Poor Zelenka!

By Frederic Kiernan, The University of Melbourne

Unless you are a close follower of the international “early music” scene, you probably would not have heard of the Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745), a devout Catholic. Research on Zelenka did not gain serious traction until the 1980s, and since then his music has come to be recognised as some of the best of the baroque. Zelenka’s compositions are strikingly inventive and original, prompting one eminent Vivaldi scholar to compile a list of ‘Zelenkisms’ in an attempt to describe his unmistakable style.[1]

Zelenka’s life at the Catholic court of Dresden, where he spent most of his career, has often been described as rather unsuccessful, and as a person he has often been described as a miserable misanthrope. Last year I submitted a PhD thesis to the University of Melbourne titled ‘The Figure of Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) in the History of Emotions’, which questioned whether these claims about Zelenka were true: there just did not seem to be much evidence to support them. In the thesis I argued that the myth of ‘poor Zelenka’ should be discredited, showing how it was conceived in a curious blending of romantic historicism and oral history during the nineteenth century. New sources show that Zelenka was in fact highly regarded by his peers, and we still know almost nothing about his personality.

I recently won the university’s Chancellor’s Prize for Excellence in the PhD Thesis for that work. This was thrilling, partly because it is a wonderful piece of recognition for the effort I put in, but also because after several years of researching Zelenka, I feel a sense of duty to make sure his story is told properly. I now feel like I have corrected an injustice of some kind. But why is telling the wrong story about someone who died nearly 300 years ago an injustice? Who really cares whether Zelenka was a happy person or not? Surely there are more pressing injustices in the world today I could be concentrating on! The more I discovered the origins of the myth of ‘poor Zelenka’, the more I realised that discrediting it was not going to be the point of the thesis. It gradually became clear that the word ‘Zelenka’ was used to refer to one of two things: a person who died in 1745 or a creative unity represented by a body of compositions, as in the statement ‘I like Zelenka’. And, changes in the story of Zelenka-the-person usually accompanied shifts in the perceived hierarchy of value in Zelenka’s oeuvre, while discussions about the emotional power of Zelenka’s music were almost always informed by prevailing constructions of Zelenka-the-person. I could see that this changing historical figure had an enduring, regulatory presence in the lives of musicians, scholars and various cultural groups, and that by understanding this I could help explain why still hardly anybody knew about him.

Illustrated image of Zelenka by Zdeněk Gintl
Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) surveying the Bohemian lands from Blaník, as illustrated in the children’s novelette O starých českých muzikantech (‘Old Czech Musicians’) by Zdeněk Gintl (Prague: Šeba, 1946)

‘Poor Zelenka’s’ unwitting fathers were Friedrich Rochlitz (1769–1842) and Moritz Fürstenau (1824–1889). These men were influential writers and critics, and their work brought attention to Zelenka’s music.[2] Neither had much negative to say about the composer. For Rochlitz, Zelenka was a humble genius whose internal urge to compose distanced him somewhat from his contemporaries. For Fürstenau, the same was true, although his story of Zelenka is tinged with a vague sense of dashed hopes, partly because of two petitions Zelenka wrote to his employer in which he pleads hyperbolically for a salary increase. Fürstenau did not recognise the petitions as exemplars of a genre whose markers at that time included ‘torturous supplicatory formalities.’[3] A comprehensive study of nineteenth-century writing about Zelenka in dictionaries, encyclopedias, the press and other literature shows that by the end of that century the prevailing construction of Zelenka-the-person was that of an excellent but somewhat lonely and isolated composer.

In the early twentieth century, still very little was known about Zelenka besides what Rochlitz and Fürstenau had written. As the need for Czechs to assert a national identity reached a tipping point in 1918, Zelenka was subsumed by a discourse of Czechness that stripped away his Catholicism, being too reflective of the spectre of Habsburg rule that the Czechs had finally overthrown. In this context Zelenka’s romantic, isolated loneliness became the homesick sorrow of a national hero, exiled from his Bohemian homeland by the Germans. And, as Czechs learned to evaluate the disparate elements of their country as treasures belonging together (including the landscape, architecture and music), so they learned to feel Czech, and to hear Czech sorrow in Zelenka’s music. Even though almost everything Zelenka composed was intended for use in Catholic liturgical services, sources from early twentieth-century Prague (including historical novels, children’s books, the press, exhibition catalogues, etc.) show that Zelenka had become ‘the one who composed the melodrama on St Wenceslas’,[4] the first duke of Bohemia. Zelenka-as-creative-unity had been reduced to the tiny proportion of his output that had almost nothing to do with Catholicism.

