Below is a brief guide to a selection of major, must-hear works by J.D. Zelenka. All of these works have been recorded at least once, with the instrumental works in particular having been recorded multiple times. Nearly all works in the guide have a corresponding outstanding/recommended CD recording which allows them to be heard in all their splendour, in high quality sound (see the Recommended CDs page). Besides links to the ZWV numbers for further information (e.g. instrumentation, available CD recordings), a YouTube link is provided alongside each work to allow for quick “sampling” of the music, including in recorded live performances. The availability of quality YouTube videos, preferably with an outstanding/recommended performance, has also influenced the selection of works in the guide.
The late Zelenka scholar Wolfgang Horn once wrote that no two masses by Zelenka are alike. Indeed, Zelenka's masses are perfect examples of the opulence and never-ending variety of Baroque music at its best, each work being an individual treasure-trove for listeners to discover. Of all of Zelenka's masses, however, it is especially the later works written from 1733 onwards that represent (to cite Wolfgang Horn again) the peak of the so-called number mass in Baroque Europe, furthering the art-form which had already achieved such a high degree of perfection in the hands of Antonio Caldara and J.J. Fux, as well as in J.S. Bach's 1733 Kyrie-Gloria mass in B minor. Correspondingly, Zelenka's late masses also represent a peak of applying stile misto (mixed style, meaning approximately: employing a combination of older polyphonic techniques with newer virtuoso/Galant-like arias, concertato elements, etc.) to large-scale vocal works. To the list of these masses one can also add several of Zelenka's exquisite litanies, which in many respects are “smaller-scale” masses. More in-depth information/notes on some of Zelenka's late masses can be found via the General Reading and References page.
One of Zelenka's early masterpieces is his set of Lamentationes ZWV 53, which sets the words of the prophet Jeremiah. Whether due to the intensity of the text or the sympathy Zelenka felt for the disconsolate words of the prophet, Zelenka's setting allows Jeremiah's voice to speak like no other, being unmatched in its depth, understated drama and sheer power by any composer before or since who attempted to set the same words to music. Zelenka's responsories, which accompany the latter set of lamentations, are altogether different in spirit (even while retaining an appropriately sombre mood), looking back to the late 16th/early 17th centuries and employing various madrigalisms in a fundamentally “classical”/late-Renaissance polyphonic framework. One is brought into a different, somewhat more dramaturgical world with the Requiem ZWV 48 from the 1730's, with its mixture of new and old styles set in stark relief. The Invitatorium and three Lectiones from the 1730's demonstrate yet another facet of Zelenka's style: setting words to music in a way that lets the words unfold with the minimum possible external effect – i.e. the complete opposite of madrigalism – where musicality is in no way subservient externally, but the music becomes in itself, essentially, artfully sublimated spoken text. The attribution of a more Galant-like Requiem in C minor (ZWV 45) is spurious and this work is unlikely to be by Zelenka.
Zelenka wrote two Te Deum settings. The first is from c.1724 and re-uses material from his Sub olea pacis of 1723; the second, for two choirs, comes from Zelenka's mature period, and is beyond a doubt one of his most dazzling large-scale choral works.
Zelenka wrote numerous motet-like liturgical and spiritual works during the 1720's and 1730's, with many of them forming multi-purpose cycles (Psalmi Vespertini) in which musical settings of individual texts could be re-used across different celebrations. The unifying feature in all of these works – beyond, of course, their fundamentally devotional character – is once again the varied use of stile misto, but this time in smaller-scale forms... smaller-scale in a Baroque context! Zelenka must have been especially inspired when writing these motet-like pieces, since there is not a weak link among them: each one is a gem. The selection below thus only gives a flavour of the character and variety of these works, beginning with the dramatic Miserere ZWV 57, and ending in the brilliantly fiery Laetatus Sum ZWV 90.
In comparison to many of his contemporaries, Zelenka wrote relatively few secular vocal works and only four oratorios – nearly all of them works of his later maturity. Among the secular works the glittering
Il Diamante stands out as a prominent example of the seldom-employed serenata form; while among the oratorios,
Il Serpento del bronzo stands out both for its profundity and strong musical-character depictions.
Zelenka's instrumental works mostly date from around the time the composer was apprenticed under the Austrian master Johann Joseph Fux. Therefore, they belong to Zelenka's first, “early” mature period. While one could argue that Zelenka is primarily a vocal composer (it was not altogether inappropriate that he was given the honorific title of
Church Composer), his orchestral works capture another side of his flamboyant yet profound creativity that equally deserves attention. His most significant instrumental works are the virtuostic 6 trio sonatas, which continue to challenge soloists to this day.