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Thread: Zelenka - Master of Musical Chills

  1. #1
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    Default Zelenka - Master of Musical Chills

    Hello everyone,

    This recent news article, titled "Why does music give us chills?" got me reflecting on our beloved Czech composer. Early on, the author points out that one of the reasons for having an automatic physical-emotional response when listening to music is when it has shocking and unexpected qualities.

    Words like 'unexpected', 'unusual' or 'bizarre' crop up consistently in descriptions of Zelenka's music, usually by people who have just started to encounter his wonderful works. The impression that some people occasionally give is that these surprises are thrown in without much purpose - Zelenka the haphazard composer - I don't think this is the case at all. Words like 'dynamic', 'powerful', 'moving' often come together with the above descriptions.

    Here's a fitting quotation, found on this site: "With its unusual harmonies and preference for sudden leaps, Zelenka's music takes on something extraordinary, shimmering, viciously unconventional..." Hans-Josef Irmen

    Some traditional (outdated?) opinions of Baroque music make it out to be a purely technical, intellectual exercise, lacking energy... this is most certainly not the case with Zelenka. Baroque musical rhetoric has been much debated over the years (see this great article on Baroque Musical Rhetoric and HIP). Some think that composers employed various tools for expression and to induce emotion, others say that theorists were simply articulating what music was in a commonsensical way. Whatever the outcome of this debate, I'd argue that Zelenka had a highly sensitive awareness of the emotional effect of music, and applied it deliberately, masterfully. Based on my personal experience, and the comments of others, his music has a unique ability to create thrilling moments, often triggering electrical reactions in the body.

    To name a few examples - the climaxes of 3 works still absolutely thrill me each time I hear them: The Amen fugue of the Magnificat ZWV 107 (trumpets imperative ), the Cum Sancto fugue sequence of Missa Dei Filii ZWV20, and the Sanctus/Hosanna & Agnus Dei II of Missa S.T ZWV17. What might link these pieces together? Interestingly, (as far as I can tell...) they don't overly employ much of the rhetoric mentioned above. It is rather the layered texture and polyphony which achieves such stratospheric effects. But, perhaps there is no single, reducible reason for when or why we get affected so strongly by such music.

    Going back to the article, the author highlights another important aspect of the whole experience:

    "...They involve the body and the mind together, and often seem deeply significant: giving you access to something bigger than yourself, something ineffable."

    In my mind, this perfectly sums up Zelenka's intentions with his sacred music (In my opinion, his instrumental music has a different quality altogether. It is more humorous and playful, still beautiful). For the congregations of the Dresden Royal Court Chapel, Zelenka's music would have likely been a gripping experience which didn't come to them that often - something truly special (see Carl F. C. Fasch's account of hearing a Zelenka Mass with his father!). In the modern world, when it is so easy to immerse oneself in Zelenka's music at a whim (I for one am utterly addicted) - the auto-emotional-impact dies down and eventually ceases to be a novelty.

    I'd be really interested to hear people's opinions and experiences of this phenomenon in relation to Zelenka. According to one of the studies mentioned, 47% of non-musicians had never experienced the sensation!

    I finish this in the only possible way, with Kittel's now famous poem:

    "You, most highly praised, perfect Virtuoso
    Your fame - all of your own making - is world-renowned and great;
    To the glory of God and in order to delight the soul
    You compose church music
    Which is so touching that the rapt breast
    Has a foretaste of the heavenly pleasures
    ;
    So your own praise will forever keep your name green,
    Both here on Earth and on the platform of the stars."

    Sebastian

    ------------------
    Last edited by Xanaseb; 17-09-2015 at 02:08 PM. Reason: Non-musicians, not musicians; I also got the wrong Fasch!

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Zelenka - Master of Musical Chills

    Very interesting article. It's something I've always experienced but much more so when I was younger. I've found, personally that in an age of recorded media having repeatedly played to death music that gives me chills the effect is now muted and only occurs when I hear something unique and new. I used to get this feeling equally with modern electronic music as much as baroque music. In fact, Vivaldi did this frequently and still does on occasion with the right performer (nod to Rachel Podger).

    So that brings me on to Zelenka. For me, there are 2 types of 'chills'. There are the visceral hair on the back of neck ones that are a pure physical response to sound. Then there are those deeper reactions (but less physical for me) that are a combination of the visceral sound and some other deeper meaning in the music. Bach's mass in B minor for example does this. It's the combination of the physical and the intellectual, each one perfect and in sync. Zelenka also does this for me in a very similar manner to Bach. I don't get a strong physical reaction as much as I used to from Baroque music (including Zelenka), but I am completely transfixed and intensely engaged in the music.

    When I first heard Zelenka it was the Miserere in C minor. I had an intense visceral reaction at the time. But I also get these kinds of deep chills from the Credo in Missa Omnium Sanctorum, and the opening of Officium defunctorum, ZWV 4 amongst others. I think there are different things that move people but for me it is often something related to a euphoric melancholy. Melancholy has always been something in all kinds of music that can create a powerful reaction in many people. The emotional reaction enhances a feeling of going on a journey.

    I like the fact the article mentions enharmonic changes or shifts. They are very powerful and best used sparingly. Sorry to talk about Bach again but one of my favourite moments involving an enharmonic shift is just before the Et Expecto, the choir are singing intensely about death. The music almost drowns in sorrow and sighing. Then at one point there is an unexpected enharmonic shift that makes you feel like you have just passed the moment of death and moved through a door to an unknown magical place. It is a very musically clever moment that describes through sound the passing of a soul to the afterlife. Not only does an enharmonic shift create an emotional feeling of moving sideways to another place, but in combination intellectually with the text at that moment creates a very special connection to the music and an understanding of its message. Anyway, I'm trying to think of a moment like that in Zelenka, but I cant right now.

    I think the article says 47% of non-musicians. I'd be really surprised if there are musicians who don't experience this.
    Last edited by Rik1; 15-09-2015 at 04:19 PM.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Zelenka - Master of Musical Chills

    Quote Originally Posted by Rik1 View Post
    So that brings me on to Zelenka. For me, there are 2 types of 'chills'. There are the visceral hair on the back of neck ones that are a pure physical response to sound. Then there are those deeper reactions (but less physical for me) that are a combination of the visceral sound and some other deeper meaning in the music. Bach's mass in B minor for example does this.
    Funny that - I was just listening to that as I saw your post!
    Interesting to hear your identification of 2 types of chill-reaction. I agree, the deeper one is much rarer, and I can count on my hands the number of times I've that sort of thing. A Zelenka example - Reaching 'Sepulto Domino' after going through the Responsoria is quite a culminated meaningful experience for me. Or a related work - reaching the lighter/uplifting major-sounding cantatas in the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

    I think the article says 47% of non-musicians. I'd be really surprised if there are musicians who don't experience this.
    Oh yes, you're right!

  4. #4
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    Default Re: Zelenka - Master of Musical Chills

    I can relate to these experiences, but not in climactic or enharmonically shifting music but rather at moments of resolution. To be honest, I can only think of three works which consistently produce a strong response like that described in the article. One is the final bars of "Valiant for Truth" by Vaughan-Williams, a second is during the final phrase of "When David Heard" by Weelkes and the third is in the Amen of "Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice" by Finzi. Obviously the building of tension and subsequent resolution is completely ubiquitous in music (with plenty of good examples in Zelenka's output, my favorite being the Mortuorum-Et Vitam transition in Votiva). So I cannot explain why the three abovementioned instances stand out for me.

    RNKT
    Last edited by rnkt; 17-09-2015 at 11:38 AM.

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