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Leos Janacek: Overview


Leos Janacek: Leos Janacek (b.Hukvaldy, 3 July 1854; d. Prague, 12 Aug 1928).



It is interesting that we tend to think of Leos Janacek as a more-or-less modern composer - let us say, as a contemporary of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. For he was born in 1854. If he had died at the age of fifty, he would now be regarded as one of the good minor Czech composers, like Novak or Fibich. The remaining twenty-four years of his life produced works that place him beside Dvorak and Smetana as one of his country's greatest composers.



This late harvest is made all the more surprising in view of Leos Janacek's early musical development. Born in the village of Hukvaldy, in eastern Moravia, Leos Janacek was singing in village festivals at the age of six, and became a music student at the age of eleven. His family was poor - he was the ninth of fourteen children - but the surrounding scenery was magnificent, with mountains, forests, open fields, even a ruined castle overlooking the village. When he was eleven, Leos Janacek's father - the village schoolmaster - was unable to make up his mind whether the boy should be trained as a teacher or a musician. It was decided that Leos Janacek should attend the monastery school in Old Brno; the choirmaster there was Pavel Kfizkovsky, a well-known composer of choral music and a friend and protege of Leos Janacek senior. Leos Janacek found the life lonely, but he learned a great deal about music from singing in the choir; he even took part in a performance of Meyerbeer's Le Prophete. At the age of fourteen, Leos Janacek entered the Imperial and Royal Teachers Training Institute, on a state scholarship (this had been his father's last wish before his death) and spent three years there. Then, having passed his examinations with honours, it was back to the monastery as a teacher and unpaid deputy choir master. His earliest attempts at composing organ and choral works date from this period; but, as might be expected, they show little individuality. Having now determined that his career should be in music, Leos Janacek felt the necessity for the academic qualifications that could only be gained in Prague. He obtained a year's leave, borrowed a little money from a friend, and moved to the capital. There his enthusiasm was so intense that he was able to cram a three-year course into a single year, and left the Organ School with the necessary certificates. Back in Brno, after more exams, he became a music teacher at the Teacher's Training School, returned to conducting the monastery choir, and in due course became Director of the Philharmonic Society. Oddly enough, his great ambition was to found a music college of his own. So although he was now engaged to one of his piano pupils, Zdenka Schulz, he decided to spend the winter of 1879 and the spring of 1880 at the Leipzig Music Conservatoire. The remainder of his year's leave of absence was spent at the Vienna Conservatoire, studying composition. When his professor there criticised a violin sonata of Leos Janacek's as too academic, Leos Janacek left Vienna without even waiting for his diploma. It was not his first disagreement with academic authorities on the subject of music, and it confirmed him in his desire to found his own school. His own theories about music were unorthodox; he was convinced that it should follow the rhythms of the human voice and of animal and bird noises.



Back in Brno, Leos Janacek married Zdenka, and it was an exceptionally happy marriage. He was twenty-seven, and his head was full of dreams: of a new national music; of turning Brno into a musical centre on a level with Prague; of new teaching methods. And for the next twenty years, Leos Janacek was absorbed in teaching, in studying folk music, and in writing male voice choruses, a couple of abortive operas, and some immature orchestral works, like the Lack Dances. Leos Janacek had still not found his own voice. This was not to happen until his late forties, when he began to compose his opera Jenufa, sub-titled The Step Daughter, and based on a play by Gabriela Preissova. His twenty-one-year-old daughter Olga died while he was completing the opera - the second of Leos Janacek's children to die - and traces of his sorrow can be found in the music of the second and third acts.



Jenufa was performed in Brno in 1904, Leos Janacek's fiftieth year, and was a triumph. Yet the triumph failed to spread beyond Brno. Leos Janacek was, indeed, known in Prague, and that was partly the trouble: he was known as a folklorist with some odd musical theories. And, incredibly, enemies in Prague succeeded in blocking all efforts to get Jenufa considered for the National Theatre. It would take twelve more years to reach Prague.



The story of how this happened is told by Leos Janacek's friend (and Kafka's) Max Brod, who declared that a certain writer heard a peasant woman singing an air from Jenufa as she sat working at her front door. He was so impressed that he telephoned the director of the National Opera, and arranged for Leos Janacek to send a score. The director turned it down.



