Jan Dismas Zelenka,  baroque composer:
born Lounovice 1679, died Dresden 1745.




Q. Why did Zelenka's music disappear into obscurity for 200 years?

A. This is discussed at length in Janice Stockigt's book. After Zelenka's death, much of his music was "kept under lock and key" by the Dresden court, and the reasons for this are not clear. Telemann (1681-1767) is known to have written of ZWV 55 (Responsoria) being guarded jealously "as something very rare" (a more complete translation is given below). Copies of certain works (which had presumably been given away while Zelenka was alive) were made after his death and ended up in different parts of Germany and Czechoslovakia. There were even a few performances in the 1800s. Perhaps one of the strongest reasons for the obscurity of Zelenka's music was that Catholic liturgical music had no place in a Lutheran society.

Q. What did J.S. Bach think of Zelenka's music?

A. We know from a letter sent from Bach's son (C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788)) to J.N. Forkel dated 13th January 1775 (30 years after Zelenka's death), that J.S. Bach held the music of Zelenka (and of nine others) in high esteem. It is also stated that he had known Zelenka personally.

Q. How many composers of his time did Zelenka actually meet?

A. Perhaps it is more appropriate to ask which composers he didn't meet! Between 1716 and 1719, he studied under J.J. Fux (1660-1741) in Vienna and had J.J. Quantz (1697-1773) as his student. Zelenka would also have met A. Caldara (1671-1736) and F.B. Conti (c.1681-1732) in Vienna. He worked alongside J.D. Heinichen (1683-1729) in Dresden, (the Kapellmeister whom Zelenka stood in for when his health was failing). Zelenka was friendly with J.G. Pisendel (1687-1755), who was a highly esteemed violinist in the same orchestra. It is not clear whether Zelenka ever visited Italy, but his close colleague Pisendel certainly studied under A. Vivaldi (1678-1741). Zelenka returned from Vienna in February 1719, and was presumably in Dresden to meet G.F. Händel (1685-1759) and G.P. Telemann (1681-1767) in the same year, when there was a month-long festival to celebrate the marriage of August, successor to the throne, to the Hapsburg emperor's daughter Maria Josepha. The Venetian A. Lotti (1667-1740), having spent 2 years with his Italian opera group in Dresden, was also present at the festival. G.A. Ristori (1692-1753), much of whose music is still missing from Dresden, worked alongside Zelenka as Court organist and composer for many years. J.G. Harrer (1703-1755), J.S. Bach's successor in Leipzig, was a composition student of Zelenka in Dresden.

Zelenka must also have known all the choristers and musicians who passed through the Catholic Court Church of Dresden, including one of his own successors, the former Kapellknabe and church composer J.G. Schürer (c.1720-1786). He must also have met J.F. Fasch (1688-1758), who spent some months in Dresden from late 1726. Zelenka worked alongside J.A. Hasse (1699-1783) during the 1730s, a man 20 years his junior who had direct experience of Italian opera and who influenced Zelenka's style during that period. J.S. Bach (1685-1750) was almost certainly a regular visitor to Dresden during the 1730s, as his son (W.F. Bach (1710-1784)) was organist at St. Sophia's Church ("Sophienkirche").

Q. Did anyone try to publish Zelenka's works after his death?

A. Johann Georg Pisendel copied Zelenka's 27 Responsoria pro hebdomada sancta (ZWV 55) and tried to convince Telemann to publish them in 1749. Telemann never got around to this, or failed to do it for some other reason, but wrote on the copy "Because of its particular effort, this work deserves an admirer who can afford at least 100 thalers to have it in his possession. Of it, there are only three or four single pieces known [...]. The complete manuscript, however, is locked up at the Dresden court as something very rare, from which a good friend of the late composer [Pisendel] made this immaculate copy."

Q. It has been written that Zelenka was dissatisfied and subject to melancholy. Is this true, and did it influence his music?

A. There are no personal letters that might have given us a clue as to his true personality, so we are largely in the dark concerning Zelenka's true nature as a person. The obsequious petitions to his employer may give this impression, but they may only have been the result of sheer financial frustration.

Significantly, in recent years it has emerged that Zelenka was held in high esteem by his employer(s) and by his closest colleagues, as also seen from Kittel's poem (see Start page). Zelenka's younger colleague (by 20 years) J.A. Hasse (1699-1783), who was favoured with the title of "Kappelmeister" and whose influence in Dresden regarding Italian opera affected Zelenka's output a significant amount in the final phase of his life, appears to have directed music by Zelenka on at least one occasion, so they may well have been mutual admirers.

Q. Did Zelenka ever marry or have children?

A. No. Apart from that, we know almost nothing about his private life. There is some evidence that he painted pictures in his spare time, so his artistic talents may have gone beyond writing music.

Q. Is there a memorial to Zelenka in Dresden?

A. There is a plaque, which was unveiled in 1995 (see opposite). This is fixed to the rear wall of Kempinski Hotel (which stands on the site of Taschenbergpalais), only one block south of the court buildings. In English, it reads "To the memory of Jan Dismas Zelenka 1679-1745. Royal court musician and church composer. His last dwelling house was in Kleinebrüdergasse."

Q. Where was Zelenka buried?

A. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery which is located about 1.2 km west of the Court buildings. There was no trace left of Zelenka's grave even in the early 20th century, but there is now a modern stone in the graveyard to commemorate his life. The grave of Carl Maria von Weber (died 1826) can be found at the far end of the cemetery.

Q. Did Zelenka ever write music for the keyboard?

A. Not as far as we know. Zelenka was primarily a violone player ("contrabassist"). He kept an inventory (Inventarium) of his own church music compositions and those of others that were available as scores in Dresden, but these do not list any of his instrumental compositions. There does not appear to have been a strong tradition of composing music for the keyboard in Dresden. Zelenka's working life before he left Prague for Dresden (at about thirty years of age) is largely unknown. It is not impossible that he composed music for the cembalo (or organ) during that period.

