Václav Luks on Zelenka

Photo: Petra Hajská, 2018

4th September 2023

Václav Luks studied at the Pilsen Conservatoire and the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and he furthered his education with the specialised study of early music at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland.

In 2005 he founded the Prague Baroque orchestra Collegium 1704 and the vocal ensemble Collegium Vocale 1704. Under his leadership, the ensembles have made guest appearances at prestigious festivals, have performed in important European concert halls in such cities as Berlin, Vienna, Salzburg, Brussels, Amsterdam, Warsaw, and London, and have shared the stage with some of the world’s most acclaimed singers including Magdalena Kožená, Karina Gauvin, Vivica Genaux, Sandrine Piau, Philippe Jaroussky, Bejun Mehta, Sarah Mingardo, Adam Plachetka, and Andreas Scholl.

Their recordings have won not only the enthusiastic acclaim of listeners, but also numerous awards from critics including Les Trophées, the Diapason d’Or, and the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik. In May 2021, Václav Luks conducted Collegium 1704 at the opening concert of the Prague Spring International Music Festival.

His activities have played an important role in reviving interest in the music of the Czech composers Jan Dismas Zelenka and Josef Mysliveček and have strengthened Czech-German cultural ties by rediscovering the two countries’ shared musical traditions.

Under his leadership, Collegium 1704 recorded the music for Petr Václav’s documentary Zpověď zapomenutého (Confession of the Vanished) and for his feature film Il Boemo about the life of Josef Mysliveček, for which Václav Luks served as the chief musical consultant. Václav Luks has collaborated on operatic and theatrical productions with such stage directors as Willi Decker, Ursel Herrmann, Louise Moaty, David Radok, Jiří Heřman, J. A. Pitínský, and Ondřej Havelka.

Since 2021 he has been guest conducting the Handel & Haydn Society in Boston, and for the 2022-2025 seasons he is an artist-in-residence of the Kammerakademie Potsdam.

Besides working intensively with Collegium 1704, Václav Luks also appears with other acclaimed orchestras in the field of early music such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Netherlands Bach Society, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Concerto Köln, and La Cetra Barockorchester Basel.

His engagements with modern orchestras include collaborations with the Czech Philharmonic, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, and the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra among others. At a benefit concert for the restoration of the Notre Dame Cathedral, Václav Luks conducted the Orchestre Nationale de France, with which he has been appearing regularly since 2019, and the French radio station France Musique devoted five broadcasts of its series Grands interpretes de la musique Classique to him. In June 2022 he was honoured with France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his significant contributions to culture.

Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me about Zelenka. I think you have conducted most of the performances and recordings of his music that I’ve come across!

(Laughs) Yes. I think recordings are great, but I believe it’s much more important to perform his music in concert. Who would buy a Zelenka recording? People that already know about him. Quite often we are asked to play Zelenka’s music, but usually in combination with Bach. Zelenka is not as famous as Bach, and they need to be safe with the audience. But in my experience (for instance, at the Salzburg Festival, which is not an Early Music festival, but a mainstream one with big stars and big names) after the concert the audience seem really shocked. Everyone says to us, ‘Bach is good, but this Zelenka… it was something we never expected!’

When did you start to conduct Zelenka’s music?

I founded my orchestra and vocal ensemble Collegium 1704 in 2005. Before that it was a small chamber ensemble working occasionally, but I decided that I wanted to transform that small group into an orchestra. I also founded the vocal ensemble Collegium Vocale 1704. Basically, I had two main goals: the first was to establish an orchestra in Prague for the regular performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. For people from the UK that might sound strange because it has been established for so many for decades, but in Prague that was not the case.

The second goal was to contribute to the discovery of the Czech genius, and contemporary of Bach, Jan Dismas Zelenka. My orchestra’s name, Collegium 1704, is linked to him. We have very little information about his life – very large periods (particularly his childhood) are still a mystery. But we know he was born in Louňovice pod Blaníkem, a small village in central Bohemia. He was baptised in 1679 as Jan Lukáš Zelenka (we don’t know when or why he changed his name to Dismas, it’s very strange). But finally, in 1704, we have the information that he composed his first piece, Via laureta,[1] for the Prague Jesuits. For me, the year 1704 is when Zelenka appeared as a composer on the scene – it’s like a symbol of the Golden Age of Bohemian Baroque music. Some people also ask if it refers to the death of Charpentier or Biber, but it’s only connected to Zelenka. So that’s why it’s called Collegium 1704 – it’s a bit of a long story for a very short number!

