Jan Dismas Zelenka was born in Lounovice, not far from Prague, the son of the local organist and choirmaster. It is probable that he was educated at the Jesuit Collegium Clementinum in Prague, and his earliest employment seems to have been in that city as well, but in 1710 he moved to Dresden to join the orchestra of Friedrich August I, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, as a double bass player.
The Dresden court musical establishment (or Kapelle) was one of the grandest in Europe, and there Zelenka worked alongside other distinguished musicians such as Pisendel, Quantz and Veracini. A further widening of his experience came in 1716, when he was one of four court musicians selected to travel to Italy for a study tour. It is not certain whether or not Zelenka actually made it as far as Italy (unsubstantiated reports claim that he had lessons from Antonio Lotti in Venice and also visited Naples), but it is known that from 1717 to 1719 he was in Vienna, where he studied with Johann Joseph Fux.
On his return to Dresden, Zelenka began to compose on a regular basis for the Electoral Chapel, which was rapidly becoming an important centre for Catholic church music in what was a predominantly Lutheran part of Germany. This work was interrupted for a trip back to Prague in the early 1720s, but taken up again even more keenly on his return; the majority of his surviving works date from this time.
Despite this, he seems to have received little recognition from his employers, gaining no official enhancement to his salary or status even when, following the death of the Kapellmeister Johann David Heinichen in 1729, Zelenka took over many of his duties. Worse still, Zelenka’s hopes of formally succeeding Heinichen were dashed when the younger and more fashionable Johann Adolf Hasse was appointed to the post instead. By the time Zelenka finally got a pay-rise in 1736, interest in church music was waning in Dresden, and in his last years he was a marginalised figure.
Zelenka’s music combines rigorous construction with a distinctive melodic and harmonic individualism, and ranges in tone from high seriousness to quirky humour. His interest in the work of earlier masters such as Palestrina and Frescobaldi was unusual for his time, and his skills in counterpoint won admiration from Bach, yet at the same time he was as responsive as any of his German colleagues to the latest Baroque developments from France and Italy.
Of his personality, we are told by a contemporary that he was ‘a reserved and bigoted Catholic, but also a respectable, quiet, unassuming man, deserving of the greatest respect’.
Profile © Lindsay Kemp, 2004