Janacek – Czech Music Series

LEOS JANACEK (1853 – 1928)


There are those who say they find Janacek odd. The fact is that to appreciate this particular composer you have to realize that Janacek was a weirdo. He was a right weirdo in his personal life and also a weirdo in his compositional output. Understand that and all falls into place with this most individual of geniuses.

 Janacek hailed from Moravia in the south east of the Czech Republic. For many years he devoted himself to teaching and researching folklore. He was a latecomer to celebrity. Yet little was known of him or his lifestyle for nearly the first fifty years of his life. He was reputed to be a talented pianist and organist. Most of his time was as a provincial music teacher in Brno. It is surprising to find that his teachers had found him too orthodox. His own pupils were later to find him strict and odd. Until 1879 he hardly stepped out of Brno which was his home. No capital cities for him. He did not seek the glittering gas lights of Prague, let alone Vienna. He was to Brno what L S Lowry was to Manchester.


In October 1879 he had studied piano, organ, and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory. Dissatisfied with his teachers and turned down from a studentship with Saint-Saëns in Paris, Janáček moved on after three months to the Vienna Conservatory where he studied composition for three months. Still not satisfied with his teachers he gave up composition classes and further piano study when he was criticised for his piano style and technique. Janáček left the conservatory in June, 1880, disappointed despite a very complimentary personal report. He returned to Brno where in 1881, he married his young pupil Zdenka Schulzová. Back in Brno he established a foundation for musical education, with violin and singing classes, an orchestra and later piano classes. In 1884 with the Provisional Czech Theatre opening in Brno, Janáček founded a journal containing critical reviews, through which he made known his feelings about the works of his contemporaries. His relations with individuals and establishments were never easy, and resulted in resignations in his working sphere as well as a separation from his wife for a couple of years after the birth of their first child, Olga in 1882.


He was torn apart by the death of Olga, in 1903. Her pain and suffering had been the inspiration for for his opera, Jenufa, first performed in Brno in 1904 and dedicated to Olga’s memory. Her death put strains on the marriage. Jenufa did not achieve national recognition until it reached Prague in 1916. Even then it only got its first performance there after the director of the Prague Opera, Karel Kovařovic, insisted on re-orchestrating it himself. Despite this it was acclaimed and brought Janáček recognition at the age of 62. Following the Prague première, he began a relationship with a singer, Gabriela Horváthová, Zdenka took it badly and attempted suicide. This in turn was followed by an informal divorce whereby the couple lived separately in the same house. A formal divorce would have been ignominious. A year later, at the age of 63, he met Kamila Stösslová, a young married woman, 25 years old, 38 years his junior. That did not prevent Janacek proclaiming his feelings, not once but some 730 times in a series of letters written over the next eleven years until his death in 1928. He might have done better spending his time writing programme notes. She is said neither to have encouraged him nor responded! His obsession for her was unrequited and his belief in her feelings for him is thought probably to be imaginary. We have to be thankful that this relationship, that never was, inspired his song cycle “The Diary of One who Disappeared”; she was also the model for Katya in the opera, Katya Kabanova, and this odd one sided communication gave birth to his late string quartet, “Intimate Letters”. Now do you wonder why I call him weird? Little wonder his music is also somewhat eccentric.


At the outset he was an admirer of Dvorak but don’t expect to hear Dvorak mark 2. I would venture to suggest that his influences came more from the Slavic east than the Bohemian west, in particular, Mussorgsky. It is difficult to describe his style. There is no such thing as sonata form. The music is wild, erratic, full of non-sequiturs, jagged interruptions, sweet moments, strange irrelevant outbursts, fanfares for twelve trumpets. Its charm lies in its enigma in that you never know where it is going next. But don’t be misled. Janacek knew exactly what he was doing. As a professor of music he wrote several books on musical theory. His genius is in sounding improvised. My Latin master at school used to say “Livy Can Do It. You Can’t”. Well likewise I can imagine a music student being corrected with , “Janacek Can Do It . You Can’t”. Perhaps you may remember the television programme, “Face the Music” with Joseph Cooper who would play a well known tune dressed up in the style of a famous composer. Well one thing is certain. No-one, but no-one, can impersonate Janacek’s style. Well, perhaps Matthew Taylor can.


Another very important aspect of Janacek’s musical style is said to be the assimilation of the rhythm, pitch, contour and inflections of normal Czech, especially Moravian, speech. (I have yet to meet a Moravian in my wanderings who is ready, willing and able to verify this assertion). One expects this in operatic recitative as with Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov but with Janacek it extends also to his orchestral and chamber music melodic line. In orchestral music the nineteenth century produced the programme symphony and the symphonic poem. The string quartet remained however pure music unaffected by narrative except, so far as I can make out, in the case of Janacek’s two string quartets, the Kreutzer Sonata or Intimate Letters. The Kreutzer Sonata, for instance, is based on a Tolstoy novella of the same name. It is of two people talking to each other on a train and what you get with Janacek is a musical dialogue somehow reflecting the sound of speech. These quartets sound on a first hearing for someone steeped in the orthodox traditional quartet structure a bit odd but in the hands of Janacek it is marvellous stuff, a bit like a Harold Pinter play adapted for String Quartet.


Janacek was to continue teaching until he was seventy. It was only after that that he produced in his last years some of his greatest works, the Sinfonietta (with its twelve trumpets), the Glagolitic Mass (one of the greatest of requiems written by an atheist) and the quartet, Intimate Letters, already mentioned.


He achieved celebrity in Czechoslovakia only in later life. His late flowering coincided with his fame from Jenufa, his one way relationship with Kamila, the independence of Czechoslovakia from Austria in 1918 and his retirement from teaching. His music only began to get known in England in the 1950’s thanks to a young Australian who had studied in Czechoslovakia and who then became an assistant conductor at Sadlers Wells. His name? Charles Mackerras.