Skip to content

The “Czech Bach”: Who Was Jan Dismas Zelenka?

From VoegelinView

Photo by Zach Lezniewicz / Unsplash

Suppose you were Bach, and no one noticed? Welcome to the early eighteenth-century world of Jan Dismas Zelenka, a Catholic composer at the court of Dresden, who lived in relative obscurity from 1679 until his death in 1745. Buried on Christmas Eve in the Old Catholic Cemetery in Dresden, he suffered the same fate as Mozart. No one has ever been able to find his grave. Few have searched.

To some cognoscenti, Zelenka is known as the Catholic Bach. Curiously enough, during Zelenka’s life, Bach, along with Telemann, was among the few who recognized his genius. From a position of little renown, Zelenka passed into total oblivion after his death. The silence on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of his death in 1995 would not have surprised Zelenka. Nobody paid much attention to him while he was alive. He was passed over for the position in which he labored as acting kappelmeister at the Dresden court and worked in such obscurity after his retirement that he wrote his last and most magnificent works with no hope of performance. Now, more than 250 years later, thanks to several enterprising CD labels, we get to hear what may be some first performances of this genius’ music.

In my years of listening to and reviewing classical recordings, I have always yearned to find the neglected geniuses of music. For several reasons, I did not think I would encounter one from the Baroque period. First, since the Baroque craze began in the 1960s, this era has been quite thoroughly gone over. Second, I am not partial to Baroque music. Once one is acquainted with the patterns of this period’s music, they become wearyingly familiar. Colette called even the great Bach “a celestial sewing machine.” I have no interest in listening to the terrestrial ones, and so have avoided the Baroque. Much to my surprise, Zelenka, though he uses the idioms typical of his time, breaks the patterns with harmonic spice, asymmetrical phrasing, syncopations, and even polyrythms.

Primarily a liturgical composer, Zelenka was not simply working over or within forms perfected by Bach, whom he personally knew. Zelenka spoke in his own voice. As Heinz Holliger, the brilliant oboist who has helped revive Zelenka’s music, puts it: “Zelenka (like Bach) obviously has absorbed the total compositional knowledge of the previous generations, and, by virtue of his most individual personality, exposes it to a breaking test, thus setting free a critical element opposing the tradition.” In other words, Zelenka takes things about as far as they can go and then some. His music goes over the top. It must have sounded unusual then and still does now. Total mastery is there, so are inflections from Czech folk dance and influences from Italian opera seria and other trends of the time. But there remains something wildly unpredictable in Zelenka’s music that marks it as the most individual of its period. One never knows in which direction Zelenka will suddenly go rocketing off. Bach’s B minor Mass sounds positively subdued next to Zelenka’s sacred works, with their energy, complex rhythms, and chromatic harmonies. They posses a perky vivacity that sometimes verges on the idiosyncratic. This is the most exciting and expressive late Baroque liturgical music I have ever heard.

Considering Zelenka’s circumstances, one might imagine this lonely, neglected figure writing works of quite a different sort, full of bitter resignation and renunciation. His musical career was distinguished by the humiliation he suffered. In 1710, he left his native Prague and, for a lowly salary of three hundred talers, entered the famous Dresden court orchestra. Protestant Dresden came in need of Catholic liturgical works when the Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, “converted” to Catholicism to obtain the crown of Poland. Zelenka acted in the position of court composer for years, producing many of his liturgical works. He pleaded with the Elector to award him the title and salary of the position he was performing. He was passed over for the much younger and more famous Johann Adolph Hasse, who received many times Zelenka’s salary. Zelenka’s consolation prize was a belated appointment as church composer in 1735. But even this honor was diluted by giving the title to three others as well (including, honorifically, Bach). Disappointed and in declining health, Zelenka retired on a small pension but kept composing.

Though little is known of Zelenka, scholar Dietmar Polaczek attempts a character sketch of Zelenka as “a choleric recluse, broody and increasingly melancholic as he grew older.” Yet this is not what we hear. What poured out of him was a flood of joy, richness, celebration, poignance, and praise, all charged with a pulse of life that would have been extraordinary in a man half his age. Polaczek describes Zelenka’s scores as having been written with “almost violent writing, aggressively sloping to the right.” The notes do seem to have been scratched down with such energy and urgency that they virtually leap off the page, but, when played, they do not sound angry. They are inspiring, vivacious, and deeply touching.

Read the rest at VoegelinView