Jan Dismas Zelenka / Missa Paschalis, Litaniae Omnium Sanctorum
Only a few years ago, no one in his wildest dreams would have imagined that a fundamental work of European Baroque would be discovered in the 21st century. In the field of music, the legacy of Jan Dismas Zelenka is a revelation. His works are being revived in concert halls and recordings, and Zelenka is considered one of the most significant Baroque composers, alongside J. S. Bach, G. F. Händel and A. Vivaldi. In a period poem from the end of the 1730s, Johann Gottlob Kittel writes that Zelenka is “a consummate virtuoso whose fame is known throughout the world and who, with his powerful music, manages to inspire the human soul with reverence for God in such a way that here on earth it may delight in the joy of heaven.” Kittel’s words are not merely a lofty formulation lacking in content; they perfectly describe the impression of a listener of Zelenka’s music. Zelenka’s recently discovered works show us an unknown and unanticipated side of Baroque music. It is music at the highest intellectual level and which at the same time has a heart-rending impact. It electrifies us as much as it did Johann Sebastian Bach, someone who considered Zelenka one the best composers he had ever known.
Zelenka composed his Easter Mass – Missa Paschalis in Dresden in 1726. At the time, he was standing in for the Kapellmeister, and thus for the first time he secured the privilege of composing and conducting the performance of the ceremonial mass in the presence of the monarch, who was the Saxon Prince Elector and the Polish king simultaneously. We read in the “Diario Missionis Societatis Jesu Dresdae” that on Easter Monday, 1726 a sung mass took place at 10:30 with the assistance of trumpets and kettledrums. This sung mass was undoubtedly Zelenka’s Missa Paschalis, and its performance bears eloquent testimony to Zelenka’s extraordinary position in the Dresden musical hierarchy. Zelenka subsequently stood in for the Kapellmeister Johann David Heinichen more often and after his death in 1729 assumed his duties.
Paradoxically, even this small bit of information on Zelenka’s life and legacy as a composer is, in large part, marked by various myths and fabrications. In all of the literature, Zelenka is described as an unhappy person whose activities in Dresden – where he spent most of his life – did not receive appropriate recognition. On the contrary, however, Zelenka played a key role in the musical activities in the Dresden court. Furthermore, he was very close to the sovereign’s family and was highly regarded for his art, something thousands of his peers never dreamed of.
Over the past half-century, we have come across stories claiming that Zelenka committed some sort of crime or that he was a homosexual. The Czech musician Milan Munclinger even claimed that Zelenka was imprisoned for his crimes. Of course in the historical sources there is not even a hint of anything like this. We know that Zelenka was a deeply religious and meek person and that he enjoyed great respect. It is absurd to consider Zelenka’s displays of piousness and his selection of the name Dismas (the name of the penitent thief crucified to Jesus’s right, who on the cross received a unique promise) as an confession of crimes committed.
Speculation concerning Zelenka’s alleged wrongdoings and his feelings of guilt arise from the view that the Dismas crucified to Jesus’s right was a mere reformed criminal, as if forgetting that that is was precisely Dismas who was the only person in the history of mankind who was told by God, “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise,” Luke 23:43, something everyone else can only hope for.
Adam Viktora, artistic director of the Ensemble Inégal