Historical and Contemporary Emotional Engagement with the Music of Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745)

Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) performing one of his works, as illustrated in the children’s novelette O starých českých muzikantech (‘Old Czech Musicians’) by Zdeněk Gintl (Prague: Šeba, 1946). Public Domain.

By Frederic Kiernan, The University of Melbourne

Before the second half of the twentieth century, the quirky Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) was known, it has been assumed, to only a very small number of connoisseurs; indeed, standard music-history textbooks barely mention him at all.

When the Swiss ensemble Camerata Bern first released recordings of Zelenka’s trio and quadro sonatas in 1973, many reviewers conveyed a sense of startled admiration for the striking originality and complex, engaging style of his music. Edward Greenfield wrote in a review published by The Guardian that ‘The message comes over very plainly indeed that this is music to set against that of Bach himself with no apology whatever’.[i] Many reviewers also expressed surprise that they had not already heard of Zelenka, but very little in the way of scholarship had been written about him at this point.

Zelenka spent most of his career in the service of the royal court of Dresden, which was the seat of the Saxon Electors who ruled as Polish kings Augusts II and III. He was first employed as a violone player in the royal orchestra, but eventually he took control of the church music performed in the royal Catholic chapel, which was heavily promoted by Queen (and Austrian Archduchess) Maria Josepha. There has been general agreement in the scholarship that Zelenka’s music was, for the most part, forgotten until his twentieth-century revival.[ii] The current author’s PhD thesis, in preparation at The University of Melbourne and supported by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, argues that this is not entirely true: I suggest, rather, that Zelenka’s music was disseminated more widely in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than has been previously recognised, and that his reputation persisted in certain circles well beyond his death in 1745. Beyond this, however, my research investigates the more interesting question of what drew these musicians, audiences, collectors and members of the general public to Zelenka and his music. And, it asks, how can we attempt to understand this past appeal from a twenty-first-century perspective?

Excerpt from Practische Musik-Werke hervorragender Componisten des XVI-XVIII Jahrhunderts, a collection of music manuscripts held at the Boston Public Library (US-Bp, 4051.14), and available at http://www.archive.org.

One of the current problems in the history of emotions is the lack of established theoretical tools for understanding the role of emotions in music history. William Reddy’s concepts of ‘emotional regimes’, ‘emotional refuges’ and ‘emotional liberty’ are useful for placing particular performances of music, and even music genres more generally, within certain historical-emotional contexts, as are Barbara Rosenwein’s notion of ‘emotional communities’ and Monique Scheer’s theory of ‘emotional practices’.[iii] Music’s auditory aspect, however, renders these theoretical approaches only partly useful: one must acknowledge and account for the fact that music is something that is heard, and that the hearing of auditory stimuli impacts listeners in particular ways.

Recent theoretical developments in music psychology have opened up the possibility of exploring the relationship between music and emotions in a more detailed way than previously possible. Patrik Juslin, Daniel Västfjäll and their colleagues have argued that there are eight mechanisms by which emotional responses are evoked in humans by music:

  1. Brain stem reflexes: an unconscious and automatic activation of physiological systems (the ‘startle response’);
  2. Rhythmic entrainment: the unconscious compulsion to adjust bodily rhythms (e.g., heart rate) to externally heard rhythms;
  3. Evaluative conditioning: an automatic emotional response elicited by the repeated pairing of a musical stimulus with something else, leading to an emotional response by association (e.g., the famous ‘shark’ motif in the movie Jaws);
  4. Emotional contagion: the activation of mirror neurons in mimicry of the perceived emotional expression of the music;
  5. Visual imagery: the conjuring up of visual images in a metaphorical non-verbal mapping between music and image schemata (i.e., hearing a melodic movement as ‘upward’);
  6. Episodic memory: the triggering of specific memories that themselves evoke emotions;
  7. Musical expectancy: the violation of culturally acquired knowledge of musical conventions; and
  8. Aesthetic judgement: a subjective evaluation of the aesthetic beauty of the music.[iv]

These mechanisms do not constitute emotions themselves, but rather they represent the underlying psychological activations through which emotions are evoked in response to music.[v] This openness leaves room for social and historical shaping of emotional experiences, since the underlying psychological mechanisms entwine with social contexts and practices in order to become meaningful, and this entwining can be read in historical sources. For example, ‘musical expectancy’ (mechanism vii) cannot elicit an emotional response unless one is familiar with the music’s grammar. Similarly, mechanism iii (evaluative conditioning) will only be ‘moving’ if the listener is exposed to a repeated pairing of the music with some external thing, which super-imposes its own emotional power onto the music. Historical investigation can uncover such associations.

While Juslin et al. do not discuss the possibility of historicising emotional engagement with music in their work, this model can nevertheless help to explain how aspects of music become emotionally significant in particular social and historical contexts. To return to Zelenka, it points to the possibility of using emotions as a way to periodise the reception history of his music. As Zelenka’s music migrated through the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became attached to various cultural and social phenomena: the provocative proselytising of local Dresden Catholics in eighteenth-century Lutheran Saxony; the reformer ideals of the nineteenth-century Cecilian movement; the revolutionary impulse of Czech nationalists in the early twentieth century, and so on. Drawing on the above model, my thesis explores how, in past emotional engagements with Zelenka’s music, historical actors ‘heard’ their religious beliefs, their social agendas and their personal and political goals. It therefore sheds new light on the posthumous fate of Zelenka’s music, and adds a new theoretical dimension to our understanding of the relationship between music and emotions throughout history.

Frederic Kiernan is a PhD candidate in Musicology at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and a research assistant to Professor Jane Davidson at the Melbourne node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. His thesis traces the ‘afterlife’ of Zelenka’s music and reputation through a series of snapshots from eighteenth-century Dresden to present-day Melbourne, in order to demonstrate how emotional investment in music, and emotional responses to it, are shaped by cultural, social and political regulation of musical practices. He has published articles on Zelenka and on approaches for studying emotions in music in Clavibus unitis, Context: A Journal of Music Research and Emotions: History, Culture, Society.

[i] E. Greenfield, ‘Ives League’, The Guardian, 8 October 1974, p. 12.

[ii] See, for example, J. Vojtěšková, ‘Die Zelenka-Überlieferung in Böhmen und in der Tschechoslowakei’, in Zelenka-Studien I: Referate der Internationalen Fachkonferenz Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745), J.-G.-Herder-Institut, Marburg, 16.–20. November 1991, ed. T. Kohlhase (Kassel and New York: Bärenreiter, 1993), pp. 85–108.

[iii] W. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); B. Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006); M. Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and is That What Makes Them Have a History)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion)’, History and Theory 51 (2012): 193–220.

[iv] P. N. Juslin and D. Västfjäll, ‘Emotional Response to Music: The Need to Consider Underlying Mechanisms’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31 (2008): 559–621; P. N. Juslin, S. Liljestrom, D. Västfjäll and L-O. Lundqvist, ‘How Does Music Evoke Emotions? Exploring the Underlying Mechanisms’, in Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Applications, ed. by P. N. Juslin and J. A. Sloboda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); P. N. Juslin, L. Harmat and T. Eerola, ‘What Makes Music Emotionally Significant? Exploring the Underlying Mechanisms’, Psychology of Music 42 (2014): 599–623.

[v] See J. W. Davidson, F. Kiernan and S. Garrido, ‘Introducing a Psycho-Historical Approach to the Study of Emotions in Music: The Case of Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda’, Emotions: History, Culture, Society 1 (2017): 29–60.


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