Montpelier’s Onion River Chorus has long made a specialty of music of the Baroque era, often of its lesser-known composers, often with intriguing results. For its 40th-anniversary December concerts, the community choir will compare Te Deums and Magnificats by composers Jan Dismas Zelenka and Antoine Charpentier.
“Charpentier is more lyrical I would say, and more imbued with dance rhythms, and more gallant and elegant,” explains Larry Gordon, Onion River Chorus’ director. “Zelenka has really very startling harmonies and amazing counterpoint.”
Gordon will conduct the 60-voice chorus and a 16-piece Baroque-instrument orchestra in Magnificats and Te Deums by Charpentier and Zelenka at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22, and at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 23, at Montpelier’s Unitarian Church. Vocal soloists will be soprano Mary Bonhag, mezzo-soprano Lindsey Warren, tenor Lysander Jaffe and bass Zeb McLellan.
Charpentier (1643-1704) is widely regarded today as the foremost French Baroque composer. Early in his life, he went to Italy, where he studied with the Italian composer Carissimi. He also collaborated with Molière on music for the theater.
“Another characteristic of Charpentier’s music is constant contrasts in rhythm and affect, especially in the Te Deum, which I think is one of his most perfect pieces,” Gordon said recently by phone. “It’s constantly alternating between really big, pompous, war-like celebratory things and immediately going to these very, very emotional and lyrical passages. It’s really very cool.”
Zelenka (1679-1745) worked most of his life at the royal court in Dresden, which was, at the time, the richest musical establishment in Europe. He was highly regarded by J.S. Bach, and was a contemporary of Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann.
“In the Te Deum, he alternates between these mostly homophonic passages, but with startling dissonant harmonies, and then big fugue sections a la Bach. Both of these pieces end with big fugues,” Gordon said.
“Zelenka’s harmonies are sometimes more daring than other German composers of the time. Sometimes he sounds almost like Mozart — some of his pieces sound like they could have come out of Mozart’s Requiem. So he was ahead of his age.”
Gordon quoted the great Swiss oboist, conductor and composer Heinz Holliger: “It seems essential to me that Zelenka, like Bach, obviously has absorbed the total compositional knowledge of the previous generations, and by virtue of his most individual personality, exposes it to a breaking test, thus setting free a critical element opposing the tradition.”
More than Bach, who wrote instrumentally, Zelenka was a singer’s composer.
“He writes lines that are very vocal in character and congenial to the voice,” Gordon said. “Charpentier was a singer as well, so his music is very, very congenial for the voice.”
The Te Deum, a hymn of praise, thanksgiving and supplication, has been used since the 4th century as a solemn act of praise after the Mass, for the consecration of a bishop or abbot, and on other festive occasions. The Magnificat text, attributed to Mary, has inspired composers continuously through the centuries.
Zelenka’s and Charpentier’s settings of the Te Deum are both grand and magnificent, using an expanded orchestra of trumpets, tympani, oboes, flutes and strings. Both also divide the text into successive movements, alternating solos and small ensembles with full chorus and orchestra.
Zelenka’s and Charpentier’s settings of the Magnificat are quite different. Zelenka’s composition is concise, yet grand, using the same full orchestration as his Te Deum. A heroic opening chorus leads to a lyrical soprano solo, which in turn leads to a long fugal “Amen.”
Charpentier’s setting uses a pared-down orchestra (no trumpets or tympani), but it divides both singers and orchestra into two choirs. In the choral movements, the two choirs answer each other back and forth before combining at the cadences. These large movements alternate with many different combinations of lyrical solo voices.
“The main difference is we’re doing French Latin pronunciation for the Charpentier pieces, which gives it a rather different sound,” Gordon said. “We’re doing more standard Italian pronunciation, church Latin, for the Zelenka.”