Leos Janacek

Category: Musician

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Leos Janacek, baptised Leo Eugen Janacek; (1854 –  1928) was a Czech composer, musical theorist, folklorist, publicist and teacher. He was inspired by Moravian and other Slavic folk music to create an original, modern musical style.

Until 1895 he devoted himself mainly to folkloristic research. While his early musical output was influenced by contemporaries such as Antonin Dvorak, his later, mature works incorporate his earlier studies of national folk music in a modern, highly original synthesis, first evident in the opera Jenufa, which was premiered in 1904 in Brno. The success of Jenufa (often called the “Moravian national opera”) at Prague in 1916 gave Janacek access to the world’s great opera stages. Janacek’s later works are his most celebrated. They include operas such as Kata Kabanova and The Cunning Little Vixen, the Sinfonietta, the Glagolitic Mass, the rhapsody Taras Bulba, two string quartets, and other chamber works. Along with Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana, he is considered one of the most important Czech composers.


Early life

Leos Janacek, son of schoolmaster was born in Hukvaldy, Moravia (then part of the Austrian Empire). He was a gifted child in a family of limited means, and showed an early musical talent in choral singing. His father wanted him to follow the family tradition and become a teacher, but he deferred to Janacek’s obvious musical abilities.

In 1865, young Janacek enrolled as a ward of the foundation of the Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno, where he took part in choral singing under Pavel Krizkovsky and occasionally played the organ. One of his classmates, Frantisek Neumann, later described Janacek as an “excellent pianist, who played Beethoven symphonies perfectly in a piano duet with a classmate, under Krizkovsky’s supervision”. Krizkovsky found him a problematic and wayward student but recommended his entry to the Prague Organ School. Janacek later remembered Krizkovsky as a great conductor and teacher.

Janacek originally intended to study piano and organ but eventually devoted himself to composition. He wrote his first vocal compositions while choirmaster of the Svatopluk Artisan’s Association (1873–76). In 1874, he enrolled at the Prague organ school, under Frantisek Skuhersky and Frantisek Blazek.

His student days in Prague were impoverished; with no piano in his room, he had to make do with a keyboard drawn on his tabletop. His criticism of Skuhersky’s performance of the Gregorian mass was published in the March 1875 edition of the journal Cecilie and led to his expulsion from the school, but Skuhersky relented, and in 1875 Janacek graduated with the best results in his class.

On his return to Brno he earned a living as a music teacher, and conducted various amateur choirs. From 1876 he taught music at Brno’s Teachers Institute. Among his pupils there was Zdenka Schulzova, daughter of Emilian Schulz, the Institute director. She was later to be Janacek’s wife.

From October 1879 to February 1880, he studied piano, organ, and composition at the Leipzig Conservatory. While there, he composed Thema con variazioni for piano in B flat, subtitled Zdenka’s Variations. Dissatisfied with his teachers (among them Oscar Paul and Leo Grill), and denied a studentship with Camille Saint-Saens in Paris, Janacek moved on to the Vienna Conservatory, where from April to June 1880, he studied composition with Franz Krenn. He concealed his opposition to Krenn’s neo-romanticism, but he quit Josef Dachs’s classes and further piano study when he was criticised for his piano style and technique. He submitted a violin sonata (now lost) to a Vienna Conservatory competition, but the judges rejected it as “too academic”.  Janacek left the conservatory in June 1880, disappointed despite Franz Krenn’s very complimentary personal report.

He returned to Brno where in 1881, he married his young pupil Zdenka Schulzova.

In 1881, Janacek founded and was appointed director of the organ school, and held this post until 1919, when the school became the Brno Conservatory. In the mid-1880s, Janacek began composing more systematically. Among other works, he created the Four male-voice choruses (1886), dedicated to Antonin Dvorak, and his first opera, Sarka (1887–88). During this period he began to collect and study folk music, songs and dances. In the early months of 1887, he sharply criticized the comic opera The Bridegrooms, by Czech composer Karel Kovarovic, in a Hudebni listy journal review: “Which melody stuck in your mind? Which motif? Is this dramatic opera? No, I would write on the poster: ‘Comedy performed together with music’, since the music and the libretto aren’t connected to each other”.  Janacek’s review apparently led to mutual dislike and later professional difficulties when Kovarovic, as director of the National Theatre in Prague, refused to stage Janacek’s opera Jenufa.

Later years and masterworks

In the first decade of the 20th century, Janacek composed choral church music including Otcenas (Our Father, 1901), Constitutes (1903) and Ave Maria (1904). In 1901, the first part of his piano cycle On an Overgrown Path was published and gradually became one of his most frequently-performed works.[28] In 1902, Janacek visited Russia twice. On the first occasion he took his daughter Olga to St. Petersburg, where she stayed to study Russian. Only three months later, he returned to St. Petersburg with his wife because Olga had become very ill. They took her back to Brno, but her health worsened.

