BACH AND ZELENKA:

LEGACIES OF TWO MUSICAL FRIENDS

By Sheila M. MacRae

Although J.S. Bach (Mar 31, 1685 - Jul 28, 1750) and Jan Dismas Zelenka (16 October 1679 – 23 December 1745), both great musicians, were near contemporaries, history has treated them rather differently. One similarity they share is that fame was bestowed on them only posthumously. In his lifetime, Bach was respected but as a composer and church cantor was not famous, partly because by the end of his life, contrapuntal music had fallen out of favour. However, Bach’s posthumous fame grew with the publication of Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s 1802 biography. The 1829 performance of the St Matthew Passion in Berlin organized by Mendelssohn, clearly focused the spotlight on Bach as a great German composer at a time when German nationalism was in the ascendant. The Bach Gesellschaft (Bach Society) founded in 1850 numbered and published all Bach’s works. When Philipp Spitta’s 1873 Bach biography was published, Bach was well known in musical circles. In the twentieth century, Bach gained prominence because of the interest in historically informed performance. The result has been a place in the musical canon not only of the cognoscenti but also of the general public.

J.S. Bach

Consequently, on a global scale, Bach is a household name, and the public celebrates his legacy with festivals and ensembles dedicated to the performance of his works, and events such as the multimedia Bach event The Spirit of Creation put on by Alison MacKay.

The evolution of Zelenka’s posthumous legacy was quite different Zelenka was not German, which may be an underlying reason why his fame came much so much later than Bach’s. Bach’s Saxony later became Germany, which was in the ascendancy in the 19th century and into whose cultural narrative Bach fit well. Zelenka’s Bohemia, later Czechoslovakia, did not have the same hegemony. Zelenka was born in Louňovice pod Blaníkem a small market town in Bohemia, near Prague. He served Baron Hartig, the imperial governor resident in Prague before becoming a player of the violone (the lowest instrument in the viol family) in the Dresden court orchestra in 1710. He studied music in Vienna and Venice in 1715 and 1716, returning to Dresden in 1719. Apart from rare trips, he remained in Dresden until the end of his life, first assisting Johann David Heinichen the Kapellmeister, then assumed Heinichen's duties as the latter’s health gradually failed. When Heinichen died in 1729, Zelenka applied for the prestigious post of Kapellmeister which however went to Johann Adolf Hasse. For this position Hasse and his prima donna wife Faustina Bordoni were earning a salary sixteen times that of JS Bach! In 1735, Zelenka was named a mere church music composer. He died in Dresden in 1745.

The evolution of Zelenka’s posthumous legacy was quite different Zelenka was not German, which may be an underlying reason why his fame came much so much later than Bach’s. Bach’s Saxony later became Germany, which was in the ascendancy in the 19th century and into whose cultural narrative Bach fit well. Zelenka’s Bohemia, later Czechoslovakia, did not have the same hegemony. Zelenka was born in Louňovice pod Blaníkem a small market town in Bohemia, near Prague. He served Baron Hartig, the imperial governor resident in Prague before becoming a player of the violone (the lowest instrument in the viol family) in the Dresden court orchestra in 1710. He studied music in Vienna and Venice in 1715 and 1716, returning to Dresden in 1719. Apart from rare trips, he remained in Dresden until the end of his life, first assisting Johann David Heinichen the Kapellmeister, then assumed Heinichen's duties as the latter’s health gradually failed. When Heinichen died in 1729, Zelenka applied for the prestigious post of Kapellmeister which however went to Johann Adolf Hasse. For this position Hasse and his prima donna wife Faustina Bordoni were earning a salary sixteen times that of JS Bach! In 1735, Zelenka was named a mere church music composer. He died in Dresden in 1745.

While Bach was a Protestant, Zelenka was a devout Catholic. Many, perhaps most, of his compositions were sacred works. In his legacy are the Magnificat in D, ZWV 108, at least three oratorios, 23 Masses, some missing, and a number of Mass movements. There are four Requiem settings, fifty- three psalm settings with some missing and numerous other sacred works.

