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Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745)


Ensemble Marsyas, Monica Huggett (violin) Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Recording details: August 2011
National Centre for Early Music, York, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: September 2012
Total duration: 49 minutes 15 seconds

Cover artwork: A procession of Swiss guards after Cuyck (1752).
The Trustees of the British Museum

These sonatas represent some of the most spectacularly challenging music ever written for wind instruments in terms of their utopian demands on the technique of the players, their musical integrity and their breathtaking scale. Members from the Edinburgh-based chamber group were awarded both first prize and the audience prize at the 2007 Brugge International Competition for this repertoire and their skill is evident on this, their debut recording.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'The Ensemble Marsyas impresses me with their nimble fingers in the breakneck Sonata No 5, but it's the group's nuance that's transfixing. When textures become sparse, delivery intensifies; when the line expands, the tempo stretches; when counterpoint thickens, articulation is leavened. The players are audibly intelligent, at once humorous and illuminating. Non-interventionist engineering shows that less can be more when the artists are first rate … the players combine wit, taste and an earthy Bohemian wink to win the heart' (BBC Music Magazine)

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Between 1955 and 1965, when Camillo Schoenbaum’s ground-breaking editions of the six sonatas for two oboes and bassoon (in one case, a sonata for violin, oboe and bassoon) were published by Hortus Musicus, double reed players became aware of a Bohemian composer whose demands on technique and stamina were unparalleled in the repertoire of Baroque chamber music. At about the same time, a group of instrumental chamber works, mainly published by Musica Antiqua Bohemica, brought the attention of horn players to a repertoire with writing of incomparable brilliance and difficulty. Thus, Zelenka’s name became known to a great many players of various wind instruments. More recently, performances and recordings of his vocal compositions have drawn further attention to the splendour and devout expression of Zelenka’s sacred music, the late masses in particular.

Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) was born in the small Bohemian village of Louňovice. The son of a local cantor and school teacher, he was baptized on 16 October 1679. By 1704 it is likely that he was living in Prague where he might have been attached to a Jesuit college, but where he certainly enjoyed the patronage of Count Herman Jakub Černín, and the support of one or more members of the Bohemian noble family named Hartig (three short oratorios were composed by Zelenka for the Jesuit College of St Clement – each at the request of ‘Count Hartig’). Zelenka then moved to Dresden, seat of the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August I, who recently had regained the Polish crown. Court payment records are inconsistent about the date of his arrival, stating that the violone (sometimes given as Contre Basse) player Zelenka arrived in Dresden either in 1710 or 1711. Nevertheless, he was able to demonstrate his ability as a composer of sacred music when his mass in honour of St Cecilia (Missa Sanctae Caeciliae ZWV1) was heard in the Catholic church of the Dresden court on the feast day of the patroness of musicians: 22 November 1711. Soon after, on 31 January 1712, Zelenka dedicated this same mass to the King of Poland, and with the dedication he requested a study trip to France and Italy. However, together with violinist Johann Georg Pisendel, the oboist Johann Christian Richter, and keyboard player Christian Pezold, Zelenka was ordered to travel to Venice, but whether he ever visited that city has not been established. In 1716 Zelenka is known to have been in Vienna where his four capriccios ZWV182–185 were composed. These works were almost certainly meant for entertainments held by the Saxon Electoral Prince, then in Vienna during his courtship of Austrian Archduchess Maria Josepha, soon to become the Saxon Electoral Princess.

Following a period of study with the Imperial Kapellmeister Johann Joseph Fux (1660–1741), and collection and copying of music in the Hapsburg capital, Zelenka returned to Dresden by early 1719. Here, apart from visits to Prague in 1722 and 1723, he remained, and for more than a decade Zelenka’s name is listed in court payment records with an annual salary of 400 Thaler – a sum that placed him at the position of about equal twelfth in the hierarchy of 38 or so Dresden court musicians. During these years Zelenka also composed great quantities of music for the church, as well as the six sonatas, four instrumental compositions for Prague, a Sinfonie in 1729 (ZWV190, previously classified as the fifth Capriccio), and the melodrama Sub olea pacis (ZWV175), performed at the college of St Clement in Prague during the 1723 celebrations when the Hapsburg Emperor Charles VI came to Prague to be crowned King of Bohemia.

By 1733 Zelenka applied for formal recognition of his work in the role of Dresden Kapellmeister, vacant since the death of Johann David Heinichen (1683–1729). Already in 1732 Zelenka had received a salary increase, possibly the result of an appeal to Maria Josepha who, as Electress of Saxony and Queen of Poland, was to become the principal patroness of the Dresden Catholic court church music. In a draft copy of an undated plea, Zelenka stated that due to illness and misfortunes he was completely lacking money to live, and in that week had to pay his creditors the sum of 40 Thaler or more. In due course he was appointed to the position of Church Composer – a title that also came to be held by Johann Sebastian Bach, albeit in an honorary capacity. Three great oratorios, a number of important mass compositions, the serenata Il Diamante (ZWV177), a magnificent Miserere setting (ZWV57), and some smaller sacred works appeared in the 1730s.

