Why has nobody heard of the miraculous Czech composer Zelenka?

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

When I was in my late twenties I discovered the joy of drinking alone. Well, perhaps ‘joy’ is putting it too strongly. I’d been thrown out of the flat I shared with one of my closest friends from university after a series of drunken rows about his social-climbing girlfriend. I was living in a converted gardener’s cottage in west London. It was painted pink, for some reason (‘a pink cottage — just right for you,’ harrumphed my ex-flatmate), and furnished so miserably that it didn’t seem worth the effort to throw out the empty wine bottles or bother with ashtrays.

Now I could binge-drink and, just as important, binge-listen. The late Beethoven quartets, in virtuosic but slightly unhinged performances by the Lindsays, suited my mood. But when I was really pissed, and had finished drunk-dialling my delighted friends, I invariably turned to the same disc, on unofficial permanent loan from Kensington and Chelsea Library. (Can you imagine borrowing a CD from the library today? I shouldn’t think it stocks them any more. No point in returning it, then.)

It was a Mass by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745), a Czech composer at the court of Dresden, whose ruler, August, Elector of Saxony, had converted to Catholicism in order to become King of Poland. This was a very odd arrangement, requiring a Catholic royal chapel in the middle of a staunchly Lutheran city. August, feeling insecure, married his son to the Archduchess Maria Josepha of Austria. She wanted to hear the frills and furbelows of southern European Catholicism in the chapel — and Zelenka, who’d studied with the Jesuits in Prague, was happy to supply them.

In fact, Maria Josepha got more than she bargained for. Zelenka, an unmarried man and passionate Catholic, wrote music that was spiky with ornaments and amazingly hard-driven. The orchestral ritornello passages of his Masses and oratorios bounce across the stave, repeating themselves with an intensity bordering on mania; choir and string players alike are required to toss off terrifying scales and trills previously reserved for soloists. When I first heard the Gloria of the Missa Dei Filii — the disc I’d ‘borrowed’ — I was bewildered. Zelenka makes his choir swoop down from the heights in a breakneck syncopated scale — again and again and again. When I was drunk I played ‘the swoop’ addictively; even now, nearly 20 years after I gave up the sauce, a single hearing is never enough.

Was he, perhaps, plastered when he wrote it? The Missa Dei Filii is one of a number of huge Mass settings he wrote when he retired into seclusion. They may never have received a performance. Today, despite a small-scale rediscovery of Zelenka, there are no more than two or three recordings of each of them, and many sacred and chamber works remain unrecorded. Which is scandalous. In his final years, the composer developed a breathtakingly radical language. His fugue subjects, with their strangely angled intervals, are worked out with a contrapuntal mastery second only to Bach’s — but Zelenka never sounds like anyone but himself. He belongs to a band of mavericks in musical history whose experiments with harmony seem to catapult them into another generation: one thinks of William Lawes, a composer from the court of Charles I whose distilled dissonances still shock the ear; the violent chromaticism of Gesualdo; maybe Charles Ives.

I was glad to discover, rooting about the internet, that Zelenka has a small but fanatical fan club. On there’s a thread where users are asked for their favourite Zelenka track. Andrew Hinds from East Sussex suggests the final movement of I Penitente al Supulchro del Redentore, a Good Friday oratorio. ‘The sincerity of our great man, Zelenka, shines through in this wonderful music and, by reflection, it is possible to believe what he believed,’ he writes. ‘Our great man’, ‘our dear master’ — there’s something protective in the way Zelenkans talk about the composer, whose misery in life distresses them almost as much as his posthumous neglect.

‘Scott from Brooklyn’ nominates the last two tracks of the Credo of the Missa Dei Patris, from Et resurrexit on. (There’s a recording by Frieder Bernius and the Stuttgart Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir — snap it up.) He describes the skill with which Zelenka inserts plainchant into a bustling ritornello which interrupts a double fugue. ‘Then the fugue and the ritornello alternate at shorter and shorter intervals, almost as if in a contest or a race, leading to an exhilarating close. Hard to decide which won.’ After reading this I went back to the CD: ‘exhilarating’ is putting it mildly. ‘Why do so few people seem to appreciate this miraculous music?’ asks Scott, adding a sad-faced emoticon :(. I don’t know the answer — but, please, can we do something about it?

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  • alexwent

    Damian, I have. Please call in to see me in Prague and I will feed your new musical passion with an evening or two of many recordings of JDZ. However, you must supply the Chateau Barreyres because it’s so expensive in the Prague Tesco. Contact details on request.

  • The_greyhound

    I bought and still have a disc of Zelenka’s Missa Dei Filii and the Litaniae Lauretanae conducted by Bernius. Love it still. If I were a heretic I’d say it represented an exuberant liberation from the grinding logicality of Bach’s liturgical music.

    And if you like Zelenka you might also respond to Alessandro Stradella. Start with Minkowski’s recording of the (decidedly un-Handelian) oratorio, San Giovanni Battista.

  • Baron

    There are others from the Bohemian musical stock of the 18th century – Vranicky, Myslivecek, Ryba, Stamic, the Bendas. Try Baron’s favorite Vranicky, his sextets, cello concertos, symphonies, some of it as good as anything that’s in vogue today from the heavyweights. And his trios? Pure delight.

