Jan Dismas Zelenka

1679 1745

Jan Dismas Zelenka



Jan Dismas Zelenka was an early 18th century Czech composer of primarily sacred vocal music. Zelenka’s works display his excellent grasp of contrapuntal techniques and imaginative harmonies and colours designed to bring out the meaning of the text. His use of contrapuntal ideas gained him the respect of contemporaries includingBach and Telemann.

Further techniques in his music, such as the use of musical-rhetoric and cantus firmi, are a continuation ofMonteverdi. He was also influenced, more directly, by Fux.

Bohemian elements, particularly rhythm, can be found throughout his compositions. Some of his adventurous orchestrations anticipated those of the Classical era. His final masses and litanies are among his most impressive works. Interestingly enough, his best works were not composed during his most prolific years, which span the late 1720s.

Despite the admiration of a portion of his contemporaries, Zelenka was also considered ‘a reserved, bigoted Catholic’ in addition to being ‘a respectable, quiet, unassuming man, deserving of the greatest respect’, according to Fürstenau.

Much of Zelenka’s early life is quite vague and lacks documentation. However, it is most likely that he began his musical studies first with his father, Jiří, who was active in the parish church of Louňovice (south-east of Prague) as cantor and organist. It is also quite probable that he received a Jesuit education in Prague, as his earliest composition was written for a school drama at the Jesuit College of St Mikulás in 1704 (zwv24, lost). His next works were composed for the Jesuit Collegium Clementinum in Prague. During his years in Prague, he was supported by the von Hartig family, more specifically, Jan Hubert.

Zelenka left the comfort of Prague in 1710 to perform In Dresden with the Hofkapelle on the violone. Within a few short years he earned a raise in the orchestra, which he attributed to the 1711 performance of hisSanctae Caeciliae (zwv1) in the new Catholic Hofkirche, where Bohemian musicians were expected to provide music for the liturgy while royal musicians were employed for feast days and official events.

Zelenka travelled and studied for several years (1716-19), though, once again, the details are ambiguous. Rumours of a visit to Naples and studies in Venice withLotti are undocumented. A court document from late 1715 does indicate that four Dresden musicians would be travelling to Italy. This document listed the musicians Christian Petzold, Johann Georg Pisendel, Selencka and J.C. Richter. It is probable that Selencka refers to Zelenka, especially since he had previously requested in 1712 to study in Italy and France.

Zelenka received some of his most important instruction in Vienna, under the imperial Kapellmeister J.J. Fux. During this period, he composed a number of works such as zwv149, 166, 183 and 185, along with several sections of the Collectaneorum musicorum libri quatuor. After having served the electoral prince for 1.5 years, he returned to Dresden in 1719.

The next year music in Dresden changed drastically as a result of the closure of the Dresden Opera. Music of the royal chapel became the highlight of the city’s musical activities. J.D. Heinichen led the choir as Kapellmeister and composed and arranged music, along with G.A. Ristori and Zelenka, for the royal chapel.

Music for the Catholic liturgies gained much popularity due to the support and patronage of the electoral prince and Maria Josepha, his Habsburg consort. Zelenka thrived during this period, composing some of his most important works such as the six sonatas (zwv181) and the works for Holy Week (zwv53 and 55-6).

After a visit to Prague, Zelenka received the honour of being commissioned to compose and direct theMelodrama de Sancto Wenceslao (zwv175) at the festivities for the coronation of the new Bohemian King and Queen, Charles VI and Elizabeth Christine. The work was a brilliant success and was even preferred by some members of the royalty to Fux’sCostanza e Fortezza, which had previously been performed at the ceremonies. All of Zelenka’s Prague works of 1723 were most likely intended for such events.

After compiling his compositions, displaying his impressive output of sacred vocal music, his salary did not increase, though he took over most of the musical tasks of the royal chapel after the death ofHeinichen in 1929. With Heinichen’s death, the position of Kapellmeister was also left vacant.

Unfortunately for Zelenka, opera made a come-back in Dresden as a result of the preferences of the electoral princes. Perhaps this transition could have been expected, with the steady arrival of Italian singers throughout the 1720s to Dresden. It was, however, in 1730 that newly trained opera singers arrived followed by Hasse a year later.

With the re-emergence of opera, Zelenka’s success and compositional activity decreased. Zelenka petitioned on numerous occasions for the position of Kapellmeister and payment for some of his earlier works and costs made in the period immediately following Heinichen’s death. To support his position, he composed a series of Italian arias (zwv176, 1733) to no avail, as Hasse was instead appointed Kapellmeister.The remainder of Zelenka’s life was also filled with musical disappointments, as the church received increasingly less royal support and disagreements within the choir led to difficulties bringing about the performances of liturgical music. Despite dwindling popularity in his later years, some of his greatest compositions were composed during this time (the litanies zwv151-3).

He died in December 1736 due to edema. He is buried in the Catholic cemetery in Dresden.

His knowledge was passed down to his compositional students, including J.J. Quantz, J.G. Harrer and Johann Georg Röllig. After his death, Zelenka’s collection as purchased by Maria Josepha. They have been preserved and much of the collection can be found in the Czech Republic, which remains interested in his music.