About this work
Surely one of the most oddly titled of all classical compositions, the Hipocondrie was one of "six concerti written in a hurry in Prague in 1723," according to a note on the original manuscript. It is scored for two oboes, bassoon, two violins, viola, and continuo. Although it is an instrumental work (the bulk of Zelenka's compositions were choral), the nine-minute Hipocondrie offers a good introduction to the music of this extremely unorthodox Czech composer. The French word hipocondrie meant much the same thing as its cognate "hypochondria" means today: early editions of the Dictionnaire de L'Académie Française defined the word as "a kind of malady, usually of long duration, that makes one strange and morose, and in which one complains of various pains and of excessive suffering, in spite of an appearance of good health. Deep sorrow, sedentary habits, etc., predispose one to hipocondrie." Difficult as it might seem to represent this concept musically, Zelenka pulls it off. Formally the Hipocondrie is a three-section French overture, opening with a processional dotted rhythm, moving into a faster stretch with contrapuntal elements, and finally broadening out into slow, chordal music once again. Zelenka's opening section begins conventionally in the major but makes a bizarre shift to the parallel minor in the consequent (answering) half of its first phrase. The music twists back to major again, but the entire opening section vacillates between major and minor in a way that suggests nothing so much as lack of confidence. The quicker second section, which offers a display of the contrapuntal prowess that gained Zelenka admiration from Bach and other composers, has the effect of a burst of nervous energy. After a striking false conclusion comes the return to the slow tempo, now swathed in a profusion of diminished harmonies that impart an air of profound gloom. The only missing Zelenka trademark is his bent toward irregular rhythms, but if ever there was Baroque music for a neurotic age, this is it, and the Hipocondrie might well inspire the listener to check out other works of Zelenka that are filled with similar marvels.