Was Zelenka 'Bitter'

  • In the few Zelenka links on google there are references to his alleged 'bitterness'. Examples:


    Quote

    Zelenka achieved little recognition during his lifetime, and died a bitter and lonely man in 1745.


    The Finchcocks Series
    Early Music.1984; 12: 283-287


    Quote

    He died in 1745, in all probability a bitter and disappointed man.


    Concert programme notes


    Is there any scholarly under-pinning to the claim, or is it just a wild guess wrapped up as respectable comment? In other words, it’s a lie which has gained credence because people keep repeating it?

  • Hi Philidor,


    Anyone who knows Zelenka's last masses will know that he couldn't possibly have been bitter.


    I think 19th century scholars such as F?rstenau put this into "the literature", and now that "the literature" has become so free in its authorship, due to the internet, there is no way of stopping this kind of silliness. Zelenka was not bitter. He didn't suffer fools gladly, but he wasn't a sour person. He was serious. He didn't have a big ego, so why should he want to be "tops"? It's all there in his music...


    Best wishes.


    :o
    ________
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  • One scholar who has unfortunately made matters worse is the well-known German (?) Bach scholar Peter Wollny. In his cover notes to Hyperion's CD of Sacred Music by Zelenka (CDA67350) from 2003, he wrote some pretty uninformed things e.g. about Zelenka dying "an embittered, broken man". I was so horrified that I wrote a letter of complaint to the boss at Hyperion, but got no reply of course.


    So if some people had their way, Zelenka would have been a manic depressive with minority sexual preferences who bore a remarkable resemblance to Fux (looking in the mirror!). It's all nonsense.


    Janice Stockigt wrote little or nothing about Zelenka's temperament in her scholarly book from 2000, simply because the sources of the "bitterness" rumours are dubious to say the least.

  • Hello Philidor,
    This might interest you. There was an article in The New York Times on Oct 8
    1995 by Alex Ross, called, "Biber, Zelenka, and how baroque got a 'bad' name.
    Just google, Biber + Zelenka + Ross, and the article will come up. Mixed with a qualified praise for both men, you will see a biting sarcasm. Some quotes of note, "Darker and more dismal (an obvious play on his middle name) is the world of Zelenka." He also calls him an "Unhappy man." He also refers to him as a "Gifted contempory of Bach whose Catholic devotion took a tortuous, dissonant turn." And finally, " His music suggests medieval piety rather than Bachian geometry. His polyphonic lines twist together like Prague's gaunt, blackened spires."
    It does not really matter that he also offers praise, as these lines quoted above do stick, and they stick with a large audience since The New York Times is widely read. How sad that many may have been put off by such comments.
    I am in agreement with papermoon. His late masses are joyous, exhubrant, full of fun in places, and lovingly tender in other places. Certainly not the work of a "bitter" man by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Thanks Alistair & Brian. :) The claim struck me as odd because as there’s not even a portrait how could anyone know he’s ‘bitter’? They’ll be saying next he was mean to his mother! It’s as if critics are ashamed he’s neglected and make up lies to justify it. ‘Oh no wonder Zelenka isn’t played he was so dismal and bitter and once kicked a cat!’


    Quote from Alistair

    I wrote a letter of complaint to the boss at Hyperion, but got no reply of course.


    I'm going to start doing that, referring to this thread's url.

  • Good idea.


    You will find 2 jpg files (scans) of my letter at www.jdzelenka.net/TimParry1.jpg and http://www.jdzelenka.net/TimParry2.jpg. It is probably best to save them by right-clicking with your mouse.


    Re-reading the letter after 5 years, I am pleased with it. The address to Hyperion was, of course, more specific on the envelope, so I can't think why he didn't reply...


    Jan Stockigt got a copy of the letter at the time.


    Alistair


  • I don't think this will be a perfect proof of Dismas' (not) being bitter. In the same way: the music of Jan Jakub Ryba (1765-1815) is so joyful, so exuberant, so vivid, and yet he commited suicide ...

  • Hi Frans. I take your point, and I can't comment on Ryba or his music. All I know is that Zelenka's music could be said to cover a whole range of emotions. I don't know if it's documented (by a reliable source at the time) that Ryba suffered depressions that would lead him to take his own life, but as far as I know there is no reliable evidence to the effect that Zelenka was a depressive personality, or even that he had a bitter personality in later years. Read into his music what you will. :o
    ________
    Honda CB600F

  • Hi paperMoon,


    What I was trying to say, is: listening to the music of a pre-Romantic composer tells us much more about his skills as a musician and less about his personailty.


    About Ryba: as far as I know there is no specific evidence on him suffering of depressions.


    About Zelenka and Ryba: there are some similarities between both men. Zelenka has been convinced of his musical talents, but was not highly regarded for them. In spite of this, Zelenka has served the same employer, the Dresden court, for many years, without having taken opportunities to change. Ryba has been, too. He has served the city of Rožmitál pod Třemšinem as a teacher and a cantor/organist for a long time, not highly appreciated by the municipality and without changing employment.


    Thinking of Zelenka going to Hamburg instead of Telemann, and Ryba going to Prague as the choirmaster of the sv. Vita cathedral, is quite the same as thinking of Mozart getting as old as Telemann (86): nice but completely irrelevant.


    Greetings, Frans.

  • Hallo paperMoon,


    My "Thinking of Zelenka going to Hamburg instead of Telemann, and Ryba going to Prague as the choirmaster of the sv. Vita cathedral, is quite the same as thinking of Mozart getting as old as Telemann (86): nice but completely irrelevant." is a kind of "what", if?"-dreaming.


    What, if Zelenka had had the opportunity to go to Hamburg instead of Telemann? Would he be just as famous, nowadays?
    What, if Ryba has become regens chori of the sv. Vita, instead of staying "buried" at the country-side as a schoolmaster? Would he be a worldwide famous composer, nowadays?
    What, if Mozart should have died at the age of 86, instead of at the age of 36? How many more masterpieces?


    Indeed, dreaming, and, as I said: nice, but completely irrelevant.

  • Quote from Philidor

    In the few Zelenka links on google there are references to his alleged 'bitterness'. Examples:


    Is there any scholarly under-pinning to the claim, or is it just a wild guess wrapped up as respectable comment? In other words, it’s a lie which has gained credence because people keep repeating it?


    There isn't a lot of evidence about Zelenka. A few letters, some of which were written to the Augustan and which were couched as a petitioner to a ruler. Some anecdotes from contemporaries, that describe him as "devout" and other adjectives. The names of his patrons.


    We have the facts; Dresden was a Lutheran City that hosted a Catholic Ruler who took the Faith in order to rule Poland. August did not demonstrate temperance or chastity, having fathered bastards and serially cuckholded the Empress.


    The Court intrigues against a "Catholic" Zelenka, who was Jesuit trained and who was surrounded by Jesuits. The Society of Jesus was formed to combat the Protestant movement. Could we assume that the Lutherans in the Court and local government, would not have been kind to Zelenka?


    Zelenka was an alien in hostile territory. His composition style, like Bach's, could have been thought "antique".


    If Zelenka seemed "Bitter" perhaps the description needs to be taken in context?


    Gene

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