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Summer Listening and Zelenka

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With summer having arrived I am on break from teaching and have a goodly amount of time to spend in my studio working on my own artistic endeavors (painting). Perhaps it is that feeling of freedom linked with a bit of remembered youthful rebellion that we all felt when the school year wound to a close... but for whatever reason, I have been spending a lot of time recently listening more to rock, jazz, gospel, blues and even bluegrass. Among my recent purchases are the following:

Having said that much, in no way have I put away my passion for classical music... and my current obsession with the Baroque. One composer I have only recently come to explore is the ever fascinating

Jan Dismas Zelenka

Jan Dismas Zelenka (16 October 1679 23 December 1745), also known as Johann Dismas Zelenka, was a Czech Baroque composer. Zelenka played the violone, a large (the largest) stringed instrument analogous to the double bass. For quite some time Zelenka was completely ignored. As a result of the Historically Informed Movement (HIP) in classical music, and the revival of interest in earlier music, there have been any number of Zelenka revivals. There is even a web-site devoted to him:

Whereas Felix Mendelssohn... among others... helped to spur a revival and a recognition of the genius of the music of J.S. Bach, Zelenka, on the other hand, did not enjoy any significant revival until the mid-20th century. In part this may have been due to the fact that Dresden and the Czech Republic (Bohemia)... where Zelenka had been employed and where most of his manuscripts were housed... fell behind the Iron Curtain. The East German and Czechoslovakian Communist government did not approve of any music that supported the religion... especially the Catholic Church. Only recently has Zelenka's music become accessible to the public, and begun to enter the musical canon... especially among Baroque music aficionados. Zelenka has begun to be recognized as one of the most interesting of the endless array of talented Baroque composers long neglected.

Where Wagner, Brahms, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler may stand as towering figures within the music of the Romantic era, composers such as Bruckner, Wolf, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc... were in no way ignored. The Baroque era, however, has long been limited in the minds of many to Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi... with perhaps a cursory nod to Scarlatti. The Baroque revival has brought renewed interests to composrs such as Alessandro Scarlatti, Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Adolf Hasse, Jean-Baptiste de Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Michel Richard Delalande, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Arcangelo Corelli. Zelenka is a unique addition to these composers.

Zelenka was born in a small town southeast of Prague in Bohemia. His father was a schoolmaster and organist there; almost nothing more is known with certainty about Zelenka's early years or his musical training. He possibly studied music in Prague at a Jesuit college named the Clementinum.

It is known that Zelenka served Baron Hartig, the imperial governor resident in Prague, before becoming a violone player in the royal orchestra at Dresden. He studied counterpoint in Vienna under the composer, Johann Fux

In Dresden, Zelenka initially assisted the Kapellmeister, Johann David Heinichen, and gradually assumed Heinichen's duties as the latter's health declined. After Heinichen died in 1729, Zelenka applied for the prestigious post of Kapellmeister; the post went instead to Johann Adolf Hasse. In 1735, Zelenka was given the title of church music composer. He was in good company, as J.S. Bach had also applied for this title and shared it with Zelenka. Zelenka died in Dresden in 1745, having written works in his final years that were never performed during his lifetime.

There is no known portrait of Zelenka.

culled from:

Zelenka composed a small body of instrumental and orchestral works, but the majority of his compositions are sacred choral works: oratorios, masses, cantatas, etc... These compositions display a wealth of virtuosic technics and are quite challenging to perform. As a result of his own mastery of the violone, Zelenka's writing for the bass string instruments is far more complex and demanding than that of any other composer of the era. His stress upon the bass lends his music a certain driving rhythm or even muscularity that some have attributed to the folk music and dances of his native Bohemia.

J.S. Bach reportedly held Zelenka in high esteem.

There is currently a good number of Zelenka recordings on the market. I first came upon him through the efforts of the marvelous recording company, Zig Zag Territories (A label that has done much to explore early music performed to HIP standards... all beautifully performed and packaged). Zig Zag has released two marvelous Zelenka recordings that immediately enthralled me: