A Bohemian Bach?

In 1973, a new recording of some chamber music composed by the Czech-born composer Jan Dismas Zelenka was released. Music critic Edward Greenfield was typical of reviewers at the time when he wrote in The Guardian that “this is music to set against that of Bach himself with no apology whatever.” Anyone who might have cared about such a claim would have been hard-pressed to disagree, since at the time very few avid music listeners had even heard of Zelenka, let alone heard any of his music.

The comparison with Bach has many merits. The composers were rough contemporaries, Bach living from 1685 to 1750, and Zelenka from 1679 to 1745. Both were composers working in Germany, with careers linked principally to one city (it has been said that Dresden is to Zelenka as Leipzig is to Bach). They also seem to have been friends (Zelenka is known to have shared meals in the Bach household), and in their compositions one can find influences of each other’s work. And they both composed a lot of music for use in liturgical settings. But at this point, their separate paths become more clearly defined, for Bach was a devout and lifelong Lutheran, while Zelenka —living and working in Saxony, long regarded as the motherland of the Reformation —was nevertheless a faithful child of Catholic Bohemia.

Path to Dresden

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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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