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Jan Dismas Zelenka

Category: Musician

Learn more about Jan Dismas Zelenka

The Czech Baroque composer and musician Jan Dismas Zelenka (October 16, 1679 – December 23, 1745) was baptized as Jan Lukas Zelenka. He is also known as Johann Dismas Zelenka or Johannes Lucas Ignatius Dismas Zelenka, and his music is appreciated for its unique and original harmonies.

Zelenka was the first of eight children born to Marie Magdalena and Jiri Zelenka. His first music teacher was his father, a schoolmaster and organist in the town of Lounovice pod Blanikem, a small town southeast of Prague and the home of the Zelenka family. Further details of Jan’s early life are largely unknown. What is known is that he received musical training at the Clementinum, a Jesuit college in Prague, where he played the violone (bass viol).

In 1709, Zelenka served Baron Johann Hubert von Hartig, a prominent music connoisseur and virtuoso musician, in Prague. In 1710/11, he entered the service of the Dresden Hofkapelle (court orchestra) as a double bass player, perhaps on von Hartig’s recommendation. His first major work in Dresden was a mass, the “Missa Sanctae Caeciliae” (c. 1711). His work impressed his patrons sufficiently that, within months, he was among the most highly paid musicians in the Hofkapelle.

After about five years in Dresden, Zelenka relocated to Vienna, where he continued his musical education under the Habsburg Imperial Kapellmeister Johann Joseph Fux. He returned to Dresden in 1719, where he remained until his death, except for a year-long stay in Prague. This year in Prague, from 1722-23, marked the high point of his career: he conducted the premiere of one of his major secular works, Sub olea pacis et palma virtutis conspicua orbi regia Bohemiae Corona (a melodrama about St. Wenceslas), in the presence of Emperor Charles VI, who had just been crowned king of Bohemia.

In 1729, the kapellmeister of the Dresden court, Johann David Heinichen, died, and Zelenka assumed his position in an unofficial capacity, a role he filled until 1734. From 1734 onward he held jointly with his student Tobias Buz the newly-created position of church composer. In November 1736, Johann Sebastian Bach received a titular position in this same court. As evidenced by a 1775 letter from Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel to the Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, the elder Bach knew and respected Zelenka.

In addition to working as a composer, Zelenka was a teacher throughout his life. Prominent students included Johann Joachim Quantz, the court flautist and flute teacher of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and J. G. Roellig.

After falling into obscurity, Zelenka’s work enjoyed a revival, thanks in large part to the efforts of Bedrich Smetana, who introduced one of the composer’s orchestral suites in Prague’s New Town Theatre festivals in 1863, and who rewrote some scores from the archives in Dresden. Interest in Zelenka’s oeuvre continued into the twentieth century. The Czech conductor Milan Munclinger and his ensemble Ars Rediviva performed Zelenka’s work on multiple occasions: three trio sonatas between 1958 and 1960, the Sinfonia concertante in 1963, and the “Lamentationes Jeremiae prophetae” in 1969. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, all of Zelenka’s instrumental compositions and selected liturgical music had been published in Czechoslovakia. More than half of Zelenka’s works have now been recorded, mostly in the Czech Republic and Germany. Such recordings include both masses and secular works, performed chiefly by new Czech ensembles using original instruments and interpretational techniques of the Baroque era. Key pieces include Capella Regia Musicalis, Collegium 1704, Ensemble Inegal, and Musica Florea.

The Autumn Music Festival under Blanik (Podblanicky hudebni podzim in Czech) was founded in Zelenka’s honor in 1984, when a memorial plaque was added to his house. Since then, regular performances of Zelenka’s music have taken place in and near his hometown of Lounovice pod Blanikem.

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