Jan Dismas Zelenka, also known as Johann Dismas Zelenka (16 October 1679 - 23 December 1745), was a Czech Baroque composer. Zelenka played the violone, the largest and lowest member of the viol family, analogous to the double bass in the violin family of stringed instruments.
Zelenka was born in Lounovice pod Blanikem, a small market town southeast of Prague in what was then Bohemia. His father was a schoolmaster and organist there; nothing more is known with certainty about Zelenka's early years. He probably received musical training in the center of Prague at a Jesuit college named the Clementinum.
It is known that Zelenka served Baron Hartig, the imperial governor resident in Prague, before becoming a violone player in the royal orchestra at Dresden about 1710. He studied counterpoint in Vienna under Johann Fux from 1715 and was back in Dresden by 1719. Except for a visit in 1723 to Prague to take part in the performance of Fux's opera Constanza e Fortezza, he remained a resident of Dresden until his death. Whether or not he ever went to Venice is unclear, but there is some indirect documentary evidence to that effect from the Vienna years.
In Dresden, Zelenka initially assisted the Kapellmeister, Johann David Heinichen, and gradually assumed Heinichen's duties as the latter's health declined. After Heinichen died in 1729, Zelenka applied for the prestigious post of Kapellmeister; the post went instead to Johann Adolf Hasse. In 1735, Zelenka was given the title of church music composer. He was in good company, as J.S. Bach had also applied for this title and shared it with Zelenka. Zelenka died in Dresden in 1745, having written works in his final years that were never performed during his lifetime, some of which have been claimed by current Zelenka musicologist Kohlhase to have "visionary power."
There is no known portrait of Zelenka. (A mirror-image black-and-white takeoff of the well-known portrait of Fux has been passed off as a picture of Zelenka on several respected websites.)
Most of Zelenka's compositions were sacred works, including three oratorios, 21 masses, and numerous other pieces of music. Zelenka's orchestral and vocal pieces are often virtuosic and difficult to perform. In particular, his writing for bass instruments is far more demanding than that of other composers of his era, notably the "utopian" (as Heinz Holliger describes them) demands of the oboe scores in his trio sonatas.
It is no secret that J.S. Bach held Zelenka in high esteem, as witnessed by a letter from Bach's son C.P.E. Bach to J.N. Forkel, of 13 January 1775, perhaps accounting for Bach's own striving to produce a full-length Catholic mass (the B minor/H-moll mass) in his final years.
It was mistakenly assumed that many of Zelenka's autograph scores were destroyed during the fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945. However, the scores were not in the Catholic cathedral, but were in a library north of the river. Some are certainly missing, but this probably happened gradually - and these represent only a small proportion of his extant works.
The "Zelenka movement," which started in the 1960s, is gaining momentum, as witnessed by a number of recent live performances of his works in far-flung parts of Europe such as Copenhagen and Glasgow. One must consider that the now-lionized Bach only attained his current esteem in the twentieth century, thanks to the efforts of 19th-century composers, including Mendelssohn and Mahler; Jan Dismas Zelenka appears to be another "sleeping giant" of the Baroque era.
More than half of Zelenka's works have now been recorded, mostly in the Czech Republic and Germany, and it is only a matter of time before all 21 masses will have been recorded. The Missa Purificationis (ZWV 16) is the latest to appear (on Nibiru Records; see below). Some would say that this mass reflects Zelenka at his peak, as at the time (1733) he was very much in the limelight at the Dresden court. (This is the last mass to include brass instruments). Others would say that Zelenka's compositional peak corresponds to his final masses from 1739-1744 (ZWV 19-21).