Music

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An adventurous composer and his ‘Hipocondrie’

On March 24 in Jordan Hall, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin performs an all-Baroque program featuring the seemingly modern-titled “Hipocondrie,” by the perenially modern-seeming Jan Dismas Zelenka. Part of that anachronistic impression is inherent — Zelenka’s music was unusually adventurous — and part historical: His contemporary revival trailed that of many contemporaries. (Boston’s most devoted Zelenka advocate, conductor David Hoose, has, even at centuries’ remove, provided American premieres of numerous works.)

Zelenka was born outside of Prague; his talent brought him to Dresden, one of the most important cultural centers of the time. But in 1723, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI’s long-delayed coronation as King of Bohemia brought Zelenka back to Prague, where he conducted his own massive oratorio on the subject of the Bohemian patron Saint Wenceslas, and dashed off four instrumental works — “in a hurry,” according to one of the manuscripts — including the uniquely, oddly named “Hipocondrie.”

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At the time, the definition of “hypochondria” had not quite evolved to its modern sense. Instead, it was a variety of melancholy — a physical complaint as much as a mental one, according to humorism, the ancient belief that analyzed disease as imbalances among the four bodily humours: phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. Too much of the last caused hypochondria. (Hence the term — “hypo” [below] the “chondria” [the sternum], the lower abdominal organs that produced and regulated black bile.) The symptoms of hypochondriacal melancholy — wide-ranging and ambiguous as they were — resembled those of depression, although, given the physical theory of the disease, some measure of gastric distress was also necessary for a positive diagnosis. According to Robert Burton’s 17th-century study “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” the “windy vapours ascend up to the brain which trouble the imagination,” causing “many terrible conceits and chimeras.”

One assumes that “Hipocondrie” was not intended for Charles VI’s royal celebrations, though the disease was often considered a kind of backward honor: Those of an intellectual or scholarly cast were thought to be particularly susceptible. And Charles did have one well-known hypochondriacal namesake: Charles VI of France, who suffered from an especially debilitating variety, the so-called “glass delusion,” believing himself to be in danger of shattering at the slightest touch.

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Irish doctor Desmond O’Neill suggested that “Hipocondrie,” with its sharp switchbacks from major to minor, musically enacts a contentious back-and-forth between practitioner and patient. Still, based on Zelenka’s other music, the work’s harmonic surprises might be less clinical portrayal than compositional penchant. George Cheyne’s characterization of hypochondriacal symptoms in his 1733 treatise “The English Malady” — “many, various, changeable, shifting from one place to another” — applies just as well to Zelenka’s singular style. We may never know whether the wellspring was curiosity or cafard.

The Boston Early Music Festival presents the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin on March 24, 8 p.m., at Jordan Hall. Tickets $25-$100. 617-661-1812, www.bemf.org

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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