Adam Michna of Otradovice and the Societas Incognitorum

By Manas, Vladimir | Czech Music, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Adam Michna of Otradovice and the Societas Incognitorum


Manas, Vladimir, Czech Music


Adam Michna of Otradovice is beyond doubt the best known of Czech baroque composers, but his Latin liturgical pieces are rarely heard in concert programmes and on recordings. A recently released CD from the Brno Ensemble Societas Incognitorum and the Schola Gregoriana Pragensis goes some way to filling the gap, and paying the debt to this most important protagonist of the Czech organ baroque and dedicated Marian from Jindrichuv Hradec. Michna's third Ordinary of the Mass, Marian Vespers, and Lorettan Litany are here augmented by gregorian chant. We talked about questions of performance and about the Societas Incognitorum itself with its artistic director Eduard Tomastik.

The Third Mass from the Sacra et Litaniaeje Collection is remarkable for its character--continuous variations over a repeating bass melody. The Societas Incognitorum ensemble have chosen an approach that is relatively unusual, but all the more interesting for that. Many will be surprised by the changes of tempo between the individual passages, and in the introduction to the recording this choice is justified in some detail as "the word of the performer". Can you say something more about this mode of performance?

Michna's mass is truly excellent music in terms of structure and inventiveness, and so I was all the more surprised to find it had never been recorded before. All I know is that some Czech ensembles have played it, but since I never heard any of their performances, I couldn't draw on any specific experience for my own approach. It is simply my own interpretation, and I stand by it. The choice of instrumental voices is also specific. The virginals, used in some places instead of a positive organ, rather change the character of the pieces, and so fulfils the aim of presenting the variety and colour possibilities of the Baroque basso. Instead of the normally used viola da gamba, however, a cello shares in the playing of the continuo, and in some passages we hear only the theorba and the positive is silent--all of this contributes to that effective mutability of colour. But these are still debatable steps, and deserve some commentary from the ensemble leader.

In some of his printed prefaces Heinrich Schutz says that ultimately it always depends on the capacities and possibilities of the cappelmeister. I don't offer the example as an alibi for my instrumentation, but to point out the huge variability that existed in early music and was integral to it. As far as using the cello rather than the viola da gamba in the basso continuo is concerned, this relates to a problem much more complex than it might seem at first sight. Particularly in the 17th century, there was massive diversity in terminology, size, tuning and so forth in stringed instruments. However much performers today tend to use the gamba for accompaniment,--and it is often the right choice--it cannot be regarded as the only correct possibility. I use the cello more often because it has a more solid, sharp and concrete sound. Also I have been working with Ondrej Michal for a long time, his play suits me, and we're so used to each other that we know exactly what to expect from each other during productions. As far as the instrumental mutability of the general bass is concerned--leaving aside the period sources--in today's practice I have essentially encountered two opposite views. Some people claim that the instruments participating in the accompaniment should play from the beginning to then end (if the composer does not state it explicitly) while others think it better to treat the continuo more colourfully, depending on a given mood or emotion. My view is that there is no single practice to be followed in this aspect either. On the one hand you cannot invent a complicated accompaniment scheme at any price, but on the other there are places that are all but invitations to transform the colour of the continuo and so very much enliven the piece but also testify to the interpretative inventiveness of the cappelmeister. …

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