Q. Where did Zelenka spend his early years (before 1710)?

A. After his early music education (presumably from his father in Lounovice), Zelenka probably matured as a musician in Prague. We know that he had strong associations with the Jesuits in Prague, but whether he studied at the Klementinum or some other Jesuit institution is not known with any certainty. He composed 3 Sepulchrum oratorios for this institution (ZWV 58 - ZWV 60) and one Latin melodrama (ZWV 175). His first known work (now lost apart from the libretto) was music for a Latin school drama ("Via Lauratea"; ZWV 245). This was performed in 1704 at the Jesuit College of St. Mikulas, with which he must also have had some association.

Pen-and-ink drawing of the Klementinum in Prague, by F.B. Werner (from before 1750). The whole complex, covering over 2 hectares, was finished in 1726. The magnificent baroque library takes pride of place close to the astronomical tower from the 1720s (the one farthest back in the drawing). The Jesuits' most notable legacy was the Church of S. Salvatore (right), facing Charles Bridge.

Q. Is there a portrait of Zelenka?

A. No. No portrait has ever been found. There has been one hoax picture (see opposite), which is quite clearly a computer-modified image of Fux's well-known portrait above.

Q. Are any of Zelenka's works the subject of controversy?

A. Zelenka scholars seem to agree that Zelenka's Requiem in C minor (ZWV 45) may have been written by someone else, or at least "worked on" by someone else. This work is not mentioned in Zelenka's inventory and there was no autograph score in Dresden. The earliest dated material (from Strahov Monastery in the Czech Republic) states "Prag 1763". The work does not resemble Zelenka's final masses. According to one scholar, Zelenka's usual painstaking precision in the strict matching of vocal phrasing and music is not in evidence in the copies that have survived.

Interestingly, the Requiem in C minor appears to consist partly of another composition (Dies Irae solenne, also in C minor). This was not originally considered to be an integral part of the Requiem, although the two had presumably been used at the monastery to complement each other. The latter was written for a group of instruments to include violas, whereas there are no violas specified in the Requiem. The galant style is quite evident in Tuba mirum. The first section of Dies Irae solenne, the Dies Irae (with chorus), is not characteristic of J.D. Zelenka.

Q. Which earlier composers influenced Zelenka's work?

A. There are many composers listed in Zelenka's Inventarium of 1726-1739. The music of Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) certainly influenced Zelenka, as he adapted some of Frescobaldi's works for his own use. The long list from the Inventarium includes Giuseppe Antonio Vicenzo Aldrovandini (1672/3-1707), Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), Attilio Ariosti (1666-1729), Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672), Domenico Gabrielli (1651-1690), Cristóbal Morales (c. 1500-1553), Luca Marenzio (1553-1599), Costanzo Porta (1528/9-1601) and Johann Rosenmüller (c. 1619-1684).

Zelenka's late works show characteristics of the musical style used for Italian sacred music, especially the music of the Neapolitans Domenico Sarri (1679-1744) and Francesco Nicola Fago (1677-1745), as well as a younger generation of composers from Naples: Francesco Feo (1691-1761) and Leonardo Leo (1694-1744).

Q. Where are, and also where were Zelenka's autograph manuscripts stored?

A. Since 2002, they have been stored in the new premises of the Sächsische Landsbibliothek - Staats und Universitetsbibliothek (the Saxon State and University Library, Dresden). Between 1945 and 2002, they were stored in the previous State Library building at Marienalle 12 (north of the river). Between c.1896 and 1945 they were located in the (originally) Royal Library, later the Saxon State Library in the Japanese Palace, situated on the north bank of the Elbe. Between 1765 and c.1896, they were stored in the "new" Catholic cathedral (Hofkirche) from 1752 on the south bank of the Elbe, close to the Court buildings. Before 1765, Zelenka's manuscripts were kept in the palace itself - in a "Schrank" with his name in the rooms of Maria Josepha, wife of Augustus II.

Q. Were any of Zelenka's autograph manuscripts lost during World War II?

A. Music scores and other material from the Saxon State Library (including Zelenka's manuscripts) were kept in steel containers in the basement of the Japanese Palace. These containers had been thought to be fire-proof and waterproof. Around the time of the two waves of fire bomb attacks on 13-14 February and 1 March 1945, ground water flowed into the basement and caused damage, some of which is irreversible. Thanks to restorers and the quality of the paper and ink used in Dresden early in the eighteenth century, much of the material has been saved. The manuscripts of some other composers are missing, though: those of Zelenka's colleague G.A. Ristori, for example.

This section is intended to be as objective and accurate as possible. Any opinions inadvertently expressed or implied are those of the author.

As this is meant to be entertaining as well as informative, no source references are given. See Further reading" for more information.

Do you have any questions to add to the list?  Do you disagree with anything written here?

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J.J. Fux (1660-1741), Zelenka's teacher in Vienna.

J.G. Pisendel (1687-1755).

The plaque in Dresden commemorating Zelenka's life.

The title page of Zelenka's inventory, which he kept between 1726 and 1739.

The baroque library of the Klementinum (from 1720s).

A modified image of Fux said to represent Zelenka.

"Sophienkirche" where W.F. Bach was organist. The Taschenberg Palace can be seen in the distance, on the street where Zelenka last lived (right). The church was renovated with 2 towers during the 1860s, was badly damaged in 1945, and was then demolished. (SLUB/Deutsche Fotothek: "Sophienkirche vor der Grossen Brüdergasse" 1852 by C.G. Hammer (1779-1864)).