Zelenka is probably the greatest Baroque bassist you never heard of – but then, how many Baroque bassists have you heard of? Little is known of his early life as the son of a parish organist in a small village south-east of Prague. He enters history firmly only with his move to Dresden in 1710, where he was hired to play the violone (the bass viol ancestor of the modern orchestral bass) in the famous Hofkapelle, then one of the leading musical establishments in Europe. He was successful enough to earn a paid leave to study in Vienna and Italy for several years, beginning in 1716, when he was already 36 years old. His studies bore obvious fruit, for on his return to Dresden he became a prolific composer of sacred choral music, although at a court obsessed with opera he never gained the highest titles or salaries.
He did compose a relatively small body of instrumental music, including six trio sonatas written about the time of his travels south. These works are for two oboes (with violin and/or flute as alternatives), bassoon, and continuo (the Baroque equivalent of a band’s rhythm section, usually a keyboard and bass instrument in tandem).
While Zelenka’s five other trio sonatas are in the four-movement form of the Italian sonata da chiesa, the Fifth Sonata of the set is in the three-movement form and style of Vivaldi’s concertos. It opens with a long unison statement, implanting this important and recurring source of motivic material firmly in the listeners’ minds. This is an expansive movement, with sharply pointed solos in a setting clearly delineated by the recurring unison passages. The slow movement is an arching, yearning cantilena in three parts over a steady ground bass, with all the power and pathos of J.S. Bach, to whom Zelenka is now often compared. The finale is an athletic, dancing fugal movement, masterly in construction and utterly idiosyncratic in expression. The extravagant virtuosity of the writing testifies to the caliber of musicians in Dresden.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.