Janacek expressed his painful feelings for his daughter in a new work, his opera Jenufa, in which the suffering of his daughter had transfigured into Jenufa’s.When Olga died in February 1903, Janacek dedicated Jenufa to her memory. The opera was performed in Brno in 1904, with reasonable success, but Janacek felt this was no more than a provincial achievement. He aspired to recognition by the more influential Prague opera, but Jenufa was refused there (twelve years passed before its first performance in Prague).[30] Dejected and emotionally exhausted, Janacek went to Luhacovice spa to recover. There he met Kamila Urvalkova, whose love story supplied the theme for his next opera, Osud (Destiny).

In 1905, Janacek attended a demonstration in support of a Czech university in Brno, where the violent death of Frantisek Pavlik, a young joiner, at the hands of the police inspired his piano sonata, 1. X. 1905 (From The Street). The incident led him to further promote the anti-German and anti-Austrian ethos of the Russian Circle, which he had co-founded in 1897 and which would be officially banned by the Austrian police in 1915. In 1906, he approached the Czech poet Petr Bezruc, with whom he later collaborated, composing several choral works based on Bezruc’s poetry. These included Kantor Halfar (1906), Marycka Magdonova (1908), and Sedmdesat tisic (1909).

Janacek’s life in the first decade of the 20th century was complicated by personal and professional difficulties. He still yearned for artistic recognition from Prague. He destroyed some of his works, others remained unfinished. Nevertheless, he continued composing, and would create several remarkable choral, chamber, orchestral and operatic works, the most notable being the 1914 cantata, Vecne evangelium (The Eternal Gospel), Pohadka (Fairy tale) for cello and piano (1910), the 1912 piano cycle V mlhach (In the Mists) and his first symphonic poem Sumarovo dite (A Fiddler’s Child). His fifth opera, Vylet pana Broucka do mesice, composed from 1908 to 1917, has been characterized as the most “purely Czech in subject and treatment” of all of Janacek’s operas.[35]

In 1916, he started a long professional and personal relationship with theatre critic, dramatist and translator Max Brod.[36][37] In the same year, Jenufa, revised by Kovarovic, was finally accepted by the National Theatre. Its performance in Prague in 1916 was a great success, and brought Janacek his first acclaim. He was 62.

Following the Prague premiere, he began a relationship with singer Gabriela Horvathova, which led to his wife Zdenka’s attempted suicide and their “informal” divorce.[29][38] A year later (1917), he met Kamila Stosslova, a young married woman 38 years his junior, who was to inspire him for the remaining years of his life. He conducted an obsessive and (on his side at least) passionate correspondence with her, of nearly 730 letters.[39] From 1917 to 1919, deeply inspired by Stosslova, he composed The Diary of One Who Disappeared. As he completed its final revision, he began his next ‘Kamila’ work, the opera Kata Kabanova.

In 1920, Janacek retired from his post as director of the Brno Conservatory but continued to teach until 1925.[40] In 1921, he attended a lecture by the Indian philosopher-poet Rabindranath Tagore and used a Tagore poem as the basis for the chorus The Wandering Madman (1922). At the same time, he encountered the microtonal works of Alois Haba. In the early 1920s, Janacek completed his opera The Cunning Little Vixen, which had been inspired by a serialized novella in the newspaper Lidove noviny.

In Janacek’s 70th year (1924), his biography was published by Max Brod, and he was interviewed by Olin Downes for The New York Times.[39] In 1925, he retired from teaching but continued composing and was awarded the first honorary doctorate to be given by Masaryk University in Brno. In the spring of 1926, he created his Sinfonietta, a monumental orchestral work, which rapidly gained wide critical acclaim. In the same year, he went to England at the invitation of Rosa Newmarch. A number of his works were performed in London, including his first-string quartet, the wind sextet Youth, and his violin sonata.[41] Shortly after, and still in 1926, he started to compose a setting to an Old Church Slavonic text. The result was the large-scale orchestral Glagolitic Mass. [citation needed]

Janacek was an atheist, and critical of the organized Church, but religious themes appear frequently in his work.[42][dead link] The Glagolitic Mass was partly inspired by the suggestion by a clerical friend and partly by Janacek’s wish to celebrate the anniversary of Czechoslovak independence.[citation needed]

Janacek’s grave, in Brno

In 1927 – the year of the Sinfonietta’s first performances in New York, Berlin and Brno – he began to compose his final operatic work, From the House of the Dead, the third Act of which was found on his desk after his death. In January 1928, he began his second-string quartet, the Intimate Letters, his “manifesto on love”. Meanwhile, the Sinfonietta was performed in London, Vienna and Dresden. In his later years, Janacek became an international celebrity. He became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1927, along with Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith. His operas and other works were finally performed at the world stages. [citation needed]

