Wednesday, May 9, 2012: Baroque Music Rediscovered

Opus Osm

Ensemble Inégal performs Early Music at Emauzy Abbey May 19. Looks like fun, doesn't it?

Baroque Music Rediscovered

It is being billed as early music, but that is somewhat imprecise. So if you’re thinking cavemen beating hides and grunting, nothing could be further from the truth, even though this technically does lie within the definition. Ensemble Inégal will in fact perform an Early Music work by the most important Czech Baroque composer, Jan Dismas Zelenka, at Emauzy Abbey on May 19th as part of the Prague Spring International Music Festival.

The rediscovery of Jan Dismas Zelenka’s works is credited to Bedřich Smetana, who rewrote some scores from the archives in Dresden. Interest in Zelenka’s works has been growing since the late 1950s. Today, more than half of his works have been recorded, mostly in the Czech Republic and Germany, and are being performed by new ensembles such as Ensemble Inégal.

Jan Dismas Zelenka was born in Lounovice pod Blanikem in 1679. The small village regularly holds a music festival in his honor. In about 1710, he joined the royal orchestra in Dresden. The reason he left Bohemia remains a mystery. Nevertheless, Il Serpento di Bronzo (Serpent of Bronze), the work that will be performed by Ensemble Inégal, is a sacred cantata that was composed in 1730 and first performed in Dresden. It tells the story of the Jews traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Zelenka was a well-informed composer known for his daring music – perfection of the art of counterpoint. His works are known to be difficult to perform, but by no means monotonous. They surprise with sudden changes in harmony. As a violinist (actually, he played the violone, the largest and lowest member of the viol family, analogous to the double bass in the violin family of stringed instruments), Zelenka had a feel for quickness and complicated rhythm. His music is closest to Bach’s, but with considerable idiosyncrasy. Czech folk music is an evident influence in his works.

As for Ensemble Inégal, they are a vocal-instrumental group founded in 2000. And yes, the “Inégal” of their name refers to unequal or uneven: They go for a variable number and configuration of performers and musical styles.

Although they remain somewhat reticent in updating their website and have a rather discreet presence on Facebook, their claim to fame is an unconventional approach to Early Music in the sense that they attempt to replicate it in as authentic a manner as possible.

In that respect, the choice of venue is appropriate: Emauzy Abbey, established in 1347, was the only monastery of the Bohemian Kingdom. It was almost destroyed in 1945 during a WWII Allied bombing raid on Prague, so a contemporary roof was added during the reconstruction in the years 1953–1954, thereby incorporating an unconventional touch of modernity.

So remember, Baroque does not equal boring. Neanderthals welcome. — oo

Hana and Frank Trollman

Photo Credits: Ensemble Inégal website

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