Jan Dismas Zelenka

Zelenka's orchestral and vocal pieces are virtuosic and demanding. His writing for bass instruments is far more complex than is the case for other composers of his era. Heinz Holliger describes the "utopian" requirements on the oboe playing. The six trio sonatas are a good example of both these aspects of his composition. Zelenka's complete compositions are listed in the Wolfgang Reich’s thematic catalogue Jan Dismas Zelenka: Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke (ZWV) ("Systematic thematic catalogue of musical works"); in the Janice Stockigt monograph Jan Dismas Zelenka: A Bohemian Musician at the Court of Dresden, and in the digitized database of the Petrucci Music Library.

Bach and Zelenka knew each other well. This was perhaps most strongly predicated on their mutual interest in the Dresden Court. When he was travelling, Zelenka often stayed at Bach’s house. Numerous instances of cross-fertilization have been described. One account relates how Zelenka asked Wilhelm Friedeman, Bach’s son, to copy some of J. S. Bach’s music so he, Zelenka, could perform it. According to John Eliot Gardner, it was a relation that flowed in two directions, with Zelenka impressing Bach with his performances of large Neapolitan masses by Sarro and Mancini and his own works in similar style; and Bach returning the compliment in the way he styled his own work along Dresden lines. Bach played the Magnificat in D major ZWV 108 in Leipzig (1729-1735). In addition, Zelenka arranged A. Lotti’s Missa Sapientiae in g minor and Bach performed it in Leipzig between 1732 and 1735. Zelenka then reciprocated with his own tribute the Missa Sanctissima Trinitatis (1736) which owed great deal to Bach’s Kyrie I. 1

⦁ Gardner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, page 488.

Notwithstanding his contrapuntal creativity, interest in almost radical harmonies, and flights of inventiveness, it took Zelenka much longer to garner musical interest than it did Bach. Zelenka is not a household name in countries outside Czechoslovakia. It was Bedřich Smetana who apparently “rediscovered” Zelenka. He rewrote some scores from the Dresden archives and introduced one of the composer's orchestral suites in Prague's New Town Theatre festivals in 1863.

It was in the twentieth century that interest in Zelenka's music grew, especially since the end of the 1950s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s. all Zelenka's instrumental compositions and selected liturgical music were published in Czechoslovakia. The most important revival involved the presentation of selected compositions by Czech conductor Milan Munclinger and his ensemble Ars Rediviva, between 1958-1960 (three trio sonatas). Sinfonia concertante in 1963 and "Lamentationes Jeremiae prophetae" in 1969. The music of Zelenka is becoming more widely known through recordings by musicians such as Heinz Holliger and Reinhard Goebel.

More than half of Zelenka's works have now been recorded, mostly in the Czech Republic and Germany. recordings include the masses Missa Purificationis, Missa Sanctissimae trinitatis, Missa votiva, Missa Sancti Josephi, and his secular works "Sub olea pacis" and "Il Diamante", mostly performed by new Czech ensembles on original instruments. In honor of Jan Dismas Zelenka, in 1984 "The Autumn Music Festival under Blaník" (Podblanický hudební podzim in Czech) was founded and commemorated with the memorial plaque on his house. Since then, performances of Zelenka's music have regularly taken place in and around his birthplace.

In conclusion, one can adduce reasons why both composers, though not very famous during their life-times, were recognized so differently by posterity. One important factor was the accident of geography: Bach fit into the culture of Germany, which was in the ascendancy in the 19th century. Zelenka’s Bohemia, later Czechoslovakia, did not have the same hegemony. JS Bach’s family and especially CPE copied and compiled his works, the biographers Forkel, Spitta, and composer Mendelssohn nourished the evolving legacy. By the twentieth century Bach was a part of the Western musical canon.2 On the other hand, Zelenka’s ascendancy into the pantheon of great composers has been slower. He has been described as a musical maverick, with a very distinct innovative style. Recordings have so far been by music groups dedicated to historical performance, events associated with him are local and not global. Although at the present time his fame rests on a hard core of devotees rather than a mass following, it is conceivable that his legacy will grow much further in the future.


Discography:

Selected Bibliography:


Gardiner, John Eliot. Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. Allen Lane Books: Division of Penguin. London, 2013.

Randel, Don Michael. The Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge MA, and London, 1996.

Schweitzer, Albert. J.S. Bach. The MacMillan Company. New York. Reprinted 1952.

Wolff, Christopher. The World of the Bach Cantatas. W.W. Norton. New York and London, 1995.

*This article, which has been retitled and revised, was first published in the November 2018 CAMMAC Toronto Region Newsletter,