The first two names always given at the top of the pantheon of Czech classical music are Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana; the third is invariably Leoš Janáček. Probably the most innovative of the three, Janáček likely lags behind the famous duo only because even today, 80 years after his death, musicians, musicologists and music lovers are still reassessing those innovations, which took classical music into uncharted territory.
Composer Miroslav Srnka is one such person - a composer and musicologist, and one of the heads the Leoš Janáček Foundation.
“Janáček is the first Czech composer to find a completely unique way of expressing himself in music. You have other Czech composers who are famous and lived before him, but they can quite easily be put into one of the main streams of 19th century music. But Janáček was someone who really went their own way and because of this it took decades after his death before people really figured out how to deal with his music, how to understand it.”
The independent road that Leoš Janáček took in music had a solid basis in his personality, even in his early life. He was a principled and opinionated youth, consistently in opposition to his teachers and even capable of rather astonishing acts of insolence for the day, such as admonishing a teacher’s performance in the press at the - usually tender - age of 21. That act saw him expelled, but not for long. Janáček was a natural talent and an excellent student. He excelled at the piano and organ, but was prone to discarding criticism. In short, he seemed to think his musical sensibilities infallible. And as history has shown, it seems he was right.
“He did not care so much about what other people thought; he followed his own way. And this is what makes him so special, that he was someone who never really cared about other people’s opinion.”
His independence in music however did not come straight away. A child of the Czech National Revival, much of Janáček’s earlier work from this period stayed true to the romantic style of his colossal friend Antonín Dvořák. But his lack of success in the mainstream disenchanted him, and in the late 1880’s he turned his attention towards a source of inspiration that would be the foundation for the rest of his life’s work.
Janáček poured himself into the nationalistic folklore movement at the end of the 19th century, bringing the music to prominence in Prague and being the first to record traditional Moravian music on the phonograph. And his inspiration came not only from music.
“Janáček was listening to people, and he was listening not only in terms of the meanings of words, but in terms of how they sound. And he wrote down really short phrases or just words that he heard on the streets along with their melodies and rhythms as he heard it. And this made him really think about music – especially about vocal music – in a very different way than others did. And it’s why we usually say that Janáček’s music, even instrumental music, is very closely connected to speech.”
What is very unique about Leoš Janáček in the history of classical music was that it wasn’t just music for music’s sake that interested him, but sound, and the harmony of sounds; he wrote them down in precise notation and incorporated them into his compositions. And amongst the sounds he loved best was that of speech, and his native Czech.
“The famous example is from the end of the second act of Jenůfa, when Kostelnička, the stepmother, sings “Jako by sem smrt načuhovala,” which means, “as if Death were looking in”, because she feels like Death is behind the window. And in the last syllable is “načuhovala”, which is one word, meaning “looked in”. And this is written as one beat that is divided into five syllables. The orchestra coda then works with only one important rhythmical element, and that is these five, fast notes of the word “načuhovala”. It’s a very simple example of how he worked with the language in instrumental music.”
Janáček’s working relationship with the Czech language however can pose problems for non-Czech musicians struggling to interpret his music.
“I always used to say, to understand his music you should learn to pronounce his name well; this is the first step you can take towards understanding his music and how to deal with that issue of speech and music. In the Czech language the stress does not necessarily relate to the length of the syllable. So you should say “Jan-aachek” [rather than, “jan-AAchek]. This is quite typical of his music, because if you focus on the rhythmical part of his work you see that his rhythms very often start on the stressed beat, just as his name, or our words in Czech in general, do.”
Jenůfa was the opera that made Janáček’s name, and it arose out of his life’s great tragedy, the death of his daughter. Olga Janáčková was Janáček’s only child after already losing a son, and the tragedy of Jenůfa is the tragedy of Olga’s tuberculosis and impending death at the age of 21. Miroslav Srnka again:
“I think that Janáček felt guilty in a certain way for the death of Olga. She was a weak girl, and he had sent her to spend some time in Russia. And she came back very ill and later died. In everything he writes about Olga, I feel, there is this drop of guilt about her death.”
The delayed success of Jenůfa, one of the first operas written in prose, when it came opened the doors of the opera houses of the world to Janáček. Following the independence of his country from Austria after WWI, he became the composer for a new era, achieving fame and recognition for the first time when in his 60s.
“He had some successful performances before but still, his really splendid last period starts with 1918 and ends with his death in 1928. He became the new composer for the new republic. And this is maybe because he was not really successful before, so he was not so connected with the official cultural life before. His career and his music first found the right reception with that change in the public and audience, and the change of cultural expectations after 1918. So maybe it was not so much his music that changed in that year, or during the war, but the audience and its expectations.”
Janáček asked that the final scene of his opera The Cunning Little Vixen be played at his funeral. It was a symbolic choice on a couple of levels, but suffice to say it is a beautiful example of his unrelentingly individualistic style that melded the traditional into the modern – a style that remains the epitome of the age and the Czech musical spirit.
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