(laughs) If you’re conducting the music of a composer like Bach there are many books, articles and audio-visual resources a conductor can use to inform their performance and interpretation. When so much of a composer’s life is a mystery, how do you build an understanding and an interpretation of their music? Do you need to use a whole different method to prepare the score?

Well, I would say I have an almost personal connection to Zelenka, it’s like he’s my close friend, somehow. His musical language is very special, and very challenging for musicians that are not used to playing it – the first contact with his music can be strange. I think that our main problem in our understanding of Baroque music, at the moment, is that we just think that the perfect Baroque music sounds like Bach. The music of these two giants is often compared, but Zelenka’s music sounds completely different, and that might be disturbing for some people.

The basic difference is while Bach represents the pinnacle of German Protestant music, Zelenka’s music is fundamentally anchored in the Catholic music tradition and influenced by Italian aesthetics. Additionally, he has his own very special, very modern, progressive personal language. It’s a combination of the Italian style, his own musical language, and inspiration from the music of the first half of the Seventeenth Century (composers 100 years older than his contemporaries).

In Vienna, with Johann Joseph Fux, Zelenka studied the counterpoint of Palestrina, and it’s very interesting how he used this old-fashioned stile antico counterpoint that you can hear in the Missa Omnium Sanctorum (for instance, in Credo). Credo is the most important part of this piece, I think. You can hear super-modern Italian concerto, not even like Vivaldi but Locatelli, and you have Italian setting of vocal parts. In the Crucifixus part in the middle you have old-fashioned counterpoint like Frescobaldi or Palestrina. And then turning back to the concerto you have all these elements together – it’s incredible, it’s like a mosaic of different musical styles, not even just from Zelenka’s own time but also from styles a hundred years old. This is fascinating, and it’s like when composers of the Twentieth Century (for example, Stravinsky) used different musical elements from the past in crazy combinations. I know only of Zelenka who was working in this way as a Baroque composer.

The second important difference between Bach and Zelenka is that the Lutheran tradition was more based in rationality. To understand Bach’s music you might need to understand German and the content of the text, but in Italian music the impact is much more important, it’s an emotional attack on your soul. In Zelenka’s music it feels like when you are in a Basilica and you’re struck by all of the paintings and decorations. It’s not important that you understand everything in the pictures. It is designed to simply make you gasp and be in awe of all the emotion, the movement and colour, and the huge scale of the work with all of its tiny details. This is Zelenka’s music. The difference between the Lutheran and Catholic aesthetic is very important.

The Zelenka scores that I have looked through have very few dynamics – in that small way they are similar to Bach’s.

Hmm yes, in Zelenka’s early works you’re completely right – there are very few indications. But in his late compositions (i.e. from the second half of the 1730s) there is actually a lot of information. You could compare it to Beethoven’s scores – in his last period of music there was also so much more information. For instance, Zelenka’s later Miserere in C Minor from 1738 (he wrote two Misereres) is an impressive piece. There’s a dynamic at the end on the one long note in the orchestra – it’s written with fortissimo, forte, mezzoforte, and at the end you have piano pianissimo. I’ve never seen ppp in Baroque music before. Zelenka’s scores are extremely precise, not only because of the composer himself, but also the fantastic Dresden orchestra. Their concertmaster was Johann Georg Pisendel, the best violin player in Germany at the time. He prepared the orchestra for Zelenka performances very precisely, with a lot of small details, articulation and dynamics.

Zelenka used a lot of dynamics, especially in the music he composed towards the end of his life. He wrote a collection of six so-called Missa Ultimarum. We have only three of them, and they were probably never performed in his lifetime. Maybe he composed them for himself, we don’t know really know why he called them Missa Ultimarum (Last Mass) – maybe he knew that he was already at the end of his life, and he composed a farewell to our world. It’s like his personal testament. In a lot of these scores he very precisely expresses what he wants, and I think the Missa Omnium Sanctorum (1741) is the sixth of these masses and his last. This is his goodbye.

