Friday, October 16, 2009

Johann Dismas Zelenka

Johann Dismas Zelenka (later on Jan Dismas Zelenka) was an illustrious Czech violinist, bassist, and baroque composer born on October 16, 1679 (Vivaldi was a one-year-old child.) It is thought that he studied at the Prague Jesuit College in his youth. His father was a teacher and an organist. In 1710 – at age 31 – he was appointed principal bass of the Dresden court orchestra. For a composer, the bass is an unusual instrument to take up, but that is that. In 1717, he traveled to Vienna for further study and was a student of Fux. On circumstantial evidence, it is assumed that he also went to Venice and studied with Antonio Lotti (1667-1740) during this period. He returned to Dresden in 1719 to reside and work there permanently. In 1723, he was commissioned to write some of the music for the coronation of Charles VI, which he also conducted. Twelve years later (1735), he was awarded the title of Church Composer (for the Catholic Church) - he had already been working with the title of Court Composer. Although he had served several seasons as de-facto Kapellmeister, he was not granted that title when he applied for it (in 1729 or thereabouts). Evidently, though Zelenka was zealous about his work and very devoted to the court, there was something about him that rubbed his employer the wrong way. However, his music was greatly admired by J.S. Bach and George Telemann so we have little need of other stamps of approval. (He was only six years older than Bach) Though he remained obscure for two hundred years – after his death, performances and publication of his music were banned by order of the court - his music was re-discovered about the middle of the 19th Century. Now, about half of his known output has been recorded. Most of his music was written for the Church – more than 150 works, large and small - but there remains an abundance of secular music from his pen as well. Zelenka’s imagination was so original that his style has been described as “experimental baroque.” There is always something there to surprise and delight the listener - I would say something not unlike a Czech Vivaldi (1678-1741). Zelenka died in 1745.

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