Zelenka’s music continued to be heard in the Dresden Catholic court church where his compositions were admired and appreciated by connoisseurs. Never­the­less, the final years of Zelenka’s life must have been clouded by illness because his large-scale project to compose a cycle of six masses was never completed. Three magnificent mass settings were finalized: Missa Dei Patris of 1740 (ZWV19) and Missa Omnium Sanctorum from 1741 (ZWV21) are settings of the Ordinary. One Kyrie and Gloria setting titled Missa Dei Filii (ZWV20) was written in c.1740. Two exceptional settings of the Litany of Loretto (‘Salus infirmorum’ ZWV152 and ‘Consolatrix afflictorum’ ZWV151) were also composed in 1741 and 1744. Zelenka died during the evening of 22–23 December 1745, a few days after Frederick II (sometimes called ‘The Great’) of Prussia and his troops had entered Dresden following the defeat of Austrian troops during the War of Austrian Succession. Zelenka’s burial took place on 24 December in the Catholic cemetery in Friedrichstadt. In 1923 his grave could no longer be found.

Zelenka’s Instrumental Music of c.1722 and 1723
The purpose of Zelenka’s six sonatas for two oboes and bassoon (one is for oboe, violin, and bassoon) remains unclear; the year of their composition is also uncertain. One suggestion is that these works were written to demonstrate the outcomes of Zelenka’s study in Vienna with Fux. Another theory is that they were composed when Zelenka was in Prague in or around 1722 as show pieces to prove to a potential patron his ability to write instrumental works for the celebrations in 1723 for the coronation of Charles VI as King of Bohemia. If so, these sonatas achieved their aim: Zelenka must have been commissioned to write a series of works for a small ensemble of two violins, viola, violoncello, string bass, one or two oboes, and a bassoon. Four compositions, Concerto à 8 Concer[tanti], Hipocondrie à 7 Concerta[nti], Ouverture à 7 Concerta[nti], and the Simphonie à 8 Concer[tanti] (ZWV186–189), each bearing the inscription ‘à Praga 1723’, survive today as autograph scores in Dresden.

The remarkable feature of the sonatas and the four instrumental ensemble works is the brilliance of writing for the soloists, oboes and bassoon especially. This indicates that Zelenka had players of great virtuosity and stamina at his disposal. Might they have been musicians from the Dresden court orchestra? If so, no known works from the 1720s by Dresden-based composers call for the extraordinary technique and skills required from the double reed players, the bassoonist in particular. Might the instrumentalists have come from Prague? Recent research by Václav Kapsa has revealed at least one Prague-based ensemble of considerable virtuosity, a group whose members are known to have the musical skills required to perform these compositions. Works written for the orchestra kept by Count Wenzel (Václav) von Morzin (1675–1737) for his Prague residence demonstrate that a minimum of one oboist and one bassoonist of great virtuosity belonged to his ensemble: the lackey-cum-oboist Pavel Vančura (who was in Dresden to study oboe during 1720), and bassoonist Antonín Möser (or Messer). Violinists (including the composer František Jiránek who was based in Venice between 1724 and 1726), a cellist named Komárek (Josef Antonín?), and one player of a string bass instrument (‘Carl Bassist’) were also among this group. During the 1720s Antonio Vivaldi was Count Morzin’s ‘Maestro di Musica in Italia’, and at least one of his many bassoon concertos (RV. 496) was composed for the Count’s ensemble. Moreover, the recent digitization project by the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek in Dresden (D-Dl) of the musical contents of a cupboard (Schrank II) once kept in the Dresden Catholic court church has revealed a number of copies of solo works for bassoon and/or oboe written by musicians employed by Count Morzin, including composers Antonín Reichenauer (c.1694–1730), and Christian Gottlieb Postel (c.1697–1730). Other important oboe and bassoon players in Prague at this time included musicians employed by Count Černín – the oboist Johann Friedrich Tietz (or Titz), and bassoonist Johann Jacob Fridrich.

The Sonatas
Zelenka gave the title ‘Sonata’ or ‘Suonata’ to these six works, three of which – Sonatas IV (from the third movement only), V, and VI – represent an unusual genre known as the quadro sonata, that is, a sonata of four independent voices comprising three concertante instruments and a bass. Johann Joachim Quantz considered this type of composition to be ‘the true touchstone of a genuine contrapuntist, and […] often the downfall of those who are not solidly grounded in their technique.’ Steven Zohn has found sixty or so German examples of this genre composed for a variety of instruments between about 1715 and 1740. Many seem to have either belonged to, or were in circulation at the Dresden court. These include quadros by Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Friedrich Fasch and Arcangelo Califano, a cellist of the Dresden court orchestra who wrote a set of four quartets for two oboes, bassoon, and continuo – a hint that he modelled these works upon those of Zelenka (who might have been Califano’s composition teacher). Each of Zelenka’s six sonatas survives as an autograph score in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek in Dresden. Numerous additions seen in these sources, Erasures, and alterations (some are on slips of paper pasted over the original text) pose problems to editors. Sonatas II, IV, and V, however, are accompanied by a set of parts in the hand of a Dresden copyist, possibly the horn player Tobias Butz who was to become a church composer of the Dresden court. But due to Zelenka’s alterations, even these performance materials present difficulties. Discrepancies between the scores and parts make the sources notoriously difficult, presenting dilemmas to editors and performers alike. But above all, each sonata tests to the limit the virtuosity, musical intelligence, and the stamina of each performer.

