Tuesday, April 26, 2011: Paradise Preserved

Paradise, by Jan Bruegel

Jan Josef Božan

People sometimes wonder why Prague and the Czech Republic have such strong musical traditions. There are lots of reasons, but one aspect is thanks to Jan Josef Božan, a collector of sorts.

Božan was born in 1644 and was a priest in the town of Chroustovice. But that wasn’t his only ‘calling’ — he also amassed a huge collection of sacred Catholic songs. He even published a hymnal, called A Nightingale of Paradise, Perched on The Tree of Life, Singing Glory to its Creator. (Even book titles were poetic in those days!)

The hymnal includes both very old and — for that time — new hymns, collected and preserved from the kingdom of Bohemia and elsewhere. It contains about 930 texts and 470 melodies, and was first printed only in 1719, three years after Božan had died. It was dedicated to Count František Antonín Sporck, a patron of the arts who owned a publishing house and financed the publication. For trivia fans: Sporck also kept his own opera troupe, and Vivaldi visited here in the early 1730s; Sporck premiered several of Vivaldi’s works.

But the fate of hymnbooks wasn’t as glamorous as the rising popularity of opera. By the 18th century, Bohemian sacred song from hymnbooks was relegated to the lower social classes; choirs were turning instead to music based on contemporary opera style.

Božan in 21st Century Prague

So is that the end of the story? Should Božan be put back on the shelf for only musicologists and museum collectors to ponder?

Not at all. It’s possible to hear works from Božan’s collection 400 years later, revived in live performance, at that. Click on the video below for an excerpt performed April 22 at the Czech Museum of Music, by the Chorus of Ludus Musicus. Here you’ll see the women’s section, and hear the calming, chant-like tones for two part voices. — oo

– Mary Matz

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