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Jan Dismas Zelenka - the neglected and rediscovered composer of the Baroque era

Jun 22, 2011 • 6 comments • 6671 views

 Jan Dismas Zelenka (16 October 1679, Lounovice pod Blaníkem, Czechia - 23 December 1745, Dresden, Germany), was the most important Czech Baroque music composer, whose music was notably daring with outstanding harmonic invention and mastery of counterpoint.


Sub olea pacis - Missa Dei Fillii - Missa Santissimae Trinitatis


Zelenka received musical training at the Jesuit college Clementinum in Prague. He played the violone, analogous to the double bass in the violin family of string instruments and started composing music in the early 18th century. His emigration from Bohemia to Dresden was most likely sudden, the reasons for it are not known and became the subject of some speculations. In some monographs, various personal reasons are alleged to be behind his escape, but the truth remains draped in mystery. Except for a visit in 1723 to Prague, in order to take part in the performance of his "Melodrama of Saint Wenceslas", he remained a resident of Dresden until his death. In Dresden, Zelenka initially assisted the main conductor of the Royal Court Capelle and later applied to lead the orchestra, but the post was given instead to Johann Adolf Hasse, reflecting the court's interest in opera as opposed to liturgical music. Zelenka achieved only the post of "church composer." He was  gravely dissapointed and in last years of life he resorted to total seclusion, having written most of his works in his final years that were never performed during his lifetime. He had only a few friends and died almost forgotten.


Zelenka: Missa Votiva - Gloria in excelsis Deo (Collegium 1704)


Zelenka's pieces are characterized by very daring compositional structure, with a highly spirited harmonic invention and perfection of the art of counterpoint. His works are often virtuosic and difficult to perform, but always fresh and surprising, with sudden turns of harmony, being always a challenge for their interpreters. Zelenka's musical language is closest to Bach's, especially in its richness of contrapuntal harmonies and ingenious usage of fugal themes. Zelenka's language is idiosyncratic in its unexpected harmonic twists, obsession with chromatic harmonies, dominating usage of syncopation and triplet figures, and unusually long phrases full of varied musical ideas. He is sometimes considered as Bach's catholic counterpart. The influence of original Czech folk music is also apparent in his work.


Requiem - Il Diamante - Missa Votiva



The rediscovery of Jan Dismas Zelenka´s music is accredited to Bed?ich Smetana, who rewrote some scores from the archives in Dresden and introduced one of the composer's orchestral suites in Prague's New Town Theatre festivals in 1863, but  real interest in his music began in the 1950s. The most important revival was demonstrated by the first presentation of selected compositions by Czech conductor Milan Munclinger and his ensemble Ars Rediviva.  At the end of the 20th century, a new era of his renaissance began, emassing to more than half of his pieces  already recorded, mostly in Czechia and Germany. Many of his opuses are now being premiered for the first time by Czech choirs and orchestras and subsequently recorded. Those first recordings include, e.g. ''Missa Purificationis'', ''Missa Sanctissimae trinitatis'', ''Missa votiva'', ''Missa Sancti Josephi'', ''Il serpente di bronzo,'' and his secular works "Sub olea pacis" and "Il Diamante", performed by new Czech ensembles Musica Florea, Ensemble Inégal, Collegium 1704 or Capella Regia Musicalis using original instruments and interpretational techniques of the Baroque era.


Zelenka: Officium defunctorum (Collegium 1704)


The total number of Zelenka's known and attributed opuses is 249. Sacred vocal-instrumental music is in the center of the compositions - over 20 masses, 4 extensive oratoria and requiems, 2 Magnificat and Te Deum settings, 13 litanies, many psalms, hymns, antiphons and other similar works compromise his legacy. He composed only a few extensive vocal-instrumental pieces on secular themes, but one of them, ''Sub olea pacis et palma virtutis--Melodrama de St. Wenceslao'' (1723), represents not only the crowning baroque era, but transcending it as well as other Zelenka´s works. It is a monumental opus of the character between melodrama, oratory and contemporary opera celebrating the memory of the greatest Czech saint and patron of Bohemia, prince Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (Václav), one of founders of the Czech state. Zelenka also created a number of instrumental works - 6 trio or quartet sonatas, 5 capricci, 1 Hipocondrie, Concerto, Overture and Symphonie.


Complete instrumental and orchestral works


In general, the most appreciated works are ''Missa Purificationis'' (this is the last mass to include brass instruments) and his final masses from 1739-1741, created in the period of Zelenka's alleged compositional peak. His opuses have not been completely explored yet and continuously bring new discoveries.                                                                                      


Magnificat - Il penitenti al sepolcro del Redentore - il serpente di bronzo


                                                                                    Extract from the article by Vladimír Hirsch (2008)





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tremendous write up and amazing music. Missa Votiva - Gloria in excelsis Deo is absolutely great.
06.22.11 •
i absolutely agree, rhythmic and harmonic changes, energic, i love him !
06.22.11 •
Thank you so much for this, Vladimir. I have been curious to know more about Zelenka ever since I picked up ECM's release of his trio sonatas, recorded by Heinz Hollinger and colleagues — which has truly become one of my favorite discs. http://www.ecmrecords.com/Catalogue/New_Series/1600/1671.php Heard it on the radio one day and though I had never heard of Zelenka, I knew I must have it. (I think that release has helped restore his reputation in Western Europe and the USA.)

Thanks so much for posting this!! The Officium Defunctorum ZWV 47 is so powerful. Love his phrasing.
06.22.11 •
Thank you, Douglas. Heinz Holliger's recordings are well known for me - he is one of first discoverers of Zelenka in 20th century. If you are interested, i can send some links of albums to you, there are a lot of world premiere recordings now / I suppose Zelenka's music is probably hardly available in U.S.
06.22.11 •
I think, there are some elements of Italian opera style, but he brought many new things, there is "predire" in his music. It was probably the reason for some blind spot in those times. Thanks, Missa votiva is awesome

06.22.11 •
Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis is my favourite
07.27.11 •
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