Zelenka: Litaniae De Venerabili Sacramento – Music for a Roman Catholic Court in Protestant lands

The Summer Concert of Highgate Concert will be a wonderful selection of some famous and some almost unknown works of the baroque period. The Highgate Choral Society will be joined by four soloists and the New London Orchestra. The concert takes place on Saturday 6 July 2019, 7pm at All Hallows’ Church, Savernake Road, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP.

The concert will start with one movement out of Telemann’s famous “Tafelmusik” (for orchestra). You will also have a chance to hear two different settings of the Magnificat – one by Vivaldi and the other one which was either composed by Pergolesi or his teacher Durante. Probably Vivaldi’s most popular choral piece his Gloria will be performed as well as two solo arias from Handel’s oratorio Samson.

This blog post is about the work which I personally find the most exciting one of the programme: Litaniae de Venerabili Sacremento by Zelenka.

1. Jan Dismas Zelenka was born on 16 October 1679 in Louňovice pod Blaníkem, a small village about 70 km from Prague. His father was schoolmaster and organist in Louňovice and probably his first music teacher. Zelenka was the eldest of eight children.

There is not much known about his early life. There are some early compositions for the Jesuit College Clementinum in Prague. Therefore it is assumed that he was educated at this college. He also kept contact with Jesuits later in life and was commissioned to write music by them on several occasions. Baron Johann Hubert von Hartig was an important patron of the college and he was also Zelenkas first employer and patron in 1709. Von Hartig had an impressive music library in particular Italian music and Zelenka took great interest in this music.

2. It is likely that Baron von Hartig also recommended Zelenka for his next job at the Hofkapelle (Court Orchestra) in Dresden. Zelenka started working in Dresden in 1710 or 1711. He was not employed as a composer or musical director, but rather as viole (or double bass) player in the orchestra.

The court in Dresden was an interesting place at that time. The Royal court was musically and culturally one of the most important ones in Europe. The court orchestra consisted of 40 players and had a very high standard. But there were other reasons which made the Dresden court distinctive. Frederick Augustus I of Saxony had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1697 to be eligible as King of Poland and was crowned in Krakow as August II of Poland. However, he knew that it would be impossible to force his subjects to convert to Catholicism, because Saxony is the mother country of reformation in Germany. In the 16th century the Elector of Saxony took Martin Luther under his special protection. Therefore the Royal Court became Roman Catholic, but the aristocracy and the people of Saxony stayed Lutheran. This difference in denominations led to rivalry and tensions between the Catholic court and the protestant aristocracy and the people.

Musically it meant that the Royal Court required music for the Roman Catholic liturgy and Zelenka’s first composition for the court was a mass setting, Missa Sanctae Caeciliae (in 1711) which he dedicated to his employer. He combined his dedication with a request to study in Italy and France. It is unclear whether he travelled in the end to Italy and France, it is more likely that he did not, but the mass must have impressed the court, because Zelenka’s salary was increased from 300 thalers to 350 thalers shortly afterwards. By 1714 it was increased again to 400 thalers.

3. In 1716 Zelenka was allowed to go to Vienna. He studied there with the Habsburg Imperial Kapellmeister Johann Joseph Fux. He also made an important collection of vocal and instrumental music which he took with him to Dresden (Collectanoerum musciorum libiri quatour). Zelenka was in Vienna not only to study, but also to serve the Electoral Prince who had arrived there on 6 October 1717. The prince had converted to Catholicism in 1712, however this was initially kept a secret, because the court feared protests. In 1717 his conversion was publicly announced and at the same time he suggested himself as husband of a Habsburg princess. In 1719 he married Archduchess Maria Josepha of Austria, eldest child of Joseph I, the Holy Roman Emperor who had died in 1711 and niece of the then Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. The marriage treaty ensured that she would be able to practice her Catholic religion free and unhindered in Saxony; however there was an exception for public processions which were not allowed. 

In 1719 the newly wed couple returned to Dresden and so did Zelenka. Maria Josepha became a strong patron of Catholic music at the Dresden court and also a patron of Zelenka.

Zelenka composed about 20 mass settings, music for Holy Week, settings of the requiem and a considerable number of psalm setting, Marian antiphons (hymns in honour of the Virgin Mary) and other hymn settings. In 1722 Zelenka was asked to write a secular work for the coronation of Charles Vi and the empress as King and Queen in Bohemia. He wrote a melodrama about St. Wenceslas, the patron Saint of Bohemia with the title Sub olea pacis ete palma virtutis conspicua orbi regia Bohemiae Corona. This was an allegorical music drama which required 150 performers and elaborate costumes and staging. Zelenka stayed in Prague in 1722 – 1723 to conduct the premiere of this work.

