Monday, May 30, 2011: Mysterious Mr Zach

Meet the Mysterious Mr Zach

When you were a child, your music teacher may have presented Beethoven, Bach, and other classical musicians as geniuses with regular, successful lives. But that’s not really the way life went for most musicians.

Take Jan Zach, for example. Look at those troubled eyes.

He’s credited with writing about 30 masses and just as many sinfonias, and he’s described as helping to provide a bridge between Baroque and Classical styles. But he also seems to have been eccentric, argumentative, and unable to hold a job.

Or rather, many jobs: not only as an organist (St Martín) and kapellmeister (for the Prince-Elector of Mainz), but also salesman of his autographed, dedicated copies of his compositions, traveling violinist and harpsichordist, and school teacher.

He was born in 1699 in Čelákovice, today a suburban town near Prague. But back in 1724 it’s an impressive journey for the son of a wheelwright from a small village, to the city of Prague. There he begins his career as a violinst at St Gallus and St Martín.

In 1737 Zach goes for an interview to be the organist of St Vitus Cathedral. But he doesn’t get the job. Pretty much after that, his whereabouts become murky. Three years later he’s reported to be in Prague, whereas others claim he left Bohemia. In 1745 he takes the kappelmeister job at Mainz and performs his own mass in Frankfurt, but by 1746 he hits the road and visits Italy, and the next year is back in Bohemia again.

The rather troubled, mysterious Jan Zach

Meanwhile, thanks to many disputes and behavior characterized gently as “eccentric,” he’s suspended from his job in Mainz in 1750. By 1756 he’s fired.

For the rest of his life, until his end in 1773, he’s merely a visitor: at various courts and monasteries; and a traveler: several times to Italy; and a freelancer: teacher at Jesuit schools, and maybe choirmaster at a monastery — nobody’s quite sure. To date, a precise chronology of his works awaits discovery.

He wrote both instrumental and sacred music — perhaps his best-known works are his Requiem in C Minor, Stabat Mater, and Missa Solemnis.

Musicologists also describe Zach’s engaging, expressive melodies and rhythms as having roots in Czech folksongs and dance rhythms.

Today his works are performed in Prague occasionally, as you can see in this short video excerpt from May 24. It features Zach’s Sonata a Tre Stromenti performed by Dagmar Skleničková, violin, Bohuslava Dlouhá, cello, and Jan Šmydke (not pictured), violin. The music, far from being mysterious or troubled, expresses the best side of our Mr Zach. — oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Video: Miroslav Setnička

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