Jan Dismas Zelenka (16 October 1679, Louňovice 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. 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 stringed instrumentsand started compose music in the first decade of 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 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 for this post, but it post was given instead to Johann Adolf Hasse, reflecting the court’s interest in opera as opposed to liturgical music. Zelenka achiened only the post of “church composer”. He was dissapointed and from thirtees he resorted to seclusion, having written a lot of works in his final years that were never performed during his lifetime. He had only a few friends and died almost forgotten.
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 (Johann Sebastian Bach held Zelenka in high esteem, let copy some works of him, e.g. instructed his son, Wilhelm Friedemann to copy the Amen from Zelenka’s third for use in Leipzig). Nevertheless, Zelenka’s language is idiosyncratic in its unexpected harmonic twists, obsession with chromatic harmonies, huge usage of syncopation and triplet figures, and unusually long phrases full of varied musical ideas. He is sometimes considered as Bach’s catholic counterpart. In his works, the influence of original Czech folk music is also apparent.
The rediscovery of Jan Dismas Zelenka´s work is accredited to Bedřich 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 the real interest in his music has begun to grow since the end of 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, but from ninetees of 20th century has begun new era of his renaissance, more than half of his works have now been recorded, mostly in the Czechia and Germany. Many of his opuses are now being premiered for the first time after more than 250 years 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.
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 many 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.
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, but his opuses have not been completely explored yet and continuously bring new discoveries.
Vladimír Hirsch (2009)