The writer was so irritated that he brought the peasant woman to Prague and had her sing the melodies to the board, who were finally convinced. The story seems to be slightly touched-up. The 'peasant woman' was actually a singer, and a close friend of Leos Janacek's enthusiastic supporter, Dr Vesely, and the writer, Karel Sipec was approached in the normal way. Still, what followed was romantic enough: the premiere, on the 26th May 1916, was again a triumph; at sixty-two Leos Janacek at last became famous, and Jenufa was soon being sung in half the opera houses of Europe. Leos Janacek's career had finally started.



During the years between the first Brno performance and the Prague triumph, Leos Janacek had not ceased to compose. In 1914 there was a delightful work, Mr Broutek's Excursions, in which the hero visits the moon in a dream. This contains some music - in the last scene, for example - which is even more typical of Leos Janacek than Jenufa. It is highly romantic and warm, yet at the same time, astringent. The music often seems to move forward in jerks, like someone driving a fast car and clapping on the brakes every few seconds, but in between the 'jerks' it surges forward with tremendous rhythmic vitality. There is something unmistakably modern about it, reminiscent of the angular periods of Stravinsky's Les Noces, yet it combines this with a touch of classical coldness, almost as in Gregorian chant, and with an overall feeling of romanticism and delight in nature. Almost any single bar is immediately recognisable as Leos Janacek.



In the twelve years of life that remained to him after the success of Jenufa, Leos Janacek produced four great operas, several magnificent pieces of choral music, including the Glagolitic Mass, one great song cycle, the Diary of a Man Who Disappeared, a Sinfonietta, and a number of piano and chamber works including two remarkable string quartets, and a sextet, Youth. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that every work of this later period is a masterpiece. At least, lovers of Leos Janacek would be unwilling to be without any single one of them.



Leos Janacek was now an international figure, and his post-war fame coincided happily with Czech political freedom, the aim that had been so dear to the heart of Smetana. He had another reason for flinging himself into creative activity. During the war, a friendly antique dealer named David Stossl had been able to obtain food for the Janaceks, and in return, Leos Janacek was later able to help to save him from being expelled as an alien. In 1918, he met Stossl's wife Kamila, a pretty, temperamental, gypsy-likegirl, with whom he had already corresponded; he promptly became infatuated with her. Leos Janacek's wife, though admirable, was thoroughly middle class - she has been compared to Wagner's first wife Minna - and this lack of adaptability had occasionally caused friction between husband and wife. Kamila was no Mathilde Wesendonck; she did not reciprocate Leos Janacek's feelings. All the same, she made the ageing composer dream. And the dreams overflowed in operas like Katya Kabanova (1919) based on Ostrovsky's gloomy domestic drama The Storm, and The Makropoulos Affair (1923-5) about a magical three-hundred-year-old woman; in two astonishing string quartets sub-titled respectively the Kreutzer (inspired by Tolstoy's novel The Kreutzer Sonata) and Intimate Pages. (The latter was to have been called Love Letters.) Most of all, perhaps, they overflowed into the song cycle Diary of a Man Who Disappeared, based on the case of a young farmer who abandoned his home and inheritance, and eloped with a gypsy girl. This is one of Leos Janacek's most moving works, and is probably the ideal introduction to the composer. (For English listeners, the version sung in English makes a far greater impact than the original Czech.)



Leos Janacek never grew old. At the age of seventy, he wrote one of his most delightful works, the wind sextet Youth. And his health and creative abilities were still undiminished when he caught a cold during an over-long walk in the woods near his home village; it turned to bronchial pneumonia, and he died in 1928, aged seventy-four. His last opera, The House of the Dead, shows no falling off in creative power; on the contrary, it is one of his most original works. This setting of Dostoevsky's gloomy novel of Siberian prison life attempts to portray human suffering in music; Leos Janacek deliberately sets out to create an 'alien' quality. The 'overture' is simply a repeated phrase, which suggests at the same time the sort of exoticism found in Prince Igor and the cold detachment of Gregorian chant. The opera itself- much of it choral - has these same qualities of fire and ice. Leos Janacek is the only composer so far to have translated Dostoevsky's world of spiritual torment into music that does not trivialise it. If greatness is to be judged by the depth of its seriousness, then Leos Janacek is Czechoslovakia's greatest composer.



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