Zelenka: Capricio ZWV 185 in A major

If the social scene of this concert has thus far seemed somewhat incestuous (with the exception of Purcell and Behn, who were prevented from entering the social milieu of the others by untimely demise and gender, respectively) then we must start by situating Jan Dismas Zelenka within it. Born in 1679 near Prague, he was thus a member of the Handel-Bach-Telemann generation; he was also the teacher of Quantz, the flute player that Scarlatti had such little desire to meet and who spent much of his career as a colleague of C.P.E Bach at the court of Frederick of Prussia. Zelenka’s solution to the tension between baroque counterpoint and galant dance music was a prescient one.

Much of Zelenka’s work is sacred music for the Catholic court church in Dresden, and in that respect he was essnetially a Catholic J.S. Bach. He had a profound understanding of counterpoint that permitted him to push the boundaries of what constituted a workable fugual theme, just as Bach was able to do with Frederick’s theme, and make use of avant-garde chromaticism and syncopation. Counterpoint, to composers like Bach and Zelenka, was not just a compositional technique: it was an expression of the fundamental mathematical order of the universe, necessary to the glorification of God because it was a depiction of God. The rejection of counterpoint in Frederick’s court where Quantz and C.P.E Bach resided was not just a musical preference, it was part and parcel of the Enlightenment rejection of holiness as a guiding principle for daily life and governance.

Unlike Bach, however, Zelenka did not outright reject the demand for pleasant dance tunes. Instead, he used rhythms from Czech folk music– a borrowing that anticipated the connections between folk music and the struggle for national independence of Smetana, Dvořák, and Janáček.

The Capriccio in A Major shows his mastery of complex harmonies, dance rhythms, and the extreme virtuosity of his writing. Zelenka, himself a double bass player, pushed the boundaries of possibility for low instruments in his writing. The Dresden orchestra was also the first where musicians specialized on a single instrument; thus Zelenka’s musicians were unprecedented in technical prowess, a fact which Bach remarked on enviously in a letter to the Leipzig town council in hopes of a similar scheme. Zelenka had no children; when he died Telemann, who revered him, tried to publish some of his music. However, he was told it was locked away in Queen Maria Josefa’s room as an “important court possession,” and remained obscure until it was rediscovered by Bedřich Smetana 150 years later.