If Zelenka’s Catholicism was uncomfortable to Czech nationalists, it was completely unacceptable to communists. Interviews with scholars and musicians who worked under communism in Czechoslovakia and East Germany confirmed that performance and research on Zelenka’s sacred music was all but forbidden. Not surprisingly, it was recordings of Zelenka’s (totally un-religious) instrumental music released in the 1970s that made the first big international splash. These were accompanied by liner notes that cited and ran wildly with nineteenth-century rumours, probably just to generate commercial interest. One author wrote in the notes to a 1978 recording, ‘It may be acting on too little evidence [ ! ], but one is tempted by the few indications we possess to sketch a character portrait of a choleric recluse, broody and increasingly melancholic as he grew older.’[5] The quirky titles of the baroque instrumental character pieces were cited as further evidence of Zelenka’s mental ill-health: ‘Il furibondo’ (the angry man), and the enigmatic title ‘Hipocondrie’ (the hypochondriac?). Following the re-release of the 1978 recording in 2003, Michael Carter wrote for Fanfare that it was responsible for ‘the exhumation of Zelenka’s music and therefore the solidification of his reputation.’[6] He was right. Poor Zelenka.

But again, does it really matter? A controlled psychological test of listeners’ emotional responses to Zelenka’s music showed that participants who read a one-paragraph biography of ‘poor Zelenka’ beforehand responded differently to those who did not. Moreover, an innovative application of the BRECVEMAC model from music psychology suggests that the emotional influence of ‘poor Zelenka’ can be detected in reviews of recordings. This enduring figure of Zelenka therefore continues to influence how listeners feel about the music today. But more than this, it is an example how people have used music to make meaning out of their lives, to construct auto-stereotypes to assert a collective identity, to stigmatise competing cultural groups, and to bring about social change. To question this figure is to question the integrity of these efforts. So yes: it does!


Frederic Kiernan completed a PhD in 2019 at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (The University of Melbourne), with a thesis titled ‘The Figure of Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) in the History of Emotions.’ His thesis was awarded the Chancellor’s Prize for Excellence in the PhD Thesis for 2020.


[1] Michael Talbot, ‘Venezianische Elemente im Stil Jan Dismas Zelenkas’, in Zelenka-Studien I: Referate der Internationalen Fachkonferenz J. D. Zelenka, Marburg, J.-G.-Herder-Institut, 16.–20. November 1991, ed. by Thomas Kohlhase, Musik des Ostens 14 (Kassel and New York: Bärenreiter, 1993), pp. 311–22.

[2] Friedrich Rochlitz, Für Freunde der Tonkunst (Leipzig: Carl Cnobloch, 1824), 2:178–82; Moritz Fürstenau, Zur Geschichte der Musik und des Theaters am Hofe zu Dresden, vol. 2 (Dresden: Rudolf Kunze, 1862).

[3] David W. Jones, Music in Vienna: 1700, 1800, 1900 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2016), p. 30.

[4] Alois Jirásek, Temno (1915; repr. Brno: Tribun, 2010), p. 208.

[5] Dietmar Polaczek, liner notes to Jan Dismas Zelenka: Die Orchesterwerke, Camerata Bern, with Heinz Holliger and Hans Elhorst (oboe), Barry Tuckwell and Robert Routch (horn), Alexander van Wijnkoop (violin), Manfred Sax (bassoon), Dieter Leicht (violoncello), Christiane Jaccottet (harpsichord), conducted by Alexander van Wijnkoop, Archiv 2710 026, 1978, LP, 20.

[6] Michael Carter, ‘Zelenka Capriccios: No. 1 in D; No. 2 in G; No. 3 in F; No. 4 in A; No. 5 in G. Concerto à 8 Concertanti in G. Sinfonia à 8 Concertanti in a. Hipocondrie à 7 Concertanti in A. Ouverture à 7 Concertanti in F’, Fanfare, October 2007, 254.

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