What about ornamentation? For example, the ornamentation in Bach’s Mass in B minor is very precisely written out, which was not the case in a lot of previous music. What works best with Zelenka?

That is a good question. Bach’s music is very complex and to add ornamentation is very tricky. When you have a complex score with a very complicated structure, you can easily make mistakes in the harmony and voice leading. It’s very precisely written, so sometimes it’s very hard to find the proper way of putting ornaments in. The same applies in Zelenka’s as it’s also very complex – I don’t see much space for crazy ornamentation, everything is written in the score. This is one of the similarities between Bach and Zelenka’s music.

In very simple Italian music (not that it’s inferior or of lesser quality) the composer often makes the structure very straightforward, inviting the performers to add something more. Handel’s music is like this, as well. In those there is much more space for ornamentation because it needs your contribution. Somehow, Bach’s music doesn’t need so much. It’s funny, because you can perform it on the computer or on synthesisers and the quality of the music is so high that it doesn’t need any interpretation.

Sometimes I think that Bach’s music works better on the paper than in live performance. In some pieces like Die Kunst der Fuge, the question whether it is for organ, harpsichord or string quartet isn’t important – it’s a score in four parts. For me personally, after 20 minutes I’m not able to follow everything – it’s simply too complicated. But if you have the score, and you see the music on the paper, you are amazed at how Bach composed such incredible polyphony.

Zelenka’s music is different. It needs a performance, your emotions, your contribution, but I never felt that it would be necessary to add any crazy fioritura.

Is there a lot of discrepancy in performance tempos?

Well, tempo is an important and interesting topic in Bach’s music. We are lucky that we don’t have any performance tradition with Zelenka, we can see his music with fresh eyes. This is the problem with Bach – you have almost 200 years of German performance tradition. When we started establishing Bach’s tradition in Prague, another goal was to not make recording No. 2025 of the B minor Mass! I wanted to approach Bach’s music differently – to my mind, it has been performed far too heavily. The established performance tempos are more suited to the big German choruses of the Nineteenth Century with at least 80 singers. But Collegium 1704 did a recording with a very small group – Andrew Parrott[2] suggested that Bach’s choruses should be performed with only one or two singers per part.

The size of the ensemble is an interesting question, but I think it’s much more interesting to think about how to perform his music. In a way, the music has nothing to do with the size of the ensemble. You can perform Bach with a small ensemble, on a modern piano, or on the harpsichord very beautifully. Whether the ensemble is big or small is not important. To be exact, my main issues are the tempi of alla breve in his B minor mass (and other pieces, as well). Alla breve in the Baroque tradition is a very fast tempo. But the musicians of the Nineteenth Century saw the scores of alla breve with all the long notes and automatically thought this must be something very grave and pathetic. But it isn’t true, the tempo must be doubled here – it makes much more sense. It’s more fluid, beautiful and much easier with a small group.

We don’t have any real performance tradition with Zelenka’s work so from the outset we can experience his music without this deformation. We have a lot of information from Zelenka’s contemporaries about tempo relations, but much more important than any tempo indication is our experience of playing the music. As I said, the music is very challenging, it’s very difficult for the orchestra and very virtuosic for the chorus. You simply have to find the one tempo that works as the basic groove for the orchestra and singers. If it’s too slow or too fast it stops working. If you ask any violinist about Paganini it’s the same – if it’s too slow or too fast it doesn’t work.

Of course, it’s also important to have the right size orchestra and kapellknaben (chorus). In the Chapel of the King in Dresden, Zelenka had around 16 singers and the size of the chorus we use is the same. The size of the orchestra was bigger than the one Bach had in Liepzig, but it would depend on the occasion. For Holy Week or Holy Friday they used a really big orchestra, but for a regular Sunday service it would be a little smaller (but still much larger than in Liepzig). We know that Bach was very unlucky in Liepzig, with both his musicians and the size of the orchestra, and he tried to get a job in Dresden as a Kapellmeister alongside Zelenka. It must be mentioned that Zelenka was never given the official title of Kapellmeister, only the formal Kirchen-Compositeur. Nevertheless, he often carried out the work of Kapellmeister of the Catholic Church Court, filling in first for the sick for J.D. Heinichen and later for his successor Johann Adolph Hasse when he was absent. Hasse was a big star of the opera world, and Zelenka often took over his position when he was in Italy composing his operas.

