This recent news article, titled "Why does music give us chills?" got me reflecting on our beloved Czech composer. Early on, the author points out that one of the reasons for having an automatic physical-emotional response when listening to music is when it has shocking and unexpected qualities.
Words like 'unexpected', 'unusual' or 'bizarre' crop up consistently in descriptions of Zelenka's music, usually by people who have just started to encounter his wonderful works. The impression that some people occasionally give is that these surprises are thrown in without much purpose - Zelenka the haphazard composer - I don't think this is the case at all. Words like 'dynamic', 'powerful', 'moving' often come together with the above descriptions.
Here's a fitting quotation, found on this site: "With its unusual harmonies and preference for sudden leaps, Zelenka's music takes on something extraordinary, shimmering, viciously unconventional..." Hans-Josef Irmen
Some traditional (outdated?) opinions of Baroque music make it out to be a purely technical, intellectual exercise, lacking energy... this is most certainly not the case with Zelenka. Baroque musical rhetoric has been much debated over the years (see this great article on Baroque Musical Rhetoric and HIP). Some think that composers employed various tools for expression and to induce emotion, others say that theorists were simply articulating what music was in a commonsensical way. Whatever the outcome of this debate, I'd argue that Zelenka had a highly sensitive awareness of the emotional effect of music, and applied it deliberately, masterfully. Based on my personal experience, and the comments of others, his music has a unique ability to create thrilling moments, often triggering electrical reactions in the body.
To name a few examples - the climaxes of 3 works still absolutely thrill me each time I hear them: The Amen fugue of the Magnificat ZWV 107 (trumpets imperative ;)), the Cum Sancto fugue sequence of Missa Dei Filii ZWV20, and the Sanctus/Hosanna & Agnus Dei II of Missa S.T ZWV17. What might link these pieces together? Interestingly, (as far as I can tell...) they don't overly employ much of the rhetoric mentioned above. It is rather the layered texture and polyphony which achieves such stratospheric effects. But, perhaps there is no single, reducible reason for when or why we get affected so strongly by such music.
Going back to the article, the author highlights another important aspect of the whole experience:
"...They involve the body and the mind together, and often seem deeply significant: giving you access to something bigger than yourself, something ineffable."
In my mind, this perfectly sums up Zelenka's intentions with his sacred music (In my opinion, his instrumental music has a different quality altogether. It is more humorous and playful, still beautiful). For the congregations of the Dresden Royal Court Chapel, Zelenka's music would have likely been a gripping experience which didn't come to them that often - something truly special (see Carl F. C. Fasch's account of hearing a Zelenka Mass with his father!). In the modern world, when it is so easy to immerse oneself in Zelenka's music at a whim (I for one am utterly addicted) - the auto-emotional-impact dies down and eventually ceases to be a novelty.
I'd be really interested to hear people's opinions and experiences of this phenomenon in relation to Zelenka. According to one of the studies mentioned, 47% of non-musicians had never experienced the sensation!
I finish this in the only possible way, with Kittel's now famous poem:
"You, most highly praised, perfect Virtuoso
Your fame - all of your own making - is world-renowned and great;
To the glory of God and in order to delight the soul
You compose church music
Which is so touching that the rapt breast
Has a foretaste of the heavenly pleasures;
So your own praise will forever keep your name green,
Both here on Earth and on the platform of the stars."