Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) Miserere in C minor ZWV 57
Urtext edited by Matthias Hutzel and Thomas Kohlhase [S,mix ch,orch] duration: 18'
solo: S – choir: SATB – 0.2.0.0. – 0.0.0.0. – str – bc
The Miserere in C minor ZWV 57 is one of the late works of the Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, it was the only one to be reprised in Dresden’s Hofkirche after his death.
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Very Expressive, Please!
Jan Dismas Zelenka’s musical setting of Psalm 50, “Miserere mei Deus,” was presumably intended for the 1738 Holy Week. Thus, the composition is situated chronologically between the Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis (1736)* and the Missa votiva (1739), two compositions from the cycle of Zelenka’s five late masses, considered the culmination of his sacred-music work. Strong contrasts are a conspicuous stylistic feature of the Miserere c-moll, which Zelenka moderates by embedding them within the entire work’s cyclic arch form. The score and parts of this new edition are based on volume 108 of the series “Das Erbe deutscher Musik,” which was comprehensively revised by Wolfgang Horn in 2018, especially the preface and the critical report.
"Zelenka's artistic personality, his biography and his compositional style are utterly distinctive. His style is highly experimental. Was Zelenka really one of the greatest composers of the 18th century, or only one of the most interesting? I think that he still has several surprises for us." (Schweizerische Musikzeitung)
"Zelenka's Masses - fine specimens of Baroque choral literature, some parts of which are set even more colorfully than in the corresponding compositions by Bach." (Die Welt)
|1. Miserere I|
|2. Miserere II|
|3. Gloria Patri I|
|4. Gloria Patri II|
|5. Sicut erat|
|6. Miserere III|
Jan Dismas Zelenka, a native of Bohemia and a contemporary of Bach’s, is regarded as one of the leading exponents of the Dresden Baroque alongside Johann David Heinichen and Johann Adolf Hasse. Johann Sebastian Bach knew Zelenka personally and, according to Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, is said to have held him in great esteem.
Zelenka was born in the Bohemian town of Launowitz (today: Lunoviče) in 1679 as the son of an organist. Little is known of his early years. He presumably studied at Prague’s Jesuit college and, from 1710/11 until his death in 1745, he worked at the Dresden Hofkapelle, first as double bass player, later as church-music composer.
During a lengthy stay in Vienna in the years 1716–1719, he took lessons from the Imperial Court Kapellmeister Johann Joseph Fux and set up a collection of works by early masters (Morales, Palestrina, Frescobaldi a. o.), in which he repeatedly sought inspiration. After his return to the Dresden court, Zelenka devoted himself chiefly to organizational and compositional tasks for the Catholic court service. Next to Masses and Vespers, he also wrote Litanies and pieces for the Holy Week.
The Miserere in C minor is one of Zelenka’s late works. According to an entry in the autograph score, it was completed on 12 March 1738 and thus chronologically takes its place between the Missa Sanctissimae Trinitatis (1736) and the Missa votiva (1739).
This setting of the 50th Psalm, “Miserere mei Deus,” was most likely intended for the Holy Week liturgy of the year 1738.1 It was, incidentally, the only late work by Zelenka to be reprised in Dresden’s Hofkirche after his death.
The unconventional piece is both fascinating and mystifying through its strong stylistic and expressive contrasts. In the second movement (Miserere II), in which the complete psalm text is set to music, as well as in the fifth movement (Sicut erat), whose substance is related to Miserere II, Zelenka borrows a Ricercar from Girolamo Frescobaldi’s organ mass Messa degli Apostoli as his source. Fashioned in strict counterpoint and exhibiting an almost archaic sound, the two sections stand out noticeably from the other movements, which are original works by Zelenka. They contrast very strongly with the appealing, “empfindsam” soprano aria (Gloria patri I) at the center of the work for one, and with the highly expressive outer movements Miserere I and Miserere III for another. These framing pieces supply the motto and endow the recitation of the prayer text “Miserere mei Deus” (Lord, have mercy on me) with emphatic expression through lively rhythms, sharp dissonances and extreme dynamics. There is no textual or liturgical reason for the reprise of the first Miserere at the close of the work. With the doxology distributed among movements 3 to 5, the recitation of the text is essentially complete. The opening movement, which is heard once again at the end in abridged form, thus lends itself to erecting a framework which gives rise to the work’s well-balanced cyclical arch form.
Matthias Grünert’s piano-vocal score – just like the rental material available from Breitkopf & Härtel – is based on the critical edition of the score prepared by Matthias Hutzel and Thomas Kohlhase in Volume 108 of the Erbe deutscher Musik. Additional comments on the musical form and the context of the origins of the Miserere can be found in the extensive preface there.
Leipzig, Spring 2013
1) For this information as well as the following remarks, compare: Zelenka-Dokumentation: Quellen und Materialien, ed. by Wolfgang Horn and Thomas Kohlhase, Wiesbaden, 1989, Vol. 1, pp. 145 f.