Jan dismas zelenka (1679–1745) was one of the greatest representatives of the Bohemian Baroque, although he spent most of his life at Dresden in Saxony. Czech music historians speak of an ‘emigration’ to describe the phenomenon which induced seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Bohemian composers and performers like Zelenka, time and again, to make their careers outside the Czech lands. Despite the influences of his contemporaries at Dresden, however, Zelenka’s music is very recognisably in the Catholic Austro-Bohemian tradition. It follows the Italian style as transmitted through Viennese composers such as Fux and Caldara, rather than through Protestant traditions, which were unfamiliar in Bohemia. This Italian ‘Catholic’ style achieved sudden and universal popularity in central Europe in the late seventeenth century. Church music was transformed, rather as the landscape was transformed through the ambitious building programme which placed exuberant Baroque churches in every town and village. However, Zelenka also transcends this local tradition: he is one of the most accomplished and attractive of all Baroque composers, although his work is even today too little known.
The son of a local organist at Lounovice in Bohemia, who probably provided him with the rudiments of his musical education, he was educated also at Prague and in 1709 held the office of regenschori (the official responsible for the choir, generally in a junior capacity) at the Jesuit college there. Unfortunately, no musical documentation of the Prague Jesuit college is known to survive, but it seems that Zelenka maintained links with it for many years thereafter. By 1710 he had been appointed to the Kapelle of the Elector of Saxony at Dresden, as a player of the violone, under its Kapellmeister, J D Heinichen. Although he travelled subsequently to Vienna and to Italy, Zelenka spent most of his working life at the Dresden court as a violone player, and also as a composer of Catholic church music.
A comparison of his work with that of J S Bach is an obvious one to make, despite the different religious traditions which shaped their music. Both men composed music which came to seem distinctly old-fashioned by the 1730s, with its valuing of counterpoint, fugal technique and careful craftsmanship, besides its typical northern delight in sonorous colour (exemplified in the use of a variety of obbligato wind instruments and in complex chromatic harmony). Zelenka’s interest in the ‘old masters’, very comparable with that of Bach, is illustrated by his large collection of works by Palestrina and others, which is still at Dresden. Moreover, there were direct links between the two. Bach is known to have admired Zelenka’s music and to have procured copies of some of it when in Leipzig. (Even in the nineteenth century, the affinity remained obvious: the revival of Zelenka’s music, both in Bohemia and elsewhere, went hand in hand with the Bach revival.) Many of the contemporary anecdotes about Zelenka bear witness to the perception of his music in Germany as old-fashioned, and, as with Bach, this did not always help him gain advancement; he was unable to secure promotion at Dresden after Heinichen’s death in 1729, despite repeated appeals to the Elector.
The Lamentations (preserved in manuscript in Dresden, and dated 1722) were no doubt intended as liturgical pieces for the electoral chapel. Although not many polyphonic settings of the traditional Lamentations texts (extracts from the biblical book of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, used as lessons at Matins in Holy Week) survive from central Europe at this period, Heinichen also set them for Dresden, and indeed some were even published for use by parish church choirs; so the tradition is not unique. Zelenka’s setting includes the first two Lamentations from Matins of Maundy Thursday, the first two from Matins of Good Friday, and the first two from Easter Eve. These are two of the first three lessons read at the services, which were traditionally set to music; lessons 4 to 9, from St Augustine and from the New Testament Epistles, were read. Each of these services was celebrated as ‘Tenebrae’ the previous evening, a circumstance which leads to Zelenka’s confusing nomenclature as Lamentations ‘for Wednesday’, ‘for Thursday’ and ‘for Friday’. Whether the missing third Lamentation for each day was sung to plainsong, or whether some other music replaced it, is unknown; the possibility that further settings have simply been lost would seem rather less likely.
The Lamentations are structurally unlike most other concerted music of the time, in that the usual recitative/aria alternation is abandoned in favour of a more fluid alternation of short passages of arioso and recitative. This structure is paralleled by that of the texts. Since the Middle Ages it had been traditional in the chant prescribed for these texts to sing the Hebrew letters introducing each short subdivision to a melisma, and for the texts of the lessons themselves to be set to a psalmodic recitation, used also for the formal introduction (‘Incipit lamentatio …’). In this way, the Hebrew letters, though meaningless in themselves as texts, turn into occasions for brief meditative preparation, in which the music can flower in its own right, for the purely narrative texts that follow them. This appears to be the purpose also of the affective settings of the Hebrew letters which often occur in polyphonic Lamentations in the Renaissance. Quite analogously, Zelenka sets the Hebrew letters as affective arioso passages, contrasting for the most part with simple recitative for the actual Lamentation texts. In doing so, he places himself in a direct line of descent from the older tradition, with which he was doubtless familiar. Thus his Lamentations represent a reinterpretation in Baroque terms of an older Renaissance tradition. Other aspects of Zelenka’s settings also represent immediately recognisable traditional allusions: examples are the intense chromaticism (for example, in the first Lamentation of the first pair), and the restriction of the voice-types to the lower ranges, alto (countertenor), tenor and bass.