In August 1928, he took an excursion to Stramberk with Kamila Stosslova and her son Otto but caught a chill, which developed into pneumonia. He died on 12 August 1928 in Ostrava, at the sanatorium of Dr. L. Klein, at the age of 74. He was given a large public funeral that included music from the last scene of his Cunning Little Vixen. He was buried in the Field of Honour at the Central Cemetery, Brno.[45]

Music Style

In 1874, Janacek became friends with Antonin Dvorak, and began composing in a relatively traditional Romantic style. After his opera Sarka (1887–1888), his style absorbed elements of Moravian and Slovak folk music.

His musical assimilation of the rhythm, pitch contour and inflections of normal Czech speech (Moravian dialect) helped create the very distinctive vocal melodies of his opera Jenufa (1904), whose 1916 success in Prague was to be the turning point in his career. In Jenufa, Janacek developed and applied the concept of “speech tunes” to build a unique musical and dramatic style quite independent of “Wagnerian” dramatic method. He studied the circumstances in which “speech tunes” changed, the psychology and temperament of speakers and the coherence within speech, all of which helped render the dramatically truthful roles of his mature operas, and became one of the most significant markers of his style.[51] Janacek took these stylistic principles much farther in his vocal writing than Modest Mussorgsky, and thus anticipates the later work of Bela Bartok.[52] The stylistic basis for his later works originates in the period of 1904–1918, but Janacek composed most of his output – and his best known works – in the last decade of his life.[44]

Much of Janacek’s work displays great originality and individuality. It employs a vastly expanded view of tonality, uses unorthodox chord spacings and structures, and often, modality: “there is no music without key. Atonality abolishes definite key, and thus tonal modulation…. Folksong knows of no atonality.”[53] Janacek features accompaniment figures and patterns, with (according to Jim Samson) “the on-going movement of his music…similarly achieved by unorthodox means; often a discourse of short, ‘unfinished’ phrases comprising constant repetitions of short motifs which gather momentum in a cumulative manner.”[52] Janacek named these motifs “scasovka” in his theoretical works. “Scasovka” has no strict English equivalent, but John Tyrrell, a leading specialist on Janacek’s music, describes it as “a little flash of time, almost a kind of musical capsule, which Janacek often used in slow music as tiny swift motifs with remarkably characteristic rhythms that are supposed to pepper the musical flow.”[54] Janacek’s use of these repeated motifs demonstrates a remote similarity to minimalist composers (Sir Charles Mackerras called Janacek “the first minimalist composer”).[55]



Janacek was deeply influenced by folklore, and by Moravian folk music in particular, but not by the pervasive, idealized 19th century romantic folklore variant. He took a realistic, descriptive and analytic approach to the material. Moravian folk songs, compared with their Bohemian counterparts, are much freer and more irregular in their metrical and rhythmic structure, and more varied in their melodic intervals.

Janacek partly composed the original piano accompaniments to more than 150 folk songs, respectful of their original function and context, and partly used folk inspiration in his own works, especially in his mature compositions. His work in this area was not stylistically imitative; instead, he developed a new and original musical aesthetic based on a deep study of the fundamentals of folk music.  Through his systematic notation of folk songs as he heard them, Janacek developed an exceptional sensitivity to the melodies and rhythms of speech, from which he compiled a collection of distinctive segments he called “speech tunes”.[56] He used these “essences” of spoken language in his vocal and instrumental works. The roots of his style, marked by the lilts of human speech, emerge from the world of folk music.[56]

Folk music research

Janacek came from a region characterized by its deeply rooted folk culture, which he explored as a young student under Pavel Krizkovsky. His meeting with the folklorist and dialectologist Frantisek Bartos (1837–1906) was decisive in his own development as a folklorist and composer, and led to their collaborative and systematic collections of folk songs. Janacek became an important collector in his own right, especially of Lachian, Moravian Slovakian, Moravian Wallachian and Slovakian songs. From 1879, his collections included transcribed speech intonations.[70] He was one of the organizers of the Czech-Slavic Folklore Exhibition, an important event in Czech culture at the end of 19th century. From 1905 he was President of the newly instituted Working Committee for Czech National Folksong in Moravia and Silesia, a branch of the Austrian institute Das Volkslied in Osterreich (Folksong in Austria), which was established in 1902 by the Viennese publishing house Universal Edition. Janacek was a pioneer and propagator of ethnographic photography in Moravia and Silesia.[71] In October 1909 he acquired an Edison phonograph and became one of the first to use phonographic recording as a folklore research tool. Several of these recording sessions have been preserved, and were reissued in 1998.

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