Zelenka, Jan Dismas

Period: Baroque

Born: 1679

Died: 1745 in Dresden, Germany

Nation of Origin: Bohemia

Major Works:
Trio Sonatas for two oboes, bassoon, and basso continuo

Other Information:
Jan Dismas Zelenka was a bass player and composer in the Dresden Court orchestra. He was born in Bohemia in 1679 and died in Dresden in 1745. Among the distinctions that this composer has gained after his death, Forkel, in his biography of J.S. Bach, states that Bach admired Zelenka's music. The two were acquainted from visits by Bach to the Dresden Court. G.P. Telemann was another admirer of Zelenka's music. Zelenka's employer, Augustus the Strong, apparently did not share the views of these two composers. He appointed Hasse to the role of Court Kapellmeister over Zelenka.

Zelenka was educated by the Jesuits at Clementium near Prague. He dedicated some religious cantatas to his alma mater. Most of Zelenka's religious works were kept in manuscript and were lost during the latter days of World War II. Zelenka was also educated in Italy by Lotti and in Germany under J.J. Fux. Apparently he was a good pupil to judge from the caliber of his works.

Zelenka is famous for his secular works; his Capriccios and his Trio Sonatas for two Oboes, Bassoon, and basso continuo. These works have been recorded by many notable modern day Oboists, including Heinz Holliger. I first came into awareness of Zelenka through Holliger's interview in the early 1980s where he called Zelenka's works "Experimental Baroque". What intrigued me most was Holliger's admission that he would compose music the same way as Zelenka.

Douglas Boyd in the end notes to his recording of the Trio Sonatas quotes a letter from Zelenka to August the Strong The letter is a horrifying exercize in indignity. In this letter Zelenka grovels for enough money to both eat and to publish his works. Zelenka apparently loved his art deeply, at least enough to both shorten his own life and to sacrifice having a family. The marriage of such passion with a keen technical competence is apparent in these sonatas.

After Zelenka's death all performances and publication of his works were banned by order of the Court. He remained in obscurity for nearly two hundred years. To the best of my knowledge no portait of this composer exists. Fortunately for us his music still exists and is gaining deserved respect for this long dead composer.

Eugene Herron
Used by permission of the author.

Essay contributed by:
Eugene Herron

General Bibliography:
Bukofzer, Manfred F., Music in the Baroque Era, from Monteverdi to Bach, W.W. Norton & Company, November 1947, ISBN: 0393097455

Palisca, Claude V. Baroque Music, Prentice Hall, December 1990, ISBN: 0130584967

Slonimsky, Nicolas and Kuhn, Laura; Editors, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale Group, December 2000, ISBN: 0028655257

Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John; Editors, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Groves Dictionaries, Inc., January 2004, ISBN: 0195170679

Rutherford-Johnson, Tim, Kennedy, Michael, and Kennedy, Joyce The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 6th Edition, 2012, ISBN: 0199578109

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