But I don’t think Zelenka was unhappy. You often hear the story that he was a miserable person because he made his music in the Chapel of the King and never got the proper title of Kapellmeister, but I think he had a really fantastic career. He started with his music studies very late, aged 28, and then five years later he was a member of the orchestra of the King of Saxony and Poland, collaborating with the biggest music stars of his time, and making music with fantastic orchestras. I think this must have been a dream job for someone who had been born in a small village in middle of Bohemia. He starting his musical training so late, but ended up in one of the most important and prestigious music centres in Europe. I think he was very lucky in the end.

I saw you speaking on YouTube with the oboist Xenia Löffler about performing Zelenka’s sonatas together.[3] Xenia said that earlier in her career she would have never thought that she would have been able to perform this music – it’s just so difficult.

What is so difficult about it?

The six sonatas are a good example – they are for two oboes, bassoon and basso continuo (except for No. 3 which is written for violin, oboe, bassoon and basso continuo). He probably composed the collection while he was still in Vienna during his studies, or shortly after his return to Dresden (before 1720). If you look at the dimensions of the sonatas and see how technically difficult the solo parts are for oboe and bassoon, it’s like music from another universe, and definitely not from his own time. In around 1720, the trio sonata was a small form, like a musical divertissement – something entertaining, and not necessarily the highest form of the music. But Zelenka wrote these incredibly difficult, long and complex sonatas that are around 20 minutes long. They just didn’t exist at that time.

For a long time no one composed pieces like these sonatas, not even Bach until three years before his death (1747) when he composed the Das Musikalisches Opfer (The Musical Offering) for King Frederick II of Prussia. There is a sonata on the King’s Theme written for traverso (Baroque flute), violin and basso continuo that has the dimensions and challenges of Zelenka’s sonatas – but that is more than 20 years later. Between Zelenka’s sonatas and Bach’s sonata for Das Musikalisches Opfer nothing was written that was even close to those dimensions.

I think this is the problem. Sometimes people ask me, ‘why is Zelenka’s music rarely performed?’ I think one of the problems is that it’s simply too difficult. In Germany, with Bach’s tradition, every village will have some amateur choir and they are able to organise an orchestra and perform St. John’s Passion or some cantatas once a year. With Bach’s music it’s difficult but it is possible. But I can’t imagine doing one of last masses like Missa Omnium Sanctorum with an amateur choir and orchestra – it’s simply impossible. The best pieces by Zelenka are just not accessible for amateurs, and that’s why his music is not so widespread. It’s really for professional prowess.

In Collegium 1704’s wonderful performances of Brandenburg Concertos on YouTube,[4] you lead from the harpsichord.

Have you done the same with any of Zelenka’s music?

Conducting from the harpsichord is a very specialist subject. Usually, I do it with my own group performing pieces like Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, like you mentioned. But this is the maximum size I do it. When the ensemble is bigger, like for an opera or choral music, I don’t like it – I think your function to give support to the musicians. Playing really good basso continuo is something you have to do with both hands, you can’t just play something ridiculous with one hand and do something even more ridiculous with the other! I think it’s better to do good basso continuo or good conducting, doing both together with a bigger ensemble really doesn’t work for me.

With Zelenka, I would maybe do it for Responsoria pro Hebdomada Sancta or Lamentations. With a smaller group I could do it because it’s very like chamber music and almost not necessary to conduct. You could conduct with your body language and play the realisation of basso continuo with both hands beautifully – that is possible. But as soon as you need to free your hands to conduct, it really doesn’t make sense to play. You cannot perform good basso continuo in this scenario.

Right. I’ve occasionally seen it in earlier opera, but I also recently spoke to a conductor who also played the harpsichord for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

Yes, The Rake’s Progress borrows its structure from a Mozart opera, and the harpsichord is just used for the recits. But you will also see an extra harpsichord player.