In other respects, however, Zelenka’s Lamentations mark a departure from tradition. In the Gregorian originals, as also in many Renaissance settings, the calls to repentance with which each Lamentation ends (‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’) are set to the same music; in the Gregorian, this is simply a continuation of the simple psalmodic recitative, and each time it leads straight into a responsory which sets the Lamentation in the context of the Gospel Passion narrative. On the contrary, Zelenka throws much more rhetorical weight on the calls to repentance, which are set afresh each time: they are greatly extended in length, and are given the functions of responding affectively to, and rounding off, the preceding narratives.
In doing this, Zelenka was confronted with a compositional problem rather like that faced by Haydn in setting The Seven Last Words: how is a composer to produce variety if he is required to compose six or more consecutive pieces, all projecting essentially the same affective content—and, in Zelenka’s case, setting precisely the same refrain text? To achieve this variety, Zelenka takes full advantage of the differing moods implicit in the texts of the individual Lamentations. It is very noticeable, for instance, how the heavy mood of the minor-key Lamentations of Thursday and Friday is lightened for the major-key Lamentations, particularly the two for Saturday, and this corresponds directly with the more hopeful mood of the first Saturday Lamentation, which is in A major.
Moreover, the instrumentation is altered for the two Saturday Lamentations. For the first, the change of mood is reinforced by the substitution of recorders (or possibly transverse flutes) for oboes. (Incidentally, the threefold repetition of each Hebrew letter in this Lamentation, between short phrases of text, is taken over from the Gregorian original.) The second of the Easter Eve Lamentations calls in the original for an obbligato chalumeau (not used in this recording) to replace the oboe. This instrument enjoyed a certain popularity from about 1690 in Vienna and elsewhere in central Europe, including Dresden, in church music as well as opera, no doubt to connote a plaintive but ‘elevated’ pastoral tone, and to recall the ‘calamus agrestis’ (‘rustic pipe’, a cognate word) played by the shepherd Tityrus in Virgil’s First Eclogue; Heinichen uses chalumeaux to evoke a general pastoral effect in a Christmas concerto grosso. Here, however, the instrument recalls Virgil’s First Eclogue more specifically, for Tityrus laments in it for the exile into which he has been driven; the chalumeau in symbolizing Tityrus thus personifies Christ here, as the figure of Tityrus does also in some other central European church music of the period. The charm of the later Lamentations in Zelenka’s cycle, though possibly unexpected, is far from shocking, intended as it no doubt is to represent the natural progress of the Holy Week liturgy through to an anticipation of the Resurrection.
Zelenka’s approach to text-setting and liturgical interpretation was no doubt shaped by his background among the Jesuits, as well as by the particular circumstances of the Dresden chapel. The Jesuits’ emphasis on rhetorical training rooted in the classics – in the effective presentation of texts, especially Latin texts, in public – was built into their traditional system of education; and their spirituality, as expressed in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, was orientated towards calls to conversion, as specifically as these Lamentations are. As for Dresden, the practical use of rhetorical devices towards ends such as these, which for a composer offered a method of overcoming the ‘dryness’ he might find in a text, was given a detailed discussion in print a few years later by Zelenka’s superior, Heinichen, in his treatise Der General-Bass in der Composition (Dresden, 1728). Heinichen writes:
How delighted is our ear, if we perceive in a well-written church composition or other music how a skilled composer has attempted here and there to move the emotions of an audience through his refined and text-related musical expression, and in this way successfully finds the true purpose of music.
His more specific advice to the composer, when setting a reflective text, to seek inspiration for his ‘invention’ in the text of the previous recitative or in other aspects of the wider context, is brilliantly realised in the Zelenka Lamentations. In this cycle, the interplay between the ‘convertere’ refrain and the narrative, and the rhetorical force it generates, are given further weight and depth by the variety of mood which the composer infuses into them. The work can be regarded, in fact, as a perfect exemplification of the aesthetic aims of the musical establishment of the Dresden court chapel—and as a classic example of the persuasive force of the music of the Austro-Bohemian Baroque at its finest.
Geoffrey Chew © 1990