Jan Dismas Zelenka
The Zelenka memorial in the Old Catholic Cemetery, Dresden.
Jan Dismas Zelenka
Magnificat in D (ZWV 108, 1725)
“He belongs to a band of mavericks in musical history whose experiments with harmony seem to catapult them into another generation”
— Damian Thompson
Classical music columnist
Although his work was known and admired by contemporaries, little is known about Zelenka himself. There is no verified portrait of him, he never married, had no children, and much of his music fell into obscurity, a bit of it lost in the destruction of Dresden during the Second World War. In the last decades of the 20th century, however, scholars and performers rediscovered Zelenka’s “compositional output, both instrumental and sacred, that [puts] a fresh face on Baroque music,” according to baroquemusic.org.
He likely received early musical training from his father, an organist, and received further education at the Prague Jesuit College. In 1710, when he was 30, Zelenka moved to Dresden, where he would live for the rest of his life. He was appointed Court Composer of Church Music, was a bassist in the Royal Orchestra, and composed music for both sacred and secular performance. Circumstances led the royal court at Dresden to have two sacred faces: Lutheran, with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Catholic, with the music of Zelenka.
Zelenka was once a guest at Bach’s home in Leipzig. Bach was a great admirer of Zelenka’s music and dispatched his son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach to copy out the “Amen” from Zelenka’s Magnificat in D (ZWV 108), which is being performed in these concerts. Bach performed the work at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.
At the invitation of the Jesuits in 1723, Zelenka composed and conducted festive music for the coronation of Charles VI in Prague before an audience that included rulers and nobility from surrounding territories — possibly the high point of Zelenka’s career.
Zelenka was also an enthusiastic collector of music, gathering a library and cataloging works that included manuscripts or copies from Antonio Vivaldi, Antonio Lotti and other luminaries. Bach acquired a copy of Lotti’s mass from Zelenka’s library, and it is likely that G.F. Handel’s copy came through Zelenka as well.
Zelenka’s own music is highly inventive, fresh, virtuosic, and often difficult to perform. Music historians have detected a strong influence of Czech folk music in many of Zelenka’s compositions, a trait that continued through Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček and others.
Magnificat anima mea Dominum; et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo, quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen ejus, Et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum. Fecit potentiam brachio suo; dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles. Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit inanes. Suscepit Israel, puerum suum, recordatus misericordiae suae, Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros, Abraham et semeni ejus in saecula.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto, sicut erat in principio, Et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations. He hath shown strength with his arm. He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away. He, remembering his mercy, hath helped his servant Israel as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.