Jan Dismas Zelenka

by M. Sparks

A contemporary of J.S. Bach, Jan Dismas Zelenka has been left in comparative obscurity. While Bach is indeed the ultimate master of beautiful and innovative baroque music, it is yet still important and enriching to know a wide scope of music from his time, and Zelenka’s music is not to be missed.

J.D. Zelenka was born in 1679 near Prague in what was then Bohemia. His father was a school teacher and organist in the town where Zelenka grew up, but relatively little is known about the formative years of this highly complex composer.

He is known mostly from his life in Dresden where he played violin in the royal orchestra from the year 1710. His studies were completed in Venice and Vienna during 1715 and 1716. He studied counterpoint in Vienna with Johann Joseph Fux. However, by the year 1719, he settled back in Dresden where he remained until his death in the year 1745.

He was assistant to the Kappellmeister, Joachim David Heinichen, and even assumed most of the duties of Kappellmeister as Heinichen’s health declined. Even so, when the position came available at Heinichen’s death in 1729, it was awarded not to him but to another called Johann Adolf Hasse.

 

The works of Zelenka are mostly sacred and often very demanding. Among his sacred works, he composed twelve masses, and he also was an avid composer of chamber music. It is noted that especially for low voiced instruments, Zelenka demanded quite a strong technique to be mastered by the performers.

 

Heinz Holliger, a Swiss oboist, composer and conductor, has mastered the music of Zelenka for oboe and states that the technical requirements of the instrument are “utopian.”