4. Zelenka’s position at the court in Dresden did not change for a long time. He composed a considerable number of sacred music, but had still the position and the salary of a middle-ranking instrumentalist. In 1726 he began an inventory of his compositions. In 1729 the musical directors of the Dresden Court Kapellmeister Johann David  Heinichen died and Zelenka  took over most responsibilities of the Dresden Royal chapel. The opera in Dresden had been closed a couple of years earlier, but the court hired a group of Italian singers and Zelenka wrote secular arias and was responsible for their musical training. In 1731 he also achieved an increase in his salary which brought it to 550 thalers.

On 1 February 1733 the Elector Frederick August I died and Zelenka wrote a requiem mass. It was clear that the position of the director of music (Kapellmeister) would again be filled. Zelenka petitioned the successor Elector Frederick August II (and King August III of Poland) to appoint him as Kapellmeister. However this did not happen. Johann Adolph Hasse, a prominent opera composer and husband of the famous mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni, was appointed as Kapellmeister. He arrived in 1734 in Dresden and re-established the opera in Dresden. Hasse and Bordoni received a combined salary of 6000 thalers more than 10 times Zelenka’s salary at this time. Zelenka was not appointed as second director music, but he received in the same year the title for the new post of “Church composer”.

Zelenka stayed in Dresden for the rest of his life. He died in the night of 22 and 23 December 1745 in Dresden and was buried on Christmas Eve in the Catholic Cemetery in Dresden. Maria Josepha paid for a requiem mass to be held for Zelenka within one month and also purchased his composition and musical estate to preserve it in Dresden.

5. Litaniae de Venerabili Sacramento (ZWV 147) is a work for four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor and bass), mixed chorus and orchestra which includes two trumpets and timpani. It was completed on 1 June 1727. It is a work for Corpus Christi and was first performed on 12 June 1727. Litanies are long, multi-sectioned calls for intercessions. They were very popular in Dresden. Zelenka wrote ten litany settings, they were especially directed to the Virgin Mary, All Saints or the Fest of Corpus Christi. Usually a litany was meant to be sung in procession. Therefore the music of litanies are often very simple. However in Dresden, Catholic public processions were not allowed, out of fear of public protests by the Protestant population. In 1725 the King considered a procession in the gardens of the Summer Palace, but there were threats of major protests. In end it was raining and the procession was inside. A procession outside was very likely not even considered in 1727, because the year before (1726) brought major riots to Dresden which started after the archdeacon of the Protestant Kreuzkirche was killed by a Catholic soldier. This lead to days of riots in which property and religious symbols were destroyed and the Catholics had to flee the city for fear of life. Therefore the Corpus Christi procession in 1727 was held inside, as usual either in the palace or the royal chapel. This meant the litany settings could be musically far more elaborate.

The Litaniae de Venerabili Sacramento consists of eleven movements: The setting starts with two kyrie settings for chorus. In the second one the traditional Kyrie text (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy) is interspersed with the text Christe exaudi nos (Christ hear us). For next six movements, movements for different combinations of soloists and for chorus alternate. Movement 4 (Praecelsum et admirabile) and movement 7 (Propitius esto) are chorus. Movement 3 (Pater coelis) and movement 5 (Panis onipotentia) are for two soloists each, movement 3 for soprano and alto and movement 5 for tenor and bass. In the next solo movement (movement 6 Spiritualis dulcedo) the number of soloists is increased to three (soprano, alto and tenor) and movement 8 (Ab indigna Corporis) all four soloists come together. Movement 9 (Peccatores te rogamus) brings then all four soloists and chorus together. The soloists are given majority of the text in this movement and the chorus sings interjections with the text te rogamus audi nos which means “we ask thee, hear us”. The work ends with two movements for chorus. Movement 10 (Fili Dei te rogamus) feels almost like an extension of movement 9 and the choir continues to sing “we ask thee, hear us”. The last movement 11 is a setting of the Agnus Dei for chorus.

Zelenka’s music style is quite distinct and daring. There are often chromatic progressions and sudden turns of harmony. Some of his music is influenced by Czech folk music. This influence can in particular be seen in rhythmic inventions. All this elements of his style can also be found in the Litaniae de Venerabili Sacramento.

6. During Zelenka’s life time he was held in high esteem for example by J.S. Bach. He was also a close friend of Telemann.

A comment published by Lorenz Mizler in 1747, not long after Zelenka’s death illustrates this esteem very well:

Dresden. Here, the superb church composer Johann Dismas Zelenka is greatly mourned. [He] died on 22 [23] December 1745 after the Prussians had, a few days earlier on 18 December, occupied and captured Dresden. His splendid tuttis, beautiful fugues, and above all the special skills in the church style, are sufficiently known to true lovers of music.

After this death he was virtually forgotten until his rediscovery by Bedřich Smetana.

Zelenka’s music is now occasionally played and there are also a number of recordings of his music. In my opinion he is not played often enough. It is exciting music to sing and it certainly deserves to be much better known. I am glad that Highgate Choral Society can help in this endeavour by including one of pieces in the concert.

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