    • alexwent

      And F.I.A. Tuma. The Stabat Mater is astonishing, and contains some deliciously Zelenka-esque modulations.

    • Tom Vit

      All of the Bohemian composers you mention are, of course, post-baroque. Remember that C.W. Gluck and Biber were Bohemians too, and then there’s Vejvanovsky (roughly contemporary with Biber), who stayed in Bohemia running his alehouse while composing concerti grossi which sound very much like Corelli’s Op. 6. Ryba isn’t that great a composer – his style is too provincial and unsophisticated. And then there’s Franz Xaver Richter too, not to forget other later Bohemian composers like Hummel and Mahler and my ancestor (bragging rights! =D ) Frantisek Drdla (who was actually quite famous in his day as a pop Viennese composer and violinist). Btw. There were actually two Vranickys, Pavel and Antonin, both composers, though they were only half-brothers. Two personal favorites of mine not mentioned hitherto are the Rejcha brothers, Josef being Beethoven’s first teacher in Bonn and then the more famous Anton being Berlioz’s teacher at the Paris Conservatoire.

  • The King’s Consort

    You could also have a listen to the Zelenka disc that forms part of The King’s Consort’s “Bach’s Contemporaries” series on the British Hyperion label. CDA67350, with Carolyn Sampson, Rebecca Outram, Robin Blaze, James Gilchrist and more: the Litaniae de Venerabili Sacramento, a delicious Regina coeli laetare for three upper voices, a setting of the Salve Regina, and from the “Invitatorium Defunctorum” the Lectiones and the particularly striking Invitatorium. Glorious music indeed!

  • Mary Matz

    And if you want to learn more about Czech classical music (and opera and ballet), you might like Opus Osm, the free, online magazine published from Prague, in English, at

  • Mr Grumpy

    I must admit to enjoying the music of the man who kept Zelenka out of the top job at Dresden, Johann David Heinichen. I have 8 or so CDs by him, possibly a world record. Yes, of course Zelenka should have got the job, but Heinichen’s worth a listen.

    • Tom Vit

      Heinichen’s music is great! I love the Kollners’ recording of his complete orchestral works. Zelenka actually “had” Heinichen’s job for some years prior to his death, as his health declined and Zelenka took on more and more of his work, then taking over his responsibilities entirely between 1729 and 1733. Considering that Zelenka chose his own middle name, Dismas, himself, he was probably too pious and grouchy to have the sophisticated court manners and intrigue skills needed to succeed in the job.

  • Tom Vit

    I knew Camillo Schoenbaum, who was the editor of the first modern Czech edition of Zelenka’s instrumental works, hence I’ve “known” about Zelenka for decades and have eagerly snapped up every decent recording made of his music. There are actually quite a few recordings of his music available these days, the most recent made by the Czech baroque ensemble Collegium 1704. One of the reasons why Zelenka’s music sounds so idiosyncratic is due to the fact that along with Hasse, he was the first German composer to introduce the Neapolitan style in Germany. Zelenka most likely went on a visit to Italy in 1715, where he could have picked up the nascent style of Naples, and regardless, the Dresden court where he worked was well-supplied with scores by Italian composers, including Vivaldi. Zelenka’s descent into a very high-Neapolitan style in his later works most likely reflects the fact that Hasse got the job of Kapellmeister in 1733, for which Zelenka had applied, after Heinichen’s death in 1729. At age 34, Hasse had already enjoyed a long run of successes in Naples, and he was invited to Dresden to write operas in the most modern and fashionable style. Since Zelenka was given the consolation prize of becoming the head church composer in 1735, he no doubt reflected the tastes of his patrons in his church music, since opera reigned supreme in Dresden at the time. Zelenka definitely took the Neapolitan style and filtered it through his own genius and the counterpoint tradition of North Germany instead of sticking to the more simple and chorus-free operatic style of Hasse. Zelenka wasn’t friends with Bach for nothing, with Bach copying and performing Zelenka’s works, and Zelenka most likely being inspired to start his Missae ultimate on a large scale only found in Bach’s B Minor Mass, which Bach presented to Augustus III in Dresden to obtain the title “Electoral Saxon Court Composer” in the fateful year 1733. The combination of typically Neapolitan faux plainchant, trommelbass, triplets and Neapolitan snap rhythms with strict North German counterpoint makes Zelenka’s style unique. Many of the stylistic traits that Zelenka uses are paralleled in the church music of Durante, Porpora and other Italian Neapolitan composers of the 1730s-40s, though their music was written in an almost exclusively homophonic style which lacks the profoundness of Zelenka’s compositions.

  • MR

    I am surprised no-one has mentioned his settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. There is a good recording by Rene Jacobs that I listen to again and again.

  • Hamish Redux

    Well I got to know Zelenka, mainly masses, after a blog post about him on the Telegraph. I think the author’s name was Thompson, and I’ve often wondered what happened to him.

  • A belated thanks for this. I’m just getting to appreciate Zelenka, and this article popped up on a search.

    The Missa Dei Filii is on YouTube in a rendition by the Freiburger Barockorchester & Collegium Vocale Ghent —