With Semele at Glyndebourne [2023] I only played the recitatives – I mainly conducted the soloists and the orchestra. In opera, the conductor is the servant for the singers and for them to feel safe and be together with the orchestra. If I was playing I couldn’t really bring everything together. Maybe someone is able to do it… but not me! We performed Semele with two harpsichords. I played the first harpsichord and Jack, the second harpsichordist, played all the arias, instrumental music and choruses I conducted. But for the recitatives it was fun to play with a continuo group and to decide on the instrumentation. The first harpsichord might play here, the second harpsichord there, and sometimes we’d have both harpsichords playing together. At other times it would be the lute, the harp or even some other instrumentation. That was fun, and it made sense to work in that way.

I noticed that on all the videos I found of you conducting, you never use a baton…

Well, it depends. When I’m conducting seventeenth or eighteenth-century vocal music (especially if there is a chorus) I usually do it without a baton because somehow you can feel more of the music with your fingers. But when I’m doing late eighteenth-century or nineteenth-century music (the early romantic and symphonic repertoire) I conduct with a baton because with a bigger orchestral performance (with no chorus) the visibility of your movements with a baton is much clearer than when you only use your hands. As you know, many of the musicians have half an eye on the score, so it’s good to be very clear and visible. After years of conducting different repertoire you find the best way for you. Of course, there are some conductors that never use a baton.

I read there are 249 opus works by Zelenka. Is that right?

I would say there’s a lot more, because the structure of his catalogue is different to Bach’s. For instance, his collection of Responsoria pro Hebdomada Sancta for Holy Week contains 27 pieces but only has one Opus number. In Bach’s catalogue each prelude or small song from the Schemelli Lieder book has a different number. So there are more than 249 pieces, but of course not as much as composers like Bach or Telemann. I think around 60 pieces have still never been performed, so there’s more work to do!

How many of his pieces have you recorded and performed?

I don’t know, but if you see our music scores archive of everything we’ve performed in our orchestra office, one whole wall (around 15m of scores) is Zelenka’s music.

That’s incredible, so he’s like one of your best friends!

For sure! If you asked me which composer I would like to meet in person, Zelenka would definitely be one of my favourites, probably my No. 1.

What would you ask him?

About the mysteries of his life – what he did for first 25 years of it. I think it would open the door to a deeper understanding of his music and why he decided to do pursue it. I’d like to know how he made his way to composing and how important it was to him – because I think you can feel such incredible passion, and a very strong character and emotions in his work. I think you can hear how important music was to him, and it’s really touching – it’s shocking for me how much you can feel Zelenka as a human being. So, one of my questions would be, ‘what was the role of music in your life?’ I get the impression he had some bad experiences and music helped him to pull through. This is just speculation, it’s just an idea, but that would be something I would like to ask.

Yes, some music undeniably feels like it is coming from a place of suffering. For example, Shostakovich.

Exactly! I really would compare his music with Shostakovich’s. It is far easier to compare Zelenka’s work with composers of the Twentieth Century than his own contemporaries – it is just so different.

I feel that the fact that Zelenka drew from so many musical influences makes his work very timeless. It also made me wonder about his musical background as they span such a wide range.

Yeah, for sure. I think his first teacher was most probably his father. He was an organist in the village and then he studied at the Jesuit College Clementinum in Prague. The music education in this school was very, very good. Prague, at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, was like melting pot of different influences from across Europe: French music, German music, Italian music, Catholic music, Protestant music – everything altogether. This is the environment where he grew up, and I think that formed his genius. Then, as I mentioned, he studied in Vienna for two or three years with Fux, who was an authority on counterpoint (he wrote the book Gradus ad Parnassum about Palestrina counterpoint). I think that experience was very important for Zelenka, it was a new experience for him to study the older music from before his time. This resulted in such a rich compilation of antique and modern styles.

It’s so nice that my colleagues and I are the creators of Zelenka’s performance tradition, and have the opportunity to establish something very healthy. Bach is perfection itself, but in Zelenka’s music you can feel his soul. I think it is my duty to place his music in context with a genius like Bach and to perform it live in concert.

[1] Via laureta was a school drama – only the libretto remains.

[2] See Parrott, A. The Essential Bach Choir (Boydell Press, Woodbridge 2000)

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SU8IIiDpK4c

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEzecIGYktA