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Jan Dismas Zelenka

born: 16 October 1679
died: 22 December 1745
country: Czech Republic

Only a little information exists about Zelenka’s life. He was born in 1679 in a Bohemian village as a son of a Kantor. No documents about his first twenty-five years survive. It can be presumed that he received his early musical education from his father and he later attended the Jesuit Collegium Clementinum in Prague. His first employment by the aristocratic von Hartig family in Prague was soon followed by a post in Dresden; he was employed as a double bass player in about 1710 at the court of August the Strong, which had converted to Catholicism in 1697. Soon his activities as a composer were drawing attention. In order to complete his musical training, the Electoral Prince allowed him to undertake study trips between 1716 and 1719 to Italy and Vienna where he took lessons with Johann Joseph Fux. One of the most diligent and talented composers at the Saxon court, he contributed greatly to the unconventional style of the Dresden church music and became the most important assistant to the sickly Kapellmeister, Johann David Heinichen (1683–1729). However, Zelenka’s promising career during the era of Heinichen had already begun to waver by 1730. The Saxon heir to the throne, later Electoral Prince Friedrich August II, had discovered his love for the modern Italian style on his Grand Tour and tried—with increasing success—to get rid of the music by Heinichen and his colleagues (which was already considered slightly out of date) by employing others whenever possible and, most importantly, to re-establish opera. At that time, a young German composer, Johann Adolf Hasse, was being celebrated in Venice and Naples; his style was brilliant, melodious and simple, and immediately swept away the works of older composers. When Hasse—apparently after lengthy and secret negotiations—agreed to become Heinichen’s successor in Dresden, the destiny of Zelenka’s career was settled. With his complex and ornate style he did not stand a chance against Hasse’s disarming simplicity. Zelenka became withdrawn, composed far less and died in December 1745 an embittered, broken man.

from notes by Peter Wollny © 2003
English: Viola Scheffel


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