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Jan Dismas Zelenka
born Lounovice 1679, died Dresden 1745

Jan Dismas Zelenka, also known as Johann Dismas Zelenka, sometimes Johannes Lucas Ignatius Dismas Zelenka, was a Czech composer and musician of the Baroque period. His music is admired for its harmonic inventiveness and counterpoint. If you are interested in baroque music, but haven't yet explored the music of Jan Dismas Zelenka, this concert is for you!

Jan Dismas ZELENKA – Biographical Summary


Considering how much Bach and Telemann admired their contemporary friend and composer, it seems strange that Zelenka’s prodigious works fell into obscurity soon after his death in 1745. It is only during the past few decades that Zelenka’s place in musical history is, at last, beginning to be recognised universally.


Jan Dismas Zelenka was born in October 1679 into a musical family in Lounovice, a small town in central Bohemia, near to Prague. He received his early musical education from his father who was the local kantor and organist. It is believed that Zelenka then moved to Prague to study at the Clementinum, a Jesuit College and University which had a flourishing musical reputation. Here he produced his earliest major compositions in the form of “Sepulchrum Oratorios” and other sacred works.


1n 1710 Zelenka’s creative spark was ignited by his appointment as a double bass player to the Dresden Hofkapelle (court orchestra) serving the Elector, Friedrich Augustus King of Poland, who had converted to Catholicism in order to serve his political ambitions. The Elector appointed many Jesuit musicians from the Jesuit Province of Bohemia which included some brilliant instrumentalists and composers who would become famous in their own right – Benda, Pisendel, Heinichen.


The favourable conditions for music making at Dresden gave added impetus to Zelenka’s creativity and soon masses of Masses and other sacred pieces leapt from his pen albeit often in an almost indecipherable scrawl! Two years later, he had made quite an impression on the Elector Augustus II which encouraged Zelenka to petition him requesting leave of absence to study in Italy. It appears that his request was eventually granted and it is believed that he studied in Venice with Antonio Lotti. In all events, Zelenka absorbed the Italianate style to good effect in many of his own works.


Adrian Davis March 2019

Zelenka's music 


Most musicologists dealing with music of this period agree that the compositions of this long-forgotten musical giant approach or equal those of his contemporaries Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann in their advanced use of counterpoint, their extreme demands on the players and singers, their ingenuity and resourcefulness, and their overall beauty.


To those with pre-conceived ideas of how 18th century music should sound, much of Zelenka's music will seem timeless and unrestricted. Yet he was greatly inspired by the Italian masters of the 1500s and 1600s such as Palestrina and Frescobaldi. As a result of his strong individuality within the baroque tradition, Zelenka's music holds many surprises.


Zelenka wrote instrumental music (including orchestral suites and chamber sonatas), a great amount of church music of various kinds, and also religious music for the "stage". During Zelenka's final years, much of his music was inspired by Italian opera, which became fashionable in Dresden about fifteen years before he died.


No-one has yet heard all of his music, as some of it is unpublished. An ever-increasing proportion is being recorded.

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