Sonata V in F major ZWV181/5
The parts for Sonata V in F are for two oboes (Hautbois 1 and Hautbois 2), bassoon (Fagotto), and a bass which could be played either by a violone, or a theorbo (Violone ò Tiorba, an instruction also seen on the bass part for Sonata VI). It is notable that a keyboard instrument is not specified for any one of Zelenka’s instrumental works, and figures on the bass line of the sonatas are either non-existent or sparse. Sonata V is the sole example among the six to be modelled upon the Vivaldian concerto structure: slow-quick-slow, and Zelenka’s use of ritornello form in the outer two movements could be seen as his homage to the Venetian master. The ritornello of the opening movement – a theme played in unison with reference to the polka rhythm – exhibits great strength. A series of harmonic surprises characterize the beautiful arioso-like slow movement, while the final Allegro which opens with a three-part fugal exposition, contains lengthy solos of intricate passage work that require extraordinary technique from each player.

Sonata III in B flat major ZWV181/3
The score of Sonata III in B flat is set out on three staves marked Violino; Hautbois; Basson. However, figures appear below the bassoon stave towards the end of the first movement, and also at the opening bars of the final movement – an indication that an instrument capable of playing chords was also required for this work. This is the only sonata in the set to include the violin as a soloist. Sonata III, comprising four contrasting movements, opens with an Adagio followed by a three-voiced fugal Allegro. The third movement is a Siciliano to be played in a broad style (Largo), while the conclusion is an extended dance-like movement.

Sonata VI in C minor ZWV181/6
Sonata VI in C minor, the last of these sonatas, has neither indication of tempo nor of affect to the first and second movements. The third movement is Zelenka’s reworking of the Andante from his capriccio composed in Vienna and dated 20 October 1718 (ZWV185), also scored for two oboes, bassoon and bass, and composed as an imitative ricercare structured upon two themes. The final movement of Sonata VI is a brilliant minuet-rondo with virtuosic and technically taxing episodes, especially for the principal oboist and bassoonist.

Second movement (Andante) from Simphonie ZWV189
The digitization project by the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek in Dresden uncovered an unexpected treasure: a set of nine beautifully prepared parts for Zelenka’s Simphonie – the title Zelenka gave to this work – possibly in the hand of the Dresden court viola player and copyist Johann Gottlieb Morgenstern. Although ‘Simphonia’ is written at the head of the first movement of this copy, the work was later catalogued as ‘Sinfonie’ and as ‘Concerto’. These parts complement Zelenka’s hurriedly-prepared autograph score which was completed in Prague in 1723. Moreover, the parts demonstrate how the realization of Zelenka’s intentions took place and, apart from minor discrepancies, they reveal how his instructions were interpreted by a copyist. Zelenka’s score bears the title ‘Simphonie à 8 Concer[tanti]’ (shown in the score as violins 1, 2; violins 1, 2 ‘d’rinforza’; viola, violoncello, ‘contra bassa’; oboes 1, 2; bassoon): the nine parts are titled Violono 1o Concertato; Violono 2da Concertato; Violoncello; Oboe Concertato; Fagotto; Violino Io Rinforzato; Violino IIdo Rinforzato; Viola; Contra Basso. Thus, unless it was lost, a part was not prepared for the second oboe. These performance materials have been used for the present recording of a second movement (Andante) of Zelenka’s Simphonie. Here, the violin, oboe and bassoon soloists hold a gentle musical conversation above a walking bass line played by the violone.

Although the impression is often given that Zelenka and his music tended to be confined to the shadows of the brilliant Dresden court, a panegyric in praise of the virtuosi of the Dresden court orchestra was published in 1740 by the Dresden-based lyricist Johann Gottlob Kittel (Micrander). Here, a new perspective on the way in which Zelenka was perceived by his contemporaries emerges when, according to Kittel, the sun god Phoebus (Apollo) saw Zelenka and expressed his praise thus:

‘You most highly regarded, perfect VIRTUOSO
Your fame, all of your own making, is world renowned and great;
To honour GOD and in order to delight the soul
You [compose] church music
Which is so touching that the rapt breast
Has a foretaste of the heavenly pleasures;
That is why your praise will green your name.’
(Zelenca [sic] means green in German)

We, like Kittel, are indebted to Zelenka for the delight given by his sacred compositions. But we are also grateful that these early secular instrumental outpourings are among his musical legacy.

Janice B Stockigt © 2012

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