. B. Pergolesi’s was chosen here. In the duet, David Cizner this time sings with himself: the soprano part was recorded first, and then the alto, thus also demonstrating the range of his voice.
The ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass was set to music many times since then. The Agnus Dei has been selected here from Mozart’s Coronation Mass.
The conclusion of the album has been reserved for Czech sacred music, which follows on from European Baroque and Classical models. Jakub Jan Ryba is mainly known as a composer of works inspired by rococo pastoral themes, whose most frequent religious topic is Christmas. In addition to the Czech Christmas Mass, which is now almost an ‘obligatory’ composition at Christmas for Czechs, this includes also a number of pastorelle, amongst which is ‘Rozmilý slavíčku’ (Sweet little nightingale). Before it, however, we hear Ryba’s work in a completely different, serious, quasi-Baroque polyphonic style, Christus factus est, a meditation on Scripture, from the series Responsoria Svatého týdne (Responsories for Holy Week). The words of the meditation are taken from the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. In the quartet, David Cizner is joined by Jan Mikušek, Tomáš Lajtkep, and Michael Pospíšil.
Antonín Dvořák’s Biblical Songs return to the textual basis with which this album began, the Book of Psalms. The Czech version of each of the biblical texts here is from the modern Czech ecumenical translation. But Dvořák worked with the Kralice Bible. The Biblical Songs have been sung many times, but in a version by a boy soprano they reveal something that is usually missing even in the recordings of famous Czech singers and without which the poetry of the Biblical Songs actually fails to